Carson pushes increased private-sector role in HUD programs

Ben Carson on Thursday detailed his vision for the Department of Housing and Urban Development: one that integrates government assistance programs with “holistic” solutions and greater involvement of businesses and faith groups.
Carson, speaking before a generally friendly Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, repeatedly suggested that the private sector should play a larger role in addressing poverty and systemic inequities, investing in “human capital” as a means of both increasing quality of life and profits.

“The programs that have been enacted in HUD over the years, you know, they’re good programs,” Carson said. “But in and of themselves they’re not bringing about the elevation of large numbers of people. And that’s what we’re looking for. We don’t want it to be a way of life, we want it to be a Band-Aid and a springboard to move forward.”

In another instance, Carson said he would like to work with faith and business groups to help people whose residences are now worth less than their mortgages.

“The place where there is a lot of money is the private sector. What we have to concentrate on is helping the private sector to recognize that, in the long run, the private sector does better when we develop our people,” Carson said.

Carson during his opening remarks ditched dry prepared text and spoke at length about his upbringing: his “desperately poor” childhood living in “dilapidated” housing “with rats and roaches.” He credited his mother, a domestic worker, with instilling conservative ideas about self-reliance.

“Her strong desire was not to be dependent on anybody else,” he said.

The hearing was relatively light-hearted, with Carson asking if he could vote on his nomination and comparing the gravel-voiced Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to the TV detective Columbo. But there were tense moments between Carson and some of the committee’s Democrats. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who also grew up poor, asked Carson if he “truly” believed in HUD’s mission based on the rhetoric he had used as a presidential candidate. He also pressed Carson on whether he believes the government should continue to provide rental assistance.

“I think the rental assistance program is essential,” Carson said. “What I’ve said, if you’ve been reading my writing, is that when it comes to entitlement programs, it is cruel and unusual punishment to cut those programs before have provided an alternative route.”

Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed Carson on whether he would personally guarantee that neither Trump nor members of his family would personally profit from federal dollars through their various housing assets.

“It would not be my intention to benefit any American. It’s for all Americans,” Carson responded. “I will manage things in a way that benefits the American people.”

Carson’s testimony marked his most extensive comments on housing and urban development to date. Urban policy experts were closely parsing Carson’s remarks and responses to lawmakers for clues about his vision on the government’s role in housing policy, which he rarely spoke about publicly before his nomination.

Repeatedly, both Carson and the committee’s Republicans suggested that faster economic growth could reduce the number of people who needed any of HUD’s programs. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) cited his state’s cutbacks to unemployment insurance as a model.

“What’s the best thing you can do for someone in government assistance?” asked Tillis.

“Get them off of it,” Carson said.

“Get them a job, absolutely,” Tillis said.

When pressed on his view of government assistance, Carson said that Americans should invest in each other and dismissed people who “imply . . . that I don’t want to do anything for poor people.”

Carson did not, however, elaborate on the extent to which government assistance should be made available.

“I know some have distorted what I’ve said about government. But I believe government is important. And it is there I believe to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What has happened too often is that people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage development of any innate talent in people,” he said. “Hence we have generation after generation living in dependent situations. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that this is what they’ve been given, and it’s all they know in some cases.”

Carson also said that, if confirmed, he would like to go on a “listening tour,” speaking first to career civil servants at HUD and then going out to communities throughout the country to talk to people who have “boots on the ground.”

Trump’s decision to nominate Carson was swiftly blasted by critics when it was announced in early December. They argued that he lacked the expertise and experience necessary to run the department. Carson has no experience in government outside of his 2016 presidential run in the GOP primary.

“People have raised a lot of concerns, and those concerns stem from his own statements. He said, basically, that he’s not qualified for HUD or for government service. So most people I hear ask, ‘How did they convince him to take the job?’ ” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in a recent interview.

Carson initially declined to join the administration, even as he was being considered as secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Education Department. “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” Carson’s close ally, Armstrong Williams, told the Hill in November. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

But Trump transition officials and Carson’s defenders say that the neurosurgeon’s personal experiences, rising from poverty in his childhood to the top of his profession, gives him a unique perspective on urban life and economic issues.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who sits on the Banking Committee, said that he met with Carson several weeks ago and was impressed. Shelby praised Carson for accepting the nomination and said he thinks he will do a good job leading the department.

“He’s very smart. Somebody said, ‘Well, he doesn’t know a lot about housing.’ I said, ‘Look at the shambles it’s in now, public housing.’ I said, ‘Maybe we need to start anew,’ ” Shelby said.

