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Op-Ed | The New Republic | February 21, 2024

A Return to Trump’s Housing Policies Would Be a Disaster

Ethics in GovernmentExecutive BranchGovernment CapacityHousing
A Return to Trump’s Housing Policies Would Be a Disaster

The former president made his name as an unscrupulous real estate magnate. So it’s no surprise that he pushed for ideas designed to take from the poor and give to the rich.

This article was originally published by The New Republic. Read on the original site here.

In 2017, ProPublica described the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, under Ben Carson as “the perfect distillation of the right’s antipathy to governing.” It was an apt characterization given that Carson repeatedly advocated for harmful budget cuts, sought to triple rents and foist onerous work requirements on the country’s poorest tenants, and impeded fair housing enforcement. Everything he did ran counter to HUD’s mission.

It’s taken years for President Joe Biden’s administration to clean up the mess left by Carson, and the 2024 election threatens to undo all of that hard work. But a return to Trumpism threatens more than a mere reversion: The truth is that his wayward administration did not accomplish all the destruction it intended. It’s frightening to contemplate how much more Carson—or someone who shares his reactionary worldview—might pull off if would-be dictator Donald Trump wins a second term.

The first thing to remember about Carson’s time leading HUD is that, at least initially, he didn’t want to take the job. Carson demurred because even he and his inner circle knew that a retired pediatric neurosurgeon with no public policy experience of any kind was wholly unqualified for such a role. “Having me as a federal bureaucrat would be like a fish out of water,” Carson said in the wake of Trump’s victory in November 2016. But he took to his task like a bull in a china shop, inflicting damage on the very agency he was tasked with overseeing.

Remarkably, Carson made no effort whatsoever to learn the basics of housing policy. Perhaps the clearest example of his refusal to take the job seriously came during a May 2019 congressional hearing at which Representative Katie Porter asked the HUD chief about the agency’s approach to “REO” (real estate owned) properties.

Porter was referring to foreclosed homes repossessed by banks and other lenders. Any remotely qualified housing official would be familiar with the concept. Carson, however, had no idea what Porter was talking about. “Oreos?” he responded. Even after Porter informed Carson that she wasn’t talking about creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookies and spelled out the acronym, he still couldn’t name what the “O” stands for.

Shortly after the hearing, Porter called Carson’s lack of familiarity with REOs “unsettling,” noting that the term was central to “one of HUD’s most dire current failures.” When a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, enters foreclosure, HUD can pay a claim to the lending institution, which transfers control of the property to the agency. But this conveyance process came under heightened scrutiny several years ago because, as Porter wrote, too many FHA-backed homes were “being forced into unnecessary foreclosure proceedings,” becoming REOs and then HUD properties, after which many of them sat vacant for months on end.

During the same hearing, Representative Nydia Velázquez asked Carson how many families nationwide were on the waitlist to receive public housing or rental assistance from HUD. Carson guessed a few hundred thousand. Alas, researchers put the true figure at more than 4.4 million. As Porter wrote, “This was not just a factual error; it underscores the secretary’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the problems faced by the department he is supposed to oversee.”

Making matters worse, Carson left key HUD leadership positions unfilled for months while swiftly promoting loyal right-wing operatives with no housing experience. Naturally, this was perfectly consistent with Trump’s faux-populist antagonism toward experts—a convenient cover for engaging in blatant corruption and swindling.

For his part, Carson brought his wife, Candy, and son, Ben Jr., to HUD’s offices so often that The Washington Post asked whether Ben Jr., who owned an infrastructure investment firm, was “wielding interest over decisions that might benefit his company.” Three months after Carson’s son invited an official from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, to an event in Baltimore, CMS awarded a $485,000 contract to Myriddian, a consulting company founded and led by Ben Jr.’s wife, Merlynn Carson. Federal records indicate there was no competitive bidding process.

Ironically, all of this happened after Ben Sr. told Fox News that “the amount of corruption and graft and things, shell games that are played—we need to get rid of all that stuff.”

Carson’s malevolence extended beyond ignoring or encouraging conflicts of interest. The ex–HUD leader was hell-bent on turning the agency into the most austere and punitive version of itself possible. To justify his draconian positions, Carson routinely invoked his rags-to-riches biography—shaming the most exploited and dispossessed elements of the U.S. working class for not having managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

From 2017 through 2020, Carson helped create and fought for federal budget proposals that, if enacted, would have resulted in more homelessness, disease, and death. Notably, the Trump administration’s blueprints for eviscerating HUD were too extreme even for many Republican lawmakers, as Congress consistently rejected the White House’s annual bids to gut affordable housing programs. Nevertheless, Carson’s hostility toward HUD’s mission contributed to the departure of many staff members from an already overwhelmed agency, resulting in a serious loss of expertise that has yet to be fully replaced.

