It’s not what Ben Carson said that should bother people. Yes, in his first address to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency he now leads, Carson said some ignorant things about slavery. His truly bone-headed comments betrayed a lack of understanding about both slavery and immigration.
Neither falls under his purview as HUD secretary, though, any more than pyramids or grain silos do. So while it’s beyond disappointing that Carson does not understand that the U.S. treated slaves like imports, not immigrants, this knowledge is not exactly germane to his work at HUD. And now that the Trump administration has signaled that enormous budget cuts are heading the department’s way, Carson has real work to do.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that preliminary budget docs show that the Trump administration may slash HUD’s budget by $6 billion, a 14 percent cut from current funding levels. A squeeze was always guaranteed, but cuts of this magnitude might exceed the worst nightmares of housing experts who have watched the Trump administration with trepidation.
If Carson knew that drastic budget cuts were coming, he didn’t let on during his first address to HUD. His speech was meandering and peppered with anecdotes from his work in neurosurgery: nothing atypical for Carson, but far from the St. Crispin’s Day speech that the occasion would seem to call for if cuts were imminent. Maybe Carson didn’t know they were coming, or maybe he didn’t expect news of the cuts to leak. Or maybe he doesn’t care.
As HUD secretary, though, he now has an obligation to address the Trump administration’s plans one way or another. Such severe budget cuts would make it profoundly difficult for HUD to do its job. A major budget shortfall would diminish the department’s capacity to fulfill its various mandates; worse still, cuts will exacerbate existing problems such as homelessness among veterans.
Cuts to aid that keep poor families in housing will plunge those families into despair. According to Douglas Rice, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts would eliminate Housing Choice Vouchers for some 200,000 low-income households. The plan would cut funding for public housing by 30 percent. Three of four programs that support the nation’s poorest families—HOME, Community Development Block Grants, and Choice Neighborhoods Initiative—would be eliminated entirely. Funding for the fourth, the Office of Native American Programs, would be cut by more than a quarter.
The timing for cuts to housing aid is wretched. While housing starts in 2016 were the best they’ve been since 2007 (as Trulia notes), that isn’t saying much. Housing starts are only at 62 percent of their longterm average. Political resistance to building new housing in places where it is badly needed (consider Los Angeles) makes it more difficult to attack the affordability crisis head on. Inclusionary zoning can only build so many affordable units; lately, with investors and developers anticipating tax reform from Congress, even the Low Income Housing Tax Credit has stalled as a tool for building new affordable housing. Households that rely on public housing or rental aid simply cannot expect for the market to make up the gap.
On Monday, Carson reiterated his desire to launch a “listening tour,” an idea he proposed during his Senate confirmation hearing. No doubt, he’d learn a lot about the business by talking to officials from different housing regions and spheres. But the time for listening is over. If Carson means to preserve HUD’s core functions and help local officials get the support that they need to do their work, then he needs to take action. At the very least, he ought to explain whether he agrees with the Trump administration’s plans to underfund his department.
It’s hard to imagine morale falling any lower at HUD. (“There’s the fed way, and then there’s the HUD way,” a department staffer quipped to me recently.) It falls squarely on Carson to boost morale—to say nothing of the longterm prospects for the nation’s most vulnerable families—by indicating that he will fight for the mission of HUD. There’s an opportunity for Carson to prove that he’s more than a prop. Now’s the time for him to take it.
This story has been updated to include analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.