Morial, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans, said Carson was well respected for his personal accomplishments — particularly among urban and minority youths — but said he remained unsure about Carson’s vision for the department.

“We know Dr. Carson as Dr. Carson. We have honored Dr. Carson as Dr. Carson, not as presidential candidate or politician Ben Carson,” Morial said.

Fair housing advocates on the left are also worried that Carson will bring to HUD an ideological disposition inherently antagonistic to the department’s goals.

Those concerns are centered on his criticism of a 2015 federal regulation, known as “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH), one of the few public statements he has made on urban policy in recent years. The rule strengthened HUD’s ability to promote racially and economically integrated communities; at its core, the final rule compels communities that receive grants from HUD to take “meaningful actions” to intervene where there are high concentrations of poverty or racial segregation.

In an op-ed published shortly after the final rule was released, Carson accused the government of “social engineering.”

“These attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote at the time.

Betsy Julian, a former senior HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, said she hopes Carson won’t be “hijacked by an ideological agenda.”

“I hope when he starts talking to people, the career people involved in this thing, that he comes to understand what an important tool it will be for him to carry out the mission of HUD,” Julian said. “It’s a very important piece of federal regulation that was thoughtfully done, and I’m not a big fan of federal regulation. I hope he’ll understand that this is not just a good idea, it’s the law.”

© AP Photo/Zach Gibson Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban…


Ben Carson sits for hearing amid questions about qualifications

Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon and former GOP presidential candidate, sat before a Senate committee Thursday morning to make the case that he should be confirmed to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In contrast with past HUD secretaries, Carson has no government experience or expertise in housing and urban development policy, and Democrats on the Senate Banking committee are expected to question his qualifications to lead the $47 billion agency, which is charged with helping millions of poor Americans secure affordable housing.

Instead of a traditional resume, Carson began by highlighting his impoverished upbringing in inner city Detroit and the rags-to-riches success story that he has detailed in books and public appearances in recent years. Carson's family received government assistance in the form of food stamps when he was a child, though he never lived in public housing. If confirmed, Carson would be the only African-American nominated for President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet.
In his opening statement to the Senate Banking committee, Carson noted that he was raised by a single mother who had a "third-grade education" and made the case that he understands the issues facing the millions of people who rely on HUD programs.

"I have actually in my life understood what housing insecurity was," Carson said, noting that his family moved from Detroit to Boston as a child because they had "no place to live."

But Carson faced especially pointed questions about his criticisms of government welfare programs as he looks to be confirmed to lead a government agency that manages many of those initiatives.

Carson frequently used his public platform and his presidential run to decry government overreach and drawn on his personal success story to argue against government welfare programs and in favor of a by-the-bootstraps attitude.
He has said the government's social welfare programs, including housing subsidies, make the poor "dependent" on the government and has called poverty "really more of a choice than anything else," making a case for personal responsibility. And he called for slashing public assistance programs indiscriminately.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, pressed Carson about those criticisms and nudged him to go on the record that he would uphold HUD's mission and that he supports its programs.
Carson conceded that he believes HUD's rental assistance program is "essential" and said it would be "cruel and unusual" to retire government assistance programs without a proper replacement. He also assured the committee that he would advocate for HUD's budget and not seek to gut the agency.

Carson also committed to ensuring LGBT Americans enjoy equal rights when it comes to HUD programs when pressed on his past controversial statements about that group.

The testiest exchange during the hearing came when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, urged Carson to promise none of HUD's budget would wind up financially benefiting Trump or his real estate company.

Carson declined to rule it out, insisting instead that he would "absolutely not play favorites"

"I will manage things that benefit the American people," he said, adding he would not unequivocally rule out any HUD funds making their way to the Trump Organization in an appropriate context if such a move would benefit low-income Americans.

Warren said she was not raising questions about Carson's integrity but rather about Trump's decision not to place his assets in a blind trust or fully divest from his businesses, instead putting his sons and a top executive in charge of the Trump Organization while he is President.

Carson also drew on the connection between housing and health during his confirmation hearing, arguing in his opening statement that his background as a medical professional prepares him for the top HUD post, noting that "good health has a lot to do with a good environment" and that substandard living conditions can result in health problems, including learning disabilities in children.

He also looked to quell concerns about his qualifications with a letter from four past HUD secretaries, including a Democrat who served in President Bill Clinton's administration, urging his confirmation.

Omarosa Manigault, a former "Apprentice" contestant who oversaw much of Trump's diversity efforts during his campaign and will become White House staff, also sat behind Carson in the second row for part of the hearing.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida -- like Carson a GOP primary rival Trump -- also introduced Carson before the committee, arguing that Carson understands that "HUD is not just about providing people with a place to live. HUDis about the American dream."

