This article first appeared in Affordable Housing Finance.

While other high-level officials have left the Trump administration during its first year, Ben Carson, the soft-spoken, often-controversial secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), remains.

HUD secretary Ben Carson
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD secretary Ben Carson

When asked if he planned to be at HUD for four years, Carson says that would be “a reasonable thing."

According to Carson, President Trump recently told the retired neurosurgeon that he hoped Carson would remain for seven more years.

Those prospects come after Carson drew the ire of many when HUD ordered a $31,000 dining room set for his offices, a purchase that was later canceled after coming under fire. At the same time, the administration has proposed devastating cuts to the housing programs for the poor for two straight years.

Carson recently spoke to Affordable Housing Finance in advance of April’s Fair Housing Month. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Fair Housing Act.

While the agency commemorates the landmark law, it has also taken steps that could weaken fair housing across the country. Despite the controversy during his first year in office, Carson says he’s a strong believer in the act.

“I can remember vividly the day Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was assassinated and the incredible turmoil that created in Detroit,” Carson says. “I also remember a week later when the bill was signed, and that was a great thing because they had been trying for a long time to get a fair housing bill through without very much success. Now, finally, with that impetus they were able to get it through. I certainly remember as a youngster, you know, many conversations [in which] I heard the adults talking about it—how unfair housing was and where they could go and where they shouldn’t go and where you shouldn’t even make an appearance.”

Young people today probably don’t comprehend what it was like back in the pre–fair housing days, according to Carson.

“It was quite a problem,” he says. “But a lot of that, of course, was engendered by fear. When people don’t know other people, they fear them. That’s where much prejudice comes from. A lot of that obviously has been eliminated as people have begun to know that a person is a person. It’s the brain that makes you who you are, not the skin or the nose or the hair. There are still some who have that superficial look at people and make their determinations based on that. That’s why we still have to adhere strongly to the tenets of the Fair Housing Act.”

Despite Carson’s words, many housing advocates see HUD retreating on fair housing enforcement.

Delaying the AFFH rule

The agency has delayed implementation of the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule that requires communities to address patterns of racial segregation and foster inclusive communities. In January, HUD announced that it would suspend until 2020 the requirement that communities conduct an assessment of their fair housing planning processes.

Carson says the extension is necessary because the rules are overly complicated, and communities need more time. Out of the first set of applicants, more than one-third were deemed “non-accepted,” according to HUD.

Without an extension, many communities would be in jeopardy of losing grant funds that could be withheld for not complying with AFFH.

“I said we can’t allow that to happen,” says Carson, who criticized AFFH before becoming HUD secretary. “It doesn’t mean that we suspended the law or Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing or anything associated with it. It simply means we are looking at this tool. We’re going to simplify this tool, and we’re going to make it much, much easier for people to use and comply with. I think that in and of itself will be something that’s fair.”

Fair housing and civil rights leaders strongly object to the move and have asked Carson to rescind the extension.

“We absolutely do not support it,” says Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “We believe it’s a step backward. It’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Rice says HUD’s move to extend the AFFH time line would give some jurisdictions an additional seven years to comply.

The extension also means jurisdictions can revert to the old process of conducting an Analysis of Impediments (AI) to fair housing. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that many AIs were insufficient or jurisdictions weren’t even submitting the reports.

“In addition to plugging the holes in those deficiencies the GAO found in its study, the AFFH rule provides a tool to help jurisdictions complete their assessments of fair housing, identify the barriers to fair housing, and develop solutions to correct those identified problems,” Rice says. “The old fair housing planning guide doesn’t provide that assistance.”

Words matter

More alarm bells were sounded when it was reported that HUD is considering deleting the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” in an update of its mission statement.

“First of all, the process is very premature at this point,” Carson says. “It’s a multimonth process in which we’re collecting information from lots of people, opinions from lots of people, including the stakeholders here at HUD, the people who’ve been here for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. All of that has to be completed before we decide what the mission statement is. I made that very clear many weeks ago.”

Rice says she’s also been reassured that HUD isn’t planning to remove anti-discrimination language from its mission statement and is committed to enforcing the Fair Housing Act.

However, advocates will be closely watching what steps the agency takes and the state of fair housing.

Rice points out that there are about 4 million incidences of housing discrimination each year. Most go unreported, and enforcement is still insufficient.

“We don’t have complete, full, vigorous enforcement of our nation’s fair housing laws,” she says. “We need to step up our game in terms of enforcing the law. That’s a major concern.”

