Max Lubell: Ben Carson is unfit to lead HUD

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 6:21pm

You wouldn’t trust a football quarterback to perform neurosurgery, and we shouldn’t trust a neurosurgeon to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But unfortunately, President-elect Donald Trump does. Trump has nominated University of Michigan alum Ben Carson to head the department as secretary. Carson’s lack of experience and rhetoric prove he is unqualified for the position. As secretary, Carson’s decisions could have devastating impacts on fair-housing policies.

For context, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is an incredibly important agency, with 9,000 employees and a budget of over $47 million. The primary goal of the agency is to operate several programs that provide housing assistance to low-income families. The agency runs the Section 8 voucher program and the Federal Housing Administration, both of which play essential parts in providing housing support to millions of Americans. The department also enforces the Fair Housing Act to combat housing discrimination.

Just to be clear, nothing about Trump signaled that he was going to appoint an exceptional candidate. After all, this is the same person whose racist convictions guided his decision to deny housing to Black and Puerto Rican people back in 1972. Trump didn’t do anything to disconnect from this background on the campaign trail. Whenever Trump spoke on the subject of urban housing, he had a tendency to conflate the “inner city” with “African Americans.” These are some pretty big red flags in regard to how Trump would structure an agency whose primary goals include enforcing a Civil Rights law he violated. Even still, Carson’s appointment is a pretty low blow.

Carson is an incredibly inexperienced nominee for the federal agency. Nothing about his education and career as a neurosurgeon has prepared him for the role as a federal housing expert. Furthermore, he doesn’t know a thing about running a federal agency. Don’t just take my word for it; Carson himself believes he would be unqualified to run a government agency. According to a Carson camp aide, “the last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.” And yet today we see Carson accepting the role as the nominee. 

Prominent conservatives have responded to the claims that Carson is unqualified by saying his childhood experience growing up in public housing naturally qualifies him. That is not the case. While living in public housing doesn’t inhibit an individual’s potential to work in government, it also doesn’t necessarily grant someone the skills to run a government agency. Though the experience of growing up with government assistance is certainly valuable to consider when shaping government policy, it does not grant the skills necessary for secretary candidates. Receiving public assistance and running public assistance programs are very different things. In addition to Carson’s lack of experience, his individual responsibility mentality confirms he is unfit to run the program.

Throughout Carson’s self-acclaimed “rags-to-riches” biography, he has an incredibly pervasive “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mindset. Carson has admitted to the belief that “poverty was really more of a choice than anything else.” Furthermore, he has openly criticized the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirement as “social engineering.” The housing rule, which was implemented under the Obama presidency, requires local communities to halt housing segregation and implement procedures to address segregation. Carson’s statements display a failure to understand the social context in which housing problems, such as segregation, persist.

Housing segregation has a history based on policies that can also be labeled as what Carson calls “social engineering.” Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s novel “American Apartheid” provides an analysis that details the government intervention that created and expanded ghetto communities. Policies such as redlining, subsidizing suburbanization, slum clearance, widespread denial of Black mortgages, public housing concentration in minority and low-income communities and a lack of transportation infrastructure have all contributed to the rise of the urban ghetto.

Therefore, it is these government interventions, not the failure of individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that play a significant role in housing disparities. It is imperative that government practices work to compensate for this history. Solutions like the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule can accomplish this, but under Carson, these policies are in danger. As secretary, Carson has the potential to put us years back on federal desegregation efforts.

Unfortunately, repealing the fair housing rule is not the only damage that Carson could do as HUD secretary. He could gut the Section 8 housing program, which, despite its flaws, assists millions of Americans in paying their rent. Carson could also gut Fair Housing Act enforcement efforts, allowing businessmen like Trump free rein to discriminate in their housing complexes. Carson is undoubtedly unqualified to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I hope that Carson proves me wrong and reinforces the housing assistance the federal agency provides. However, his individual responsibility mindset and open criticism of desegregation efforts lead me to believe he will only do damage as secretary.

Max Lubell can be reached at mlubell@umich.edu