Sixth graders to Ben Carson: ‘You aren’t doing anything’ to save public housing

Junior high school students urged Carson to help their community.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson speaks to HUD employees in Washington, March 6, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Susan Walsh
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson speaks to HUD employees in Washington, March 6, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Susan Walsh

Sixth-grade students are writing letters to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson asking him to improve the conditions of public housing and ensure they aren’t kicked out of their homes.

The students participating in the letter-writing campaign attend Cairo Junior High School in Cairo, Illinois, an African American community that is struggling with housing insecurity. Last week, HUD announced that 185 families living in two public housing complexes would have to relocate due to concerns about mold and poor heating.

This move would affect 15 percent of the city’s population. Federal housing officials said there is no plan to provide new housing to the displaced families, however.

“The people who live there call that home and you aren’t doing anything about it,” sixth-grade student Gabriella Lyas wrote to Carson, according to the Southern Illinoisian.

Students described the fear of rodents eating their food, plumbing problems, and unsafe conditions for children to play outside.

“Residents of housing do not like the conditions in it, but they also don’t want to move from their home town neither,” another sixth grader, Latrece Brooker, wrote.

Cairo residents are considering fundraising efforts to help the families affected by HUD’s decision, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) sent a letter to Secretary Carson asking for “strong federal action.”

Carson, who never lived in public housing, said he knows that the conditions in public housing are unacceptable. Last December, Carson said his mother didn’t want him to live in public housing because “she wanted to shield us from that danger.”

But instead of using that story as an example of why we need to improve public housing, Carson said that the solution is for poor people to lift themselves out of poverty.

“But what I do want to do is create ladders of opportunity, so that people don’t have to be dependent,” Carson said last year. “Government should not keep people in a dependent state. It should be used as a springboard, and not as a hammock.”

Carson, who called housing desegregation plans a “failed socialist experiment,” did not offer any specific answers about his plans for the division of fair housing and equal opportunity in his first speech as HUD secretary. The White House has proposed to cut $6 billion from the department, would shrink the department’s funding by 14 percent. Under the proposed budget, public housing authorities’ budgets would be reduced by 13 percent.

More than half of the population living in federally subsidized housing were elderly or disabled in 2015, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The state of public housing is so poor that there are billions of dollars in backlogged repairs for public housing units. Since so many public housing units have deteriorated from lack of funding and far too few public housing projects have replaced them, the number of public housing units has fallen by more than 200,000 since the mid-1990s.

Since his confirmation, Carson has toured housing that receives HUD funding, but he has kept his remarks vague.

Last week, Carson toured an apartment complex in Miami that relies on a federal program the White House plans to eliminate — the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which provides block grants for local communities to build affordable housing. That program has already suffered massive cuts. Congress cut HOME funding in half between 2010 and 2015.

On his tour, Carson tried to assure people that buildings like the one he toured in Miami wouldn’t necessarily suffer.

“What you need to concentrate on is: The parts of these programs that are functioning well — and that are maintaining people — are going to be preserved… There may be a different nomenclature. We may not call it the same thing… We are clearly going to maintain these programs that are going very well,” Carson said, according to the Miami Herald. A day earlier, he got stuck in a public housing complex’s broken elevator.

When Carson visited Detroit, where low-income people would be hit particularly hard by cuts to HUD, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other city leaders asked Carson to maintain funding levels for HUD programs.

Carson responded to budget concerns by saying, “I would forget the numbers and think about the concept … The concept is we’re going to take care of our people,” according to Detroit Free Press.