Roughly two weeks after Trump and Carson proposed slashing HUD’s fiscal year 2019 budget by $6.8 billion (or 14.2 percent below F.Y. 2017 funding levels), The Guardian reported that the agency had recently agreed to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” for its D.C. headquarters. That was on top of a $31,000 dining set acquired for Carson’s office. The purchases were revealed after Helen Foster, a senior civil servant at HUD, filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel alleging that she was demoted and replaced by a Trump appointee in retaliation for refusing to ignore a $5,000 limit on office improvements.

Mind you, Carson’s furniture spending spree came after he said that public housing shouldn’t be too “comfortable.” The idea that the nation’s public housing stock—following decades of disinvestment and demolition (accompanied by the displacement of tens of thousands of low-income tenants)—is excessively luxurious couldn’t be further from the truth. On Carson’s watch, conditions in many federally subsidized properties deteriorated further—though the secretary never seemed to grasp how this was a consequence of chronic underfunding. Meanwhile, with buildings aging and repair backlogs growing, Carson intensified HUD’s ill-fated reliance on the private sector.

Carson also aimed his sledgehammer at HUD’s ability to conduct fair housing investigations and enforce landmark housing laws. One of his first targets was the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, rule, which required local jurisdictions to “take meaningful actions to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination.” In January 2018, Carson suspended enforcement of the AFFH rule.

Carson had long expressed opposition to this particular Obama administration policy, comparing it with “the failure of school busing” and contending that it would place affordable housing “primarily in wealthier neighborhoods with few current minority residents.” Carson’s argument merely exposed his ignorance of the rule, which sought to increase investment in impoverished neighborhoods while also encouraging the construction of affordable housing in prosperous areas that have long spurned apartments and other multifamily residential options.

The HUD secretary officially rescinded the AFFH rule in September 2020. Soon after, Trump endeavored to make political hay out of that move. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “We’ll Protect America’s Suburbs,” Trump and Carson bragged about stopping what they called “the last administration’s radical social-engineering project that would have transformed the suburbs from the top down.”

In their diatribe, Trump and Carson dramatically overstated the power of the AFFH rule. Although the rule required municipalities to submit a report on fair housing barriers as well as a plan for eliminating them in exchange for continued HUD funding, it did not require actual interventions, to the chagrin of progressive planners. The Biden administration is in the process of reinstating a more robust version of the AFFH rule that Carson repealed.

On top of combating the AFFH measure, Carson in August 2019 proposed a real estate industry–backed rule change designed to make it harder to sue landlords, lenders, and insurers for discrimination. At issue was the 2013 Disparate Impact Standard rule, which aimed to uphold the intent of the 1968 Fair Housing Act by codifying the long-standing legal theory of “disparate impact.”

Although that phrase isn’t found in the civil rights law, the underlying concept has undergirded many housing discrimination lawsuits and has been regularly affirmed by the judiciary, including the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. The “disparate impact” standard requires prohibiting practices shown to have discriminatory effects even without demonstrating discriminatory intent, if the defendant cannot establish both “a substantial legitimate justification for the policy or practice” and the absence of an alternative that “would achieve the same legitimate objective … with less of a discriminatory effect.”

Carson’s rollback, which became effective in October 2020, raised the threshold for proving disparate impact liability, effectively greenlighting “unintentional” housing discrimination. A federal judge quickly blocked its implementation in response to a pair of lawsuits filed by civil rights advocates. The Biden administration restored the Obama-era regulation last spring.

Beyond the blitz of bad policy and intentional neglect described above, Carson battled civil rights efforts more broadly. He even went so far as to scrub anti-discrimination language from HUD’s mission statement and insert a paean to self-reliance in its place. The website revisions, made in March 2018, were an ominous harbinger of things to come.

Throughout his time at the helm of HUD, Carson sabotaged initiatives aimed at ensuring the equal treatment of LGBTQ people. In May 2019, to take one example, Carson proposed a rule change that would have allowed federally funded homeless shelters to turn away transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. A few months later, The Washington Post reported that Carson attempted to justify his actions with hateful remarks that HUD staff rightfully called an attack on trans women. The Biden administration, by contrast, swiftly expanded fair housing protections for LGBTQ people.

