3 unanswered questions about Trump’s HUD nominee, Ben Carson

We know almost nothing about how he’ll manage the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Dunn
CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Dunn

Nobody knows what to expect from Ben Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Since Trump first announced the pick, Carson has been tight-lipped about what he will actually do as a leader. When he has spoken of his plans, he’s only done so in the vaguest of terms.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need,” he said upon accepting the nomination. “We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met.”

Trump announced in December that he had approached the nominee about an “urban renewal agenda,” but Carson has yet to announce a detailed plan about his specific policy priorities.

Here are three questions about Carson that need answering:

What are his qualifications to run this department?

Carson has never held a political office, let alone run an agency that serves millions of people. Prior to his failed bid for the presidency, he was a neurosurgeon and author. Neither role indicates that he is prepared to manage a massive budget — $49.3 billion in FY 2016 — and 3,300 housing authorities that manage approximately 1.2 million housing units nationwide.

Prior to accepting Trump’s nomination, Carson reportedly turned down a chance to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) because he felt he lacked experience.

“Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” one of his advisors, Armstrong Williams, said in November. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

Does he understand who lives in public housing?

Although Trump allies defended Carson’s nomination but pointing out that he spent his childhood in public housing, that later turned out to be untrue.

Carson dispelled the myth last year when he said, “Despite what you may have heard from people, she [Carson’s mother] wanted to make sure that we didn’t live in public housing, because there was a lot of danger there, and she wanted to shield us from that danger.”

While experience living in public housing has never been a prerequisite to lead HUD, Carson also holds a warped view of who relies on the department for housing assistance. As outgoing HUD secretary Julian Castro told NPR this week, the majority of people helped by the department are working Americans, the elderly, and people with disabilities. But Carson’s past comments characterized public housing residents as people who are too reliant on government help and unconcerned with upward mobility.

“What I do want to do is create ladders of opportunity, so that people don’t have to be dependent,” he said in December, following news of his nomination. “Government should not keep people in a dependent state. It should be used as a springboard and not as a hammock.”

During a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Carson said, “It really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there you poor little thing, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your healthcare, your food, and your housing, don’t you worry about anything.’”

He has also described poverty as “really more than a choice.”

Will Carson support existing policies and guidance?

Besides keeping quiet about his policy platform, Carson has remained silent about what he will do to current policies that are enforced by HUD. His earlier criticisms of the department’s work may offer a clue.

In a 2015 Washington Times op-ed, Carson likened HUD’s rule to enforce the Fair Housing Act, which desegregated housing, to socialism. “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote.

Castro recently said he is concerned that Carson will roll back the rule. But his successor could also go a step farther and hurt two specific groups that benefited from the Obama administration’s expansion of the act’s protections: the LGBTQ community and former prisoners.

Carson firmly believes that being homosexuality is a choice. He once likened it to having sex with animals and child molestation, and on a separate occasion dubbed proponents of marriage equality “enemies of America.” Based on these comments, Carson isn’t likely to support policies that help LGBTQ people — much less enforce them.

In 2012, HUD implemented the Equal Access Rule, which prohibits LGBTQ discrimination at housing authorities or other recipients of Federal Housing Administration insurance. More recently, the department eased restrictions on trans people in homeless shelters, allowing them to sleep in areas with people of their own gender.

Carson could reverse or stop enforcing the policies altogether.

“We know that homelessness is a huge issue for trans people in particular and same-sex couples of color, so if we take away these protections for expanding housing access this is who is going to suffer,” Senior Policy Analyst Sharita Gruberg of the Center for American Progress previously told ThinkProgress.

Likewise, it is possible for Carson to walk back protections for the hundreds of thousands of people who are released from federal and state prisons every year — many of whom have no permanent place to call home.

HUD belongs to the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (FIRC), which former Attorney General Eric Holder created to deal with issues related to prisoner reentry. At the heart of the agency’s mission is the belief that smoothing reentry reduces the likelihood that someone will reoffend, and consequently improves public safety. Housing is widely viewed as a necessary component of reentry by criminal justice advocates, in part because it creates stability, allowing people to reconnect with their families.

Under Castro, HUD issued guidelines that said housing authorities cannot use arrest records as a justification for “denying admission, terminating assistance or evicting tenants.” He also worked with the Justice Department — another member of FIRC — to seal juvenile records so that young people could access affordable housing without their past looming over them.

Carson hasn’t taken a firm stance on criminal justice reform, so it’s unclear if he will enforce — or try to reverse — HUD’s position. Based on past comments, and Trump’s own tough on crime posturing, it’s unlikely that Carson will prioritize housing for people with arrest records and convictions.