Dr. Ben Carson Wants to Pick The Brains of HUD Employees

Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday. Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday. AP Photo/Zach Gibson

Dr. Ben Carson on Thursday said he plans to tap the knowledge and experience of seasoned Housing and Urban Development employees to help him lead the agency.

“We have people there who have been there for 10, 20, 30, even 40 years,” President-elect Trump’s HUD secretary nominee said of the department during his Senate confirmation hearing. “And I don’t think a lot of people listen to what they have to say. I suspect that they have garnered a tremendous amount of information, and I want to get that information from them,” the retired pediatric neurosurgeon said. “I want to work with them on a regular basis.”

The Detroit native, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said he also plans to go on a “listening tour” across the country, if confirmed. “I want to hear from people with boots on the ground who are actually administering programs, who are benefiting from the programs. I want to see what actually works, and what does not work.”

Under current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, agency leadership has tried to regularly engage with employees by providing them with an online forum to make suggestions and give feedback and hold more town halls. Castro, who took over at HUD in 2014, has spent a lot of time traveling to the department’s regional offices in addition to talking with headquarters workers. 

Carson, who grew up “desperately poor,” doesn’t have professional experience in housing or urban policy, but he told senators that there is “an intersection” between medicine and HUD. “Good health has a lot to do with a good environment.” He also challenged the assumption that human beings “can only do one thing” and are “incapable” of doing something else. “I find that kind of humorous, particularly knowing what the human brain is capable of,” he said.

Apparently at least one senator agreed with that. “There was some concern that you’re not a housing expert, that you don’t have a background in construction, and so forth,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., during questioning. “And I got to thinking, seems to me that probably running this department is not really brain surgery, and if you can handle that, you most certainly have the capabilities to step in and look at this with fresh eyes.”

Many HUD secretaries have traveled extensively across the country as part of the job because the department’s mission—creating and sustaining affordable, safe and fair housing—is crucial to every community. To succeed, HUD secretaries also must cultivate strong relationships with multiple stakeholders, including affordable housing advocates, the building industry, mayors, public housing authorities, and Native American tribes. “When we think about HUD traditionally, it’s putting roofs over the heads of poor people,” Carson said, “but it has the ability to be so much more than that, particularly if we take a holistic approach, and we think about how we develop our fellow human beings.”

Carson critics have pointed to his dismissive attitude toward public assistance and some of HUD’s fair housing policies as cause for concern. He wrote a 2015 editorial for The Washington Times in which he “describes the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule as ‘social engineering’ and compares it to the school-busing efforts associated with integration,” according to a Nov. 23 story in CityLab. That rule requires more specific reporting from localities and grantees on implementing fair housing, providing them with tools and technology to see where discrimination and segregation still exist in their communities.

During his confirmation hearing, however, Carson said he believes government plays “a very important role” in people’s lives. “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.” He also said he was committed to upholding and enforcing fair housing law as HUD secretary.

Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that Carson "has clearly taken the time to understand and come to appreciate the importance of HUD’s programs. Contrary to what he had previously said, I was pleased to hear Dr. Carson state his belief that the federal government has an important role to play in supporting deeply poor households and families."  

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who also ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, introduced Carson at the hearing, praising his character and intellect. “The most important qualification that I would look for in a HUD secretary is someone understands that HUD isn’t just about providing people a place to live. At its core, HUD is about the American Dream,” said Rubio. The Florida senator said as HUD secretary, Carson “will encounter a department that is broken in many regards,” calling it “a vast, sprawling bureaucracy that reaches all corners of our country.”

The senators on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, gave Carson a fairly warm reception overall, particularly given the grilling other Trump nominees have received this week. Carson even said the experience had been kind of “fun,” at the end of the two-and-a-half hour hearing.

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