Ben Carson Defends Nomination as HUD Secretary Before Senate Panel

On January 12, Dr. Ben Carson, surrounded by family, appeared before the U.S. Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to defend his nomination as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was the first public opportunity to get a glimpse into Dr. Carson’s thinking as the next HUD Secretary since his nomination. Appealing to his Horatio Alger-like story, the former GOP presidential candidate spoke of how he wants to help heal America’s divisiveness as a reason “why he would want to run HUD.”

Brown challenged Carson to defend his previous suggestion that all assistance programs should be cut by 10 percent each year until the budget is balanced – without exception and without regard to whether the population served is vulnerable citing the social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. According to Brown, “Over 5 million Americans look to HUD for help, and we’re reaching only one out of four eligible families. Many end up on years-long waiting lists simply for lack of funding.  A 10 percent cut would send hundreds of thousands of families into a tailspin, and for some might literally be a matter of life and death.”  Brown also challenged Dr. Carson over the President-elect’s failure to include housing in his “New Deal for Black America With a Plan for Urban Renewal” agenda, and later, after expressing the dramatic need for affordable housing in this country, encouraged Dr. Carson to read the recent book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond to further familiarize himself with the plight of families in poverty today.

Dr. Carson was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-TX) who described him as an extraordinary person, a man of limitless compassion and concern for others who will encounter a department that is broken, “a vast sprawling bureaucracy that reaches all corners of our country” declaring, “HUD needs a leader who knows how to overcome tough obstacles.”

Dr. Carson’s written and oral testimony was notable in that nowhere was rental assistance or public housing mentioned despite the fact that more than 80 percent of HUD’s budget is dedicated to rental assistance and public housing programs. When Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) questioned his commitment to the mission of HUD, particularly his commitment to rental assistance, he responded by saying, “I think the rental assistance program is essential,” and “safety net programs are important. I would never advocate abolishing them without having an alternative for people to follow….It is cruel and unusual punishment to withdraw those programs before you provide an alternative.”

Dr. Carson’s testimony was heavily laced with the background influences and moral imperatives that helped shape him as a child, a man, and ultimately a physician. He expressed strong interest in helping to heal the political division, racial conflict and class warfare that “is ripping this country apart.” As he stated, “I pledge to work with this Committee and the dedicated career staff at HUD to solve difficult, seemingly obstinate issues and address the needs of those who rely on the services provided by HUD….I want to help heal America’s divisiveness, and I think HUD is positioned to help in that healing.”

Recognizing that HUD’s mission is much more than simply putting roofs over the heads of poor people, Carson acknowledged the strong connection between housing and health, calling housing a “social determinant” of health. His testimony cited “substandard housing conditions, such as pest infestation, the presence of lead paint, faulty plumbing, and overcrowding, which disproportionately affect low-income and minority families, lead to health problems such as asthma, lead poisoning, heart disease, and neurological disorders. These problems occur across America – in cities as well as suburbs and rural areas.” In his testimony and under questioning Dr. Carson expressed strong interest and looking 

forward to working with HUD’s Safe and Healthy Homes program, underscoring “we cannot have social mobility without a strong healthy foundation in the home.”

Dr. Carson also spoke to the importance of deregulation, noting that overly burdensome housing regulations are bad for everyone and are increasing income inequality. He spoke of the need to reduce homelessness, specifically homelessness among veterans, citing the positive gains made with the HUD-VASH program; and the need to build strong partnerships with counties and cities across America through the Continuums of Care.

However, not all members of the committee were sanguine about Dr. Carson’s testimony. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked a simple, but pointed question of Dr. Carson, “Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?” Warren’s question went to the heart of the conflict-of-interest questions surrounding President-elect Trump’s vast business interests. Ranking Member Brown followed up Warren’s line of questioning by asking Dr. Carson to commit to “report back on any issue that should arise at a property owned by Mr. Trump or his family,” and specifically Starrett City, a HUD-subsidized housing project in which it is reported that the Trump family has an ownership interest. Dr. Carson agreed to report back to the committee.

After the hearing, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-CA) issued a statement strongly encouraging her colleagues in the Senate “to critically examine Dr. Carson’s unrealistic proposals and reject his nomination.” According to Representative Waters, “Dr. Carson’s testimony did not convince me that he will protect the vulnerable populations served by HUD nor the Americans who rely on HUD to protect their right to fair housing.”

Despite very pointed questions from Democrats, the hearing was relatively non-controversial. The Committee is scheduled to vote on Dr. Carson’s nomination January 24. Afterwards, the nomination is expected to advance to the full Senate where CLPHA expects Dr. Carson to be confirmed.