Another issue is access to credit, adds Rice, noting that the African-American homeownership rate (42%) is much the same as it was when the Fair Housing Act was signed. “We did make gains throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but all of the gains that were made were lost in the financial crisis,” she says. “They were lost largely because subprime lenders have always targeted communities of color for their lending products. … What happened in the lead-up to the crisis is those products changed and became very toxic and predatory. With the changing of those products, it drove a lot of people into foreclosure.”

The overall lack of affordable housing is another concern. “We’re hemorrhaging affordable housing units,” Rice says. “Affordable housing single-family units have been snatched up by investors, foreign investors, large institutional investors, as well as small mom-and-pop investors.They’ve bought up a lot of the single-family housing stock. That restricts the market for families to be able to purchase affordable housing units.”

Work requirements

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, Carson says a priority will be to roll out his EnVision Centers, an initiative to help HUD-assisted households become “self-sufficient,” a term the housing secretary uses often and a red flag for others that HUD is moving to cut assistance from some needy families.

Stabilizing the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage and having an improved system of response for natural disasters are other priorities, according to Carson.

“During my first year, we had three major hurricanes as well as the wildfires and mudslides,” he says. “People forget that I had to deal with all that stuff while, in the first five months, not having any assistant secretaries. “We still don’t have assistant secretaries for our two biggest departments.”

HUD remains without a Federal Housing Administration commissioner and an assistant secretary for public housing despite Republican control of the House, Senate, and White House.

“But that party can’t act by itself in order to get these people through,” Carson says. “You know, our system really wasn’t designed for what we have right now. It was designed to have more than one party and more than one opinion, but it wasn’t designed for outright resistance.”

In addition to closely watching what happens with fair housing, advocates are worried about the administration’s move to implement work requirements on people receiving public assistance.

On April 10, President Trump signed an executive order giving HUD and other cabinet departments 90 days to examine their programs and make plans to strengthen requirements.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), is among the advocates who stress that work requirements don’t work.

“They do not create the jobs with decent pay and opportunities needed to lift people out of poverty,” she said in a statement. “Instead, imposing such requirements could cut struggling families off from the very housing stability and services that make it possible for them to find and maintain work.”

Yentel points to a NLIHC study that identifies a national shortage of more than 7 million rental homes for America’s 11 million extremely low-income households. “There are just 35 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 lowest income families,” she said. “As a result, 71% of these families pay at least half of their income on rent, forcing them to make impossible choices between paying rent, buying groceries or medicine, and investing in their futures through education or training. Because of chronic underfunding, three out of four families in need of housing benefits are turned away.”

Advocates say requirements will only make things worse, causing families to lose stable housing and increasing poverty.

“At a very basic [level], the idea that you’re going to take someone’s home away because they’re struggling to find a job or struggling to find affordable child care doesn’t make any sense,” says Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. “It makes their housing unstable and increases the number of people who are homeless.”

Furthermore, a good majority of people receiving HUD assistance are seniors, have disabilities, or already work. Others live in places where there are few jobs, have an undiagnosed disability, are dealing with child-care needs, or are caring for someone in their household who is disabled, adds Roller.

He points out that new requirements will likely mean more burdensome paperwork, including for those residents who already work as well as property owners. “This program would cost more money than you would ever see as a result of it,” Roller says.

Andrew Sperling, director of legislative and policy advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, raises the question of whether it will be a local housing authority or a private property owner who will be responsible for monitoring work requirements. If it’s property owners, that’s going to be a deterrent for them to participate in the Sec. 8 program.

Sperling says some jurisdictions that have participated in HUD’s Moving-to-Work initiative have seen promise, but child care, education, and other support services have been critical. It’s unknown what assistance, if any, would be provided to help people with any new work requirements.

It’s also unknown what type of exemption would be available for individual with disabilities. The threat of losing housing assistance could drive people with disabilities into costly institutional settings such as nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals and even chronic homelessness, according to Sperling.

Another question is what about people who will be applying for Sec. 8 for the first time? Would they have to be working before they could even get a voucher? If someone doesn’t have housing, it’s hard to get a job, Sperling adds.

Despite the many concerns raised, Carson is pressing ahead on the work requirements.

“We’re looking at the best ways to do that,” Carson says. “History tells us that work requirements for work-able people have a tremendously beneficial effect. I’m not questioning whether it should be done. I’m looking at the best way that we can do it.”

After a year, Carson remains.

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