HUD Secretary Carson Testifies Before House Panel
On October 12, HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson testified in his first appearance before the House Financial Services Committee since being confirmed as HUD Secretary. As the sole witness before the committee, Carson's testimony
was the latest in a series of hearings on “The Future of Housing in America” with this hearing’s focus on “Oversight of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”
Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) opened the hearing by declaring, “In at least one respect, he may be among the most qualified individual to ever serve as HUD secretary. Why? Secretary Carson was raised by a single mother who had a third grade education. He grew up in poor communities in Detroit and Boston; lived in multifamily housing with boarded up windows and doors, surrounded by sirens, gangs and murders. Not only does he understand poverty personally and viscerally, he understands what it takes to escape it. He is passionate about helping others escape. He also understands that HUD’s approach to eliminating poverty and urban decay too often fails and fortunately he is committed to changing it.”
Committee Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-CA) held a much different view of Secretary Carson in her opening statement, “Housing is the foundation on which our entire society is built. It is the platform for economic mobility and well-being. It is a crucial part of our national economy. It is a necessary human right. We need strong leadership and a bold vision for HUD in order to expand access to affordable housing in this country. Unfortunately, I have seen nothing to indicate that Secretary Carson is up to the challenge. Secretary Carson has expressed views that are deeply alarming and antithetical to his role at HUD, such as describing poverty as ‘more of a choice than anything else,’ and saying he doesn’t think public housing should be too ‘comfortable.’ His few actions so far as HUD Secretary are deeply troubling as well. Secretary Carson has supported a budget that slashes funding for critical housing programs and proposes harmful rent increases on some of the most vulnerable American families. He has also moved to roll back important Obama Administration policies and initiatives with little to no explanation.”
The personalized, contrasting statements were emblematic of the tone and substance of the almost three-and-a-half hour hearing, with majority members of the committee offering encouragement to Secretary Carson, while minority members of the committee demanded accountability and answers from Carson for his and President Trump’s statements and actions.
In his testimony, Carson first outlined HUD’s daily role in the federal response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that damaged and devastated areas of Texas, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands concluding, “in the long-term, HUD will play a key role in the recovery efforts in these disaster impacted regions as they rebuild. Helping the impacted communities in the aftermath of these storms is and will remain a priority for me and this Administration.”
Carson also laid out his team’s plan for institutional reform and improvement called the FORWARD initiative. FORWARD proposes “the three Rs:” Reimagine How HUD Works, Restore the American Dream, and Rethink American Communities. According to Carson, this initiative “is a strong companion to the work done by this Committee and the Congress in passing the Housing Opportunities Through Modernization Act last year. We are working to enhance our rental assistance programs to better support the needs of the families they serve…This does not mean taking assistance away from those who need HUD—it means doing our job so well that fewer and fewer people require our assistance.”
Carson spoke of HUD’s efforts to reduce regulatory burdens, citing a series of executive orders issued by President Trump, and the establishment of HUD’s Regulatory Reform Task Force charged with identifying agency regulations that should be repealed, replaced or modified. He also spoke of HUD’s critical role in mortgage finance reform “because our FHA mortgage insurance program and our Ginnie Mae mortgage-backed security guaranty are large and vital components of the housing finance system.”
In the ensuing question and answer portion of the hearing with committee members, Waters challenged Carson over President Trump’s tweets, in which he threatened to abandon recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. After the hearing, Water’s office issued a statement which included the following exchange:
Ranking Member Waters: So you don’t agree that [Puerto Rico] should be abandoned?
Secretary Carson: Of course it shouldn’t be abandoned
Ranking Member Waters: And you don’t think that [Puerto Rico] should be shamed for its own plight? Is that right?
Secretary Carson: I don’t think it’s beneficial to go around shaming people in general.
Ranking Member Waters: I’m glad to hear that you don’t agree with the President.
Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), the lone Puerto Rican committee member, also weighed in by appealing to Carson as a proxy for President Trump and expressing her outrage as an American citizen at being insulted by his shameful tweets.
Several committee members, including Representatives Bill Huizenga (R-MI), Edward Royce (R-CA), Dennis Ross (R-FL), Keith Rothfus (R-PA), and Mia Love (R-UT), spoke of the benefits of the Moving to Work (MTW) and expressed support for its further expansion. Responding, Carson also stated his support for authorizing expansion beyond the 100 housing authorities recently authorized by Congress. Carson also spoke positively of utilizing MTW with the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD).
Responding to a question from Rep. Ross about long waiting lists and the need for more public housing vouchers, Carson offered RAD and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program as possible solutions to addressing the public housing backlog. He also spoke positively about the HUD-VASH program, Family Self Sufficiency, and drew the connection between housing and education, and housing and health.
Carson spoke earnestly of the need to not allow ourselves “to be manipulated into thinking we are enemies” declaring “we’re not enemies,” while expressing the view that we can solve our problems “if we as Americans are willing to work together and not allow ourselves to be polarized.”