In 1966, Dr. Robert C. Weaver became the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the first black man to have a Cabinet-level position in the federal government. He had a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from Harvard University and started in government during the New Deal as a member of FDR’s famous “Black Cabinet.” He later worked in the Kennedy Administration and helped lay the groundwork for HUD, which was eventually created during President Johnson’s “Great Society” platform with Dr. Weaver envisioned at its head. Though largely forgotten today (though his name is on the HUD Building in DC) Dr. Weaver’s influence on government and civil rights, forged through years of government work and policy execution, is a testament to what talented individuals can overcome and accomplish through a dedicated federal government.
So it is in surprisingly stark contrast this week that there have been strong indications that President-elect Trump has picked another black doctor - Dr. Ben Carson - for Secretary of the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Though no official announcement has been made, Mr. Trump has floated the name on twitter and Dr. Carson, a former Presidential hopeful and accomplished brain surgeon with no government experience, has signified that he is considering the position. If this does pan out, it would be an insult to every American.
Let’s start with the obvious: Dr. Carson is not at all qualified to run any government agency. Just ask him - a week earlier he took himself out of the running for any cabinet position because he didn’t think he was qualified to run a federal agency. He is right. He has no experience in government and no experience in managing a large agency of any type, let alone one concerning housing.
Dr. Carson was clearly a talented doctor and an inspiring speaker, but he has never worked in housing (and has not show much aptitude for politics). He has only commented on housing issues publicly a few times. In those cases, he has come out against fair housing policies and the Supreme Court ruling on disparate impact in Texas because they are ‘social engineering.” That either shows a shocking ignorance towards the legacy of housing policies on economic segregation and inequality or a deep cynicism. I will give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt and assume it is ignorance.
In any case, Dr. Carson is not prepared to take over one of the most important federal agencies in government – tasked with managing $1 trillion of home mortgages and a $50 billion annual budget towards fair and affordable housing policies and legal defense for hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Apparently, Mr. Trump felt Dr. Carson was qualified because: 1. He was born in a city (and presumably has lived in a few houses) and 2. He supported Mr. Trump early. You could also easily add in a third reason: Dr. Carson is black. Given Mr. Trump’s clear preference for older white men for his top positions (and the growing criticism for it), this was an easy, if entirely empty, gesture to make.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in any Presidency for cabinet positions to be filled by unqualified loyalists or isolated figureheads. It has been especially true at HUD where many Presidents have placed token minority hires or personal loyalists who have been ignored (George Romney, Jack Kemp) or guilty of massive corruption (Samuel Pierce). So while there have been accomplished Secretaries in the past (Shaun Donovan comes to mind), HUD has largely been an afterthought for most Presidents. The fact that Mr. Trump has picked Dr. Carson is sadly not unprecedented.
However, what is unprecedented is the affordable housing crisis gripping the nation and crippling its long-term economic potential. This blog has documented just how bad the crisis is and just how much it could damage our economic and social prosperity for generations. It is simply too important an issue to be dismissed with such an abysmal appointment.
Picking Dr. Carson tells us much about what a President Trump will do for housing. At best he appears uninterested and likely to simply ignore the problem. Dr. Carson, unless he surprises, would not be a powerful advocate for housing and will not have a powerful voice in the administration. Whether it’s the still-troubling status of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae or the systemic lack of affordable housing in our cities, there are too many issues in housing for President Trump to take such a dismissive approach about it.
At worst, President Trump will use Dr. Carson as cover while appointing undersecretaries like Rob Astorino from Westchester who would very likely peel back affordable housing policies and cease to enforce fair housing laws. Dr. Carson could oversee HUD as it quietly retreats into underfunded irrelevance. The federal government could stop defending poor residents against discrimination at the local or city level and allow the continued resegregation of our communities. HUD could also likely enrich the private sector by dismantling mortgage assistance and other housing programs without addressing the needs for poorer homeowners and renters.
It remains to be seen what Dr. Carson will decide on, but that it is up to him – after just stating he wasn’t qualified for such a position – shows a troubling sign for what the Trump Administration will prioritize. Rather than acknowledging the scale of problem facing the nation with housing and finding qualified people with the experience and ideas (whether one agrees with them or not) to tackle it, Mr. Trump has evidently thought little of policy implications and a lot about personal loyalty. This does not bode well for Americans across every type of home.