On May 21, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, testified before the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing entitled “Housing in America: Oversight of the U.S. Department of Housing and Development” where he received pointed questions from the committee Democrats on recent HUD proposals such as rent reform, the non-citizen rule, and HUD’s FY20 budget request which would slash funding for public housing.
In her opening remarks, Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) expressed her disappointment in the Secretary’s leadership at HUD, referring to his rent reform proposal as an “outrageous plan” that would “triple rent for the lowest income households and put 1.7 million Americans at risk of eviction and homelessness at a time when we are in the midst of a national homelessness and housing affordability crisis.”
Waters also admonished the Secretary for the Department’s budget proposal that would cut its budget by 18 percent and eliminate new funding for the capital fund and housing trust fund, halt the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule implementation, and delay disaster recovery funding for Puerto Rico. Referring to the proposed non-citizen rule as “cruel” and one that, “puts mixed immigration status families at risk of being evicted, separated, and left homeless,” Waters concluded that these actions are inconsistent with the Department’s mission.
Continuing the focus on recent HUD proposals, several Democrats expressed their outrage to Carson over the rent reform and non-citizen proposals. Reps. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Juan Vargas (D-CA), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), were among those who challenged the Department’s assertion that removing mixed-status families from HUD-assisted housing would reduce waiting lists and help address the lack of affordable housing.
Carson defended the proposed rule by stating that the current interpretation of the statute unfairly allows undocumented immigrants to live in federally assisted housing at the expense of U.S. citizens. “It’s not that we’re cruel or mean-hearted, it’s that we’re logical,” he said. “This is common sense. You take care of your own first.”
Velazquez also reproved Carson for acknowledging the affordable housing crisis while at the same time eliminating the capital fund, referring to HUD’s budget proposal as “shameful and immoral.”
In contrast to the frustrated tone of their colleagues, Republican committee members generally expressed support for Carson’s proposals and asked about issues such as impediments to affordable housing construction, opportunity zones, recent changes to FHA loan program rules, and disaster recovery.
When discussing options for increasing affordable housing production, Secretary Carson touted LIHTC, RAD, and the potential for combining those programs with opportunity zone tax incentives to engage in unprecedented opportunities to build affordable housing and create economic opportunities. Calling RAD one of the most spectacular HUD programs, he said that lifting the RAD cap would be tremendously helpful.
Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Rep. Al Green (D-TX) both raised concerns with the cumbersome CDBG-DR disbursement process and asked the Secretary what could be done to provide, or codify, a framework that would speed delivery of aid to areas impacted by natural disasters. In his response, the Secretary expressed concerns with the duplicative requirements across HUD and FEMA and said that there are ways to streamline the process that can, and should, be codified to ensure grant dollars can be disbursed more expediently.
Several committee members focused their questions on Housing Choice Vouchers and landlords’ unwillingness to consider applicants who use them. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) asked the Secretary whether a federal law prohibiting source of income discrimination is needed to increase lease-up rates and ensure that families can put their voucher to use. Carson responded that the Department is looking at impediments to people accepting vouchers, and if after going through that evaluation process the problem continues, then a federal source of income discrimination law may be needed.
When asked about his legacy at HUD, Secretary Carson said that he hoped the Department would be known for putting people on a positive trajectory. And, if given a magic wand to implement any policy possible, Carson said he would “make this country stop hating each other. We’d get a whole lot done.”