The Contradictions of Ben Carson's Vision for American Housing

In his confirmation hearing, he simultaneously pledged to maintain and eliminate programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Zach Gibson / AP

When he was on the campaign trail, Ben Carson spoke frequently about the inefficiency of government, and expressed skepticism about particular government programs. “We have 4.1 million federal employees, and we have 645 government agencies and sub-agencies. And there's an enormous amount of inefficiency and overlap to be gotten rid of,” he told Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal in November 2015. He also expressed special disdain for an Obama-era rule, released in the summer of 2015, that required local communities to assess segregation in their communities and try to address it. “Based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” he wrote about the rule in the Washington Times.

All of this made many housing advocates nervous when Donald J. Trump announced that Carson was his pick to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which spends much of its energies on providing housing and subsidies for the poor. How would an agency with a $47 billion budget fare under someone who thought government spending should be cut, and that efforts to end segregation—a core HUD mission—are akin to “failed socialist experiments”?

His Senate confirmation hearing did little to answer these questions, as Carson both pledged to cut spending, and to keep—or even expand—programs that are the hallmark of what HUD does.

“I do believe that government can play a very important role,” he said, in his opening statement. “There are points of intervention, things we can do to make a difference in people’s lives.” What he doesn’t believe, it seems, is that the government should spend money to carry out those interventions. When New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez asked Carson whether his “worldview” fit into HUD’s core mission, Carson defended his campaign pledges to cut back on government spending.

“We can never seem to cut, because people have their programs and they say, ‘This one is sacred, and this one is not.’ The point being, if we can find a number on which we can agree and begin to cut back, we can start thinking about fiscal responsibility,” Carson said. “Bear in mind, we are approaching a $20 trillion national debt.”

Carson also believes that there should be a limit to how much public assistance America should provide. “We have to be cognizant of our fiscal responsibilities, as well as our social responsibilities,” he said in response to a question by Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. “Would we love to put every single person in a beautiful unit forever? Absolutely, that would be ideal. But we don’t necessarily have the necessary funding.”

And in an exchange with the Republican senator from North Carolina Thom Tillis, Carson pledged to look at which HUD programs he could cut:

Tillis: What’s the best thing we can do for people with government assistance?

Carson: Get them off of it.

Tillis: Do you think there are any sacred cows in HUD that stand in the way of that outcome?

Carson: I've been studying it carefully and I haven't seen one yet.

Tillis: Do you think that to a certain extent over the years we've gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people who are supported through the federal government?

Carson: Well, the key to your question there was the word “unacceptable.” And yes, absolutely.

Tillis: Do you believe that HUD and the other agencies have creeped their scopes over time and that you can be someone who may say that HUD needs to be smaller, or some other organization needs to be smaller so that the people best able to provide the safety net, the agency best positioned to provide the safety net can do it, and you can complement in some points and take the lead in others?

Carson: I believe we need to be much more efficient.

Yet when various senators asked Carson to weigh in on specific programs that helped their constituents, he consistently pledged to keep them going. That included a rental-assistance demonstration that provides assistance to 4.5 million households, a community-development block grant that will provide $1.6 billion to Americans, including thousands affected by floods in Louisiana, and a program to rid housing of lead hazards. In fact, he said, a program to end veteran homelessness “needs more enhancements.” He also promised to embark on a nationwide “listening tour” to hear more about what needs to be improved at the department.

And, despite his own repeated statements to cut down on expenses, he pledged, to the Democrat senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, that he would advocate for a budget for HUD. “I want to put together a world-class plan on housing in this country,” Carson said. “And then I want to come to you with that world-class plan. And I want to convince you all that this is what we need to do. I don’t know what that number is going to be—it might be more, it might be less.”

Carson also seems to be of two minds about the government’s role in eradicating segregation. For all his criticisms of government policies meant to reduce segregation, when asked by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio about the Obama-era rule to affirmatively further fair housing, Carson said he didn’t have a problem with affirmative action or integration.

“I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the area,” he said. “What I believe to be the case is that we have people sitting around in desks in Washington, D.C., deciding on how things should be done.” But the pivot from anti-Washington rhetoric to policy setting is always complicated when one of those desks is now yours.