Incoming HUD secretary Ben Carson says he will bring a holistic approach to housing. But his beliefs on housing policy spell an uncertain future for the agency.
To understand what lies ahead for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its new secretary, Ben Carson, it’s useful to examine HUD’s legacy as well as Carson’s backstory.
HUD was formed under President Lyndon Johnson with a mission of building inclusive communities while ensuring affordable housing for all. This started with the Fair Housing Act (also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The agency has earlier roots in the U.S. Housing Authority, which was created by the Housing Act of 1937 as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This legislation was aimed at providing safe and sanitary dwellings for low-income families by establishing subsidies for local agencies.
The objective of allowing all people, regardless of means or personal characteristics, to live in decent housing has survived in subsequent policy updates and revisions. HUD’s mission has evolved to include protection against discrimination, promotion of sustainability, and, following the housing crisis of 2008, distribution of $13.61 billion of economic stimulus through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as well as insuring about one in five mortgages.
Carson’s upbringing began in a 750-square-foot house purchased through the GI Bill with a lawn and a one-car garage in southwestern Detroit. When his parents separated, Carson and his mother moved to Boston to live with relatives before resettling in a multifamily building back in Detroit. Carson was not yet 17 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. He left Detroit soon thereafter to attend Yale University, where he earned a psychology degree in 1973. A medical degree from the University of Michigan followed in 1977, and he completed his neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins in 1983.
At his confirmation hearing in January, Carson detailed his personal experience with housing insecurity as well as the lessons he learned from his mother. He has stated elsewhere that she was eligible to receive assistance through the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, but insisted that she would not be dependent on anyone but herself. She instilled in him the belief that people could lift themselves out of poverty rather than relying on help from others, whether in the form of government aid or otherwise.
This belief in everyone’s self-reliant potential for upward mobility—the bootstrap argument—puts Carson at odds with the agency itself. HUD provides assistance to Americans who cannot overcome impoverishment or disenfranchisement. The department’s 2015 final rule, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), establishes guidelines by which equal opportunity and fair housing goals can be achieved because, as the legislation states, “no child’s ZIP code should determine her opportunity to advance.” Carson suggests that environment isn’t as much of a determining factor as willpower.
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