Newly appointed HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson made headlines this week for his first remarks to HUD employees. Towards the end of his speech he referred to slaves as ‘immigrants’ and caused a predictable upheaval in the media. However, we should be more concerned about what he didn’t mention. In 30 minutes, not once did he mention “housing,” “urban,”or “development.” Not alone, not together. Only once vaguely did he even reference HUD’s mission. Given the massive cuts already announced by HUD, Secretary Carson showed again why his appointment is an insult to every American and a cynical misdirection from the Trump Administration.
Secretary Carson’s slavery comment was perhaps lazy and insensitive (although it's debatable), but we shouldn’t make that much of it. Dr. Carson has many more regrettable views on the historical and current relationship between state power and personal agency.
The only thing that I took from that comment is how clearly, almost comically, it illustrates the difference between his usual motivational speech audiences and his new audience. Those conservative, older and whiter audiences buying his books don’t have a lot of overlap with the core constituency of HUD - be it its employees or those receiving its investments. As humorous and uplifting as his other well-paced anecdotes were, what the hell do they have to do with housing? Secretary Carson has a lot to learn about messaging to this audience. Book tour is over.
It’s perfectly fine to introduce your new employees to your personal background and how it shaped your worldview, and Dr. Carson certainly has an admirable story to tell. But that introduction needs to transition to include some discussion about your commitment to the mission of your agency and your vision of the policies that your employees are working on. Or at least acknowledge that you understand them. Platitudes about the American Dream and ‘fairness for everybody’ don’t cut it.
This is especially important when you are, by your own admission, an unqualified novice at government work and, lest we forget, entirely new to housing. You are coming into a world that is much larger than just those HUD employees in the room. You are facing skepticism, if not outright hostility, from just about every stakeholder in housing. You also represent an administration that is openly dismissive of your agency’s mission. People have a right to be deeply worried about the future of HUD under your leadership. It either shows profound arrogance or prohibitive ignorance (or maybe both) not to address those concerns.
Secretary Carson isn’t selling books. He’s running a $50 billion federal agency with close to 10, 000 employees that helps millions of Americans pay their rent, get a mortgage or construction loan, and access fair and affordable housing. Over 20 million Americans – half of all renters – are rent burdened. Millions of Americans are near or underwater in their mortgages or can’t afford to buy a home. HUD’s mission has never been more important - or more in doubt.
Given these stakes, what is even more galling about Secretary Carson’s substance-free speech is that it came after HUD announced the beginning of significant cuts to its programs. New York City is expected to lose $58 million in funding by the end of this year for NYCHA and HPD. That's just the beginning.
This is on top of the rumors that President Trump will cut $6 billion from HUD in his proposed budget, which would effectively end many of the programs that give housing investments to the poorest Americans. How can Secretary Carson not speak about this to the employees working on those programs? How is it that he has still not commented on these cuts to anyone?
I entertain the possibility that Secretary Carson wasn’t told about the cuts and wasn’t consulted on the budget proposal. The announced cuts are based on a somewhat wonky, previously outlined policy formula, which would have occurred regardless, so I’ll give him a pass on that for his first week. And it’s clear that most of President Trump’s Cabinet are figureheads who don’t get consulted on policy decisions, so that isn’t surprising at all.
But I don’t honesty know what would be worse. That Secretary Carson hasn’t been consulted or informed on HUD-related policy, that he has been consulted and doesn’t understand it enough to comment on, or that he doesn’t think he needs to comment on it? None of those scenarios should comfort HUD employees and housing advocates. And none of them should be surprising.
President Trump has made it clear that, at best, he doesn’t understand the systemic injustices surrounding housing in America or, at worst, he doesn’t care. His rhetoric from the campaign to the Oval Office has been a steady stream of dog whistles about “inner-city hell holes,” “law and order” and “urban renewal.” His language, and its racial implication, is straight out of the lawsuit HUD brought against him in the early 1970s.
Selecting Dr. Carson to head HUD was always about putting a genuinely amicable, entirely weak face on an agency that will be gutted at every turn. The fact that President Trump picked a man with no experience in government and no experience in housing proves this. The fact that Dr. Carson is black also shows the cynicism behind President Trump’s ‘urban agenda.’
Don’t pity Dr. Carson as some unfortunate rube. Behind his uplifting personal story and sunny disposition lies an unforgivable misreading of American history and an unwarranted belief in the power of personal responsibility to overcome obstacles (he would never acknowledge the existence of systemic oppression). His listening tour and time at HUD won’t change that. Yes, he’ll change his tune a bit after the embarrassment of this week, but he’ll do so more in the hopes of expanding his future book and speaking opportunities than in helping the millions of Americans that need HUD to live safely.