"Dr. Carson believes this not because he read about it in a book or in a magazine or because he watched some documentary on PBS. He believes it because he has lived it, and that cannot be easily replicated," Rubio said.
Although Carson may bring a critical view of government programs to the agency charged with delivering many of those government services, the retired neurosurgeon will also run point on making good of much of Trump's outreach to minority communities during his presidential campaign -- much of which Carson was present for during the campaign.

Carson shepherded Trump through inner city Detroit, to a church there and then for a drive through blighted neighborhoods before a brief stop by Carson's childhood home.

Trump during his campaign promised to revitalize inner city communities, but frequently conflated his outreach to low-income Americans with outreach to black and brown Americans -- describing a picture of daily life for African-Americans as a blighted war zone filled with crime and poverty.

"What the hell do you have to lose?" Trump frequently asked during his campaign rallies, sometimes with Carson close by.
Carson served as one of Trump's top surrogates during the campaign, but his interviews on behalf of the brash billionaire candidate sometimes distracted from his surrogacy efforts.

In one confrontational exchange on MSNBC, Carson chided a female host amid tough questioning and told her to "stop" before asking her microphone be turned off. He also said there were likely better candidates for president than Trump even after endorsing him.

Despite Carson's close relationship with Trump, the retired neurosurgeon nearly didn't join Trump's administration.
That's because Democrats aren't the only ones doubting Carson's qualifications to lead the federal department.
Carson himself resisted Trump's early entreaties to join his Cabinet, declining to come aboard as secretary of Health and Human Services, a more natural fit for the renowned neurosurgeon.

And Carson confidant Armstrong Williams said at the time that Carson has "never run an agency and that's a lot to ask."

"He's a neophyte and that's not his strength," Williams told CNN in November after confirming that Carson had declined Trump's offer to lead the health department.


Ben Carson grilled on Trump business conflicts at confirmation hearing

Ben Carson refused Thursday before a Senate confirmation hearing to guarantee that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- which President-elect Donald Trump has tapped the neurosurgeon to lead -- would not financially enrich the Trump family’s vast business empire in any way.

When pressed by progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, over where Carson stands on the issue, Carson responded: “I can assure you that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values and therefore I will absolutely not play favorites for anyone.”

Mr. Trump’s family runs a sprawling real-estate empire.

Warren attempted to pin down a more specific promise from Carson, saying “my concern is whether or not -- among the billions of dollars you will be responsible for handing out in grants and loans -- can you just assure us that not one dollar will go to benefit either the president-elect or his family?”

“It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any - any American… it’s for all Americans, everything that we do,” Carson said to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee.

“Do I take that to mean that you may manage programs that will significantly benefit the president-elect?” Warren asked.

The neurosurgeon’s response: “You can take it to mean that I will manage things to benefit the American people.”

Carson, who has no experience in government or housing and urban policies, faced few questions from senators on qualifications to run the agency.

In his opening statements, Carson compared his lack of specific expertise in housing development to how a “good CEO” leads a company -- though he “doesn’t necessarily know everything about the business,” it’s “one of the marks of good leadership” that he can appoint people who do.

For his bona fides on housing policy, the former Republican presidential candidate also pointed to his personal experiences growing up in Detroit and later his familiarity with east Baltimore while he was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Some Republicans jokingly noted that despite Carson’s lack of professional experience in the realm of housing policy -- as South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds phrased it -- “handling this department is not necessarily brain surgery.”

Carson, in his opening remarks, further said he would emphasize a more “holistic” approach to urban policy if he is confirmed, saying that he wants to “bring some healing” to residents in inner cities and suggesting public-private partnerships as a means to do so. And though he blasted intergenerational government “dependence” on policies like rental assistance, the Cabinet nominee said he still sees a necessary role for government.

He also faced questions on whether he would uphold anti-discrimination laws in place to protect LGBTQ communities -- a concern for some Democrats given the conservative’s staunch anti-gay marriage views. He assured the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, however, that he would “absolutely” protect against housing discrimination.

On another specific policy issue, Carson continued his criticisms of President Obama’s latest rules on fair housing, which requires cities to identify and reverse any patterns of racial bias on housing.

“That act says that we want people who are receiving HUD grants to look around and see if they find anything that looks like discrimination and then we want them to come up with a solution,” Carson said.

“They’re saying go and look for a problem and give us a solution...I don’t have any problem with affirmative action or integration, I have no problem with that at all. But I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they have no idea what’s going on in an area.”

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