U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Illustration: Michael Glenwood AKA Michael Gibbs

To understand what lies ahead for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its new secretary, Ben Carson, it’s useful to examine HUD’s legacy as well as Carson’s backstory.

HUD was formed under President Lyndon Johnson with a mission of building inclusive communities while ensuring affordable housing for all. This started with the Fair Housing Act (also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), which prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The agency has earlier roots in the U.S. Housing Authority, which was created by the Housing Act of 1937 as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This legislation was aimed at providing safe and sanitary dwellings for low-income families by establishing subsidies for local agencies.

The objective of allowing all people, regardless of means or personal characteristics, to live in decent housing has survived in subsequent policy updates and revisions. HUD’s mission has evolved to include protection against discrimination, promotion of sustainability, and, following the housing crisis of 2008, distribution of $13.61 billion of economic stimulus through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as well as insuring about one in five mortgages.

Carson’s upbringing began in a 750-square-foot house purchased through the GI Bill with a lawn and a one-car garage in southwestern Detroit. When his parents separated, Carson and his mother moved to Boston to live with relatives before resettling in a multifamily building back in Detroit. Carson was not yet 17 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. He left Detroit soon thereafter to attend Yale University, where he earned a psychology degree in 1973. A medical degree from the University of Michigan followed in 1977, and he completed his neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins in 1983.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Carson detailed his personal experience with housing insecurity as well as the lessons he learned from his mother. He has stated elsewhere that she was eligible to receive assistance through the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, but insisted that she would not be dependent on anyone but herself. She instilled in him the belief that people could lift themselves out of poverty rather than relying on help from others, whether in the form of government aid or otherwise.

This belief in everyone’s self-reliant potential for upward mobility—the bootstrap argument—puts Carson at odds with the agency itself. HUD provides assistance to Americans who cannot overcome impoverishment or disenfranchisement. The department’s 2015 final rule, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), establishes guidelines by which equal opportunity and fair housing goals can be achieved because, as the legislation states, “no child’s ZIP code should determine her opportunity to advance.” Carson suggests that environment isn’t as much of a determining factor as willpower.

And his assessment of the policies that created HUD calls into question how he will apply them. “One need look no further than the programs that stemmed from Great Society policies of the Johnson era,” Carson wrote in a Forbes opinion piece during his presidential run. “Those programs have utterly failed to improve the lot of the poor and underprivileged.”

Beyond his scathing review of a half-century of policy, among the few indications Carson has given about his general position on housing are those he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Times in 2015 comparing the AFFH rule to school integration via busing in the late 1970s. In the piece, he argues that not only have well-intentioned policies been ineffective, but that entrusting the government to enforce them is cause for alarm.

“[G]overnment-engineered 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.”

During his confirmation hearing, Carson dialed back his criticism of government programs while still questioning their efficacy. “What has happened often is people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage the development of innate talent in people,” he said. “Hence we have generation after generation of people living in dependent situations.”

Carson has suggested a holistic approach to housing without offering specifics on what that might be or what reasonable policies HUD might promote. His indictment of HUD’s policies—and of government more broadly— could be looked at as an indication that HUD will undergo significant reductions under his leadership. An administration focused on reducing spending for everything but defense, as President Donald Trump has promised, could put HUD in its sights for more than just a simple streamlining.

HUD has a current staff of more than 8,000 and a proposed 2017 budget of $48.9 billion, which includes $38 billion for rental housing assistance. HUD’s numbers might change, but during his tenure as its 17th secretary, Carson will be tasked with defining reasonable ways of interpreting housing policy to create “strong, sustainable, inclusive communities,” per the agency’s official mission.

Although his current outlook suggests his understanding of those policies is somewhat limited, the civil servants who remain at the agency under his leadership will be able to present to him the full scope of HUD’s services for achieving housing access equality across all demographics. For Carson to get it right, he will need to first understand the dire implications of getting it wrong.