Like others in the Trump administration, Carson also aspired to make life more difficult for immigrants and their loved ones. Specifically, in April 2019, he introduced a regulatory proposal that could have led to the eviction of thousands of mixed-status families (i.e., households in which at least one person is undocumented or otherwise ineligible for federal housing aid). Fortunately, the proposed rule—the brainchild of xenophobic Trump adviser Stephen Miller—was never finalized. The Biden administration withdrew it in April 2021.

Rather than empathize with and ameliorate the plight of the most deprived and vulnerable segments of the U.S. working class, Carson preferred to lecture struggling Americans on the need to take greater personal responsibility. This was epitomized by his dismissal of poverty as a “state of mind” that millions of individuals could overcome if only they worked harder.

In April 2018, the HUD chief moved to put his beliefs into practice. Just months after the GOP enacted Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut for the top one percent, Carson unveiled a proposal to triple rents for the country’s poorest tenants—including low-wage workers, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Carson’s proposal also sought to make it easier for local housing authorities and private landlords to impose work requirements on the recipients of federal housing aid.

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities detailed, congressional approval of Carson’s proposal would have likely led to a surge in evictions and homelessness. What’s more, coercive workfare programs do more to exacerbate hardship than increase labor force participation (a majority of working-age, nondisabled households receiving HUD assistance are already employed).

While Carson was adamant about the need to be stingy when allocating benefits to destitute families, he had no qualms about funneling cash upward to wealthy real estate developers and financiers. Under Carson’s leadership, HUD promoted the use of so-called “Opportunity Zones” for urban redevelopment. Put simply, the Trump administration gave tax breaks to Wall Street profiteers who invested in market-driven development in distressed neighborhoods.

Because this approach to incentivizing rent-maximizing investments in low-income communities worsened displacement risks for existing residents, housing justice organizers referred to them as “eviction zones.” That these zones were a favored policy of the Trump administration is fitting considering how the Trump family’s fortune stems from its notoriously racist and predatory real estate empire.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s annual requests to hollow out HUD, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have asked Congress to expand the agency’s budget each year. Moreover, current HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge has wisely declined to continue the Opportunity Zone boondoggle. Fudge has also reversed Carson’s egregious rule changes and is working to strengthen new AFFH regulations. That’s not to suggest that Fudge—who takes a “supply-focused, all-carrot-no-stick approach to rent prices,” as my colleague Emma Marsano put it recently—is above criticism.

When it comes to making working people’s lives better amid the worst housing affordability crisis in decades, some of the most consequential moves the Biden administration could make would come not from HUD but from other agencies. The Department of Justice Antitrust Division and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, could crack down on software companies and corporate landlords accused of rent gouging. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA, could also play a major role. FHFA manages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which purchase hundreds of billions of dollars in multifamily mortgages that banks issue to landlords, assuming the risk of nonpayment and lowering financing costs. As the Homes Guarantee campaign has stressed, FHFA Director Sandra Thompson could impose conditions on federally backed landlords who benefit from this government financing, including a limit on rent hikes and a prohibition on evictions without good cause.

The “rent was too damn high” even before inflation became such a widely expressed concern, and the issue is even more pressing right now. America is building too little new housing and doing far too little to ensure that existing or new housing is affordable for all. Progressives need to push on Biden, Harris, Fudge, Thompson, and others to do more.

Meanwhile, Trump is running for president as a change agent and the media is in turn covering him as if his record was an admixture of excellent economic management (false), abhorrent personal statements (true), and January 6 (true). But Trump’s C.V. shows him to have spent 48 months tasked by the Constitution with one primary role—to execute the laws we have on the books. Trump’s actual record executing housing law was horrific, and the impact on the lives of millions was tangible.

But the Trump housing policy story will not tell itself, and the mainstream media has shown no inclination to do that honest, nonpartisan work. Democrats would be foolish not to contrast Biden’s approach to housing with that of his opponent, a bigoted real estate tycoon. And new commitments to take on the worst landlords and fight to protect tenants would be a great way to drive this contrast.

The above photo is a work of the U.S. federal government and in the public domain.

Ethics in GovernmentExecutive BranchGovernment CapacityHousing

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