Ben Carson shakes his head at ‘comfortable’ affordable housing options

He doesn’t understand how critical housing efforts can be.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson outside a shelter in Columbus, Ohio, April 26, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dake Kang
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson outside a shelter in Columbus, Ohio, April 26, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dake Kang

According to Ben Carson, low-income Americans should have access to affordable housing — just nothing too “comfortable.”

Carson, who is President Donald Trump’s head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was touring facilities for low-income residents in Ohio last week when he made the comments. Observing one apartment complex for veterans, Carson criticized the niceties available to residents. More to his liking, according to the New York Times, was a grouping of bunk beds inside of a homeless shelter, where no televisions were provided.

Expanding on his philosophy, Carson told the Times that compassion means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’” After the head of a supportive housing center for recovering drug addicts asked for increased federal aid, Carson interrupted. “We are talking about incentivizing those who help themselves,” he said.

Research has indicated that providing housing is a viable approach to reducing homelessness, but Carson has shown little interest in such efforts. If anything, he seems determined to oppose them.

A former neurosurgeon, Carson arrived in his current role with no political experience. His background in housing and poverty is rooted entirely in personal experience — Carson grew up in a low-income Detroit, Michigan home, overcoming a number of obstacles before going on to a successful medical career. He has never lived in public housing — in fact, his mother actively worked to avoid doing so. Before he was tapped to lead HUD, Carson reportedly turned down a position in Trump’s cabinet.

“Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” Carson advisor Armstrong Williams said last November. Carson was confirmed as Secretary of HUD in March.

As part of his new role, Carson is currently on a listening tour, visiting cities throughout the country. The trip comes at a precarious time for HUD. Trump’s budget proposal suggested cutting HUD’s funding by 13 percent, a move that would have wiped out Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which funds housing for low-income individuals in addition to programs like Meals on Wheels. Under the budget deal being considered this week, CDBG receives its current level of funding — but there’s no guarantee that won’t change.

Low-income housing is precarious under Carson. A long-time critic of government assistance, Carson is particularly wary of recovering addicts and those he sees as unable to provide themselves with long-term housing. It’s a dangerous way of thinking, and one that could have sweeping ramifications. More than 2.2 million Americans rely on public housing, and its benefits are numerous. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), public housing can provide access to neighborhoods with better schools and job opportunities, while also countering homelessness and reducing the costs associated with housing seniors and people with disabilities.

For addicts and chronically homeless individuals, the benefits are particularly striking. Organizations like Pathways to Housing DC, a non-profit working on homelessness issues in Washington, D.C., tout a “housing first” approach to homelessness, one that prioritizes finding permanent housing for individuals before seeking recovery and rehabilitation. Pathways claims an 89 percent housing retention rate using the approach, and argues that long-term cost to the wider community is greatly reduced when housing is introduced without preconditions.

Similar results have been documented across the country. A 2006 cost benefit analysis of the Denver Housing First Collaborative, run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, found that the effort helped to reduce emergency room visits by 34.3 percent. Detox visits were reduced by 82 percent (or approximately $8,732 per person), while incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76 percent. If applied to members of Denver’s wider homeless population eligible for the program, the analysis estimated that housing first efforts would result in $16.1 million in savings. Comparable efforts to emphasize housing in cities like Boston and Seattle also proved cost effective. Elsewhere, numbers are even more impressive — in Utah, a housing first approach reduced homelessness across the state by 72 percent in the span of nine years.

But the research in favor of expanding and emphasizing housing does not seem to have resonated with Carson.

Bela Koe-Krompecher, clinical director at the Y.M.C.A. of Central Ohio, raised concern about Carson’s approach to public housing when he spoke with the New York Times. After Carson inquired whether or not housing residents had to be sober in order to be admitted, the question stuck with Koe-Krompecher.

“The thinking was for years, you had to be clean and sober to get housing. And harm reduction philosophy says, ‘No, you don’t,’” Koe-Krompecher told the New York Times. “‘Housing first’ says, ‘We house them, we get them services.’ So when he asked if someone was clean to live here? The answer is, ‘No.’”