What Ben Carson at HUD Might Mean for Houston

INSIGHTS :  Dec. 8, 2016 HOUSING

In Houston, where debates about housing are fierce, questions remain about how a Carson-led HUD would operate.

Ben Carson speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

In Houston, where debates about housing are fierce, questions remain about how a Carson-led HUD would operate.

Reaction was mixed after former presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson accepted President-elect Donald Trump's offer to head the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.

Though Carson has no housing or government experience, he has been critical of HUD's recent fair housing efforts. That's put some advocates -- including those in Texas, where housing debates are playing out in cities like Dallas and Houston -- on alert, while others are cautiously awaiting more information about the potential policies of a Carson-led HUD.

Trump lauded his pick Monday, saying, "Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities. We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”

HUD has a budget of nearly $50 billion, and much of it is dedicated to rental assistance programs including housing vouchers and public housing.

Given that critical role, some in the housing community are cautious of the pick and wondering what it means for their work. The term "urban renewal" has come to be associated with large developments that fractured African-American communities across the country. Meanwhile, critics have complained that much of Trump's talk about "inner cities" during his campaign was riddled with outdated stereotypes. Housing advocates are questioning what that agenda might be.

That uncertainty is partly due to the fact that housing was little discussed on the campaign trail, and as someone with no experience in government, Carson has not left a robust public record of his policy positions.

But in an op-ed penned shortly after a recent Supreme Court ruling, seen as a major victory for fair housing, Carson expressed skepticism of efforts to advance fair housing. "These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse," he wrote.

That 2015 Supreme Court ruling found that policies promoting segregation – even if not intentionally discriminatory – violate the federal Fair Housing Act. On the ruling, he wrote in the piece published in the Washington Times:

Fair housing advocates saw this as a victory, but as with other mandated social-engineering schemes, the sort of unintended consequences Justice Samuel Alito alluded to in his dissent lurk in the shadows. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently announced a plan to build almost 80,000 new affordable housing units in the city’s minority neighborhoods, but the new rules could conceivably prevent their construction because of the “disparate impact” doing so might have on minority access to affordable housing in non-minority areas of the city.

In August, some housing advocates in Houston argued that Mayor Sylvester Turner ran the risk of running afoul of the recent ruling when he struck down the proposed Fountain View housing project that would've built a 233-unit complex just down the street from an upscale community in the Galleria area considered "high-opportunity," with well-ranked schools and access to transit and employment.

It would have been the first Houston Housing Authority project in a high-opportunity neighborhood. But the mayor rejected it, and asked the authority to find another location in a high opportunity area. The per-unit price of $240,000 was cited as a sticking point.

Critics said Turner's move opened the city up to lawsuits and was potentially in violation of the standard upheld in the recent Supreme Court case.

Shortly after Turner's decision, the then-chairman of the Houston Housing Authority board Lance Gilliam resigned his post. And federal officials launched a civil rights investigation into the city's public and affordable housing siting process.

With the investigation ongoing, the city approved a 154-unit project in Independence Heights in November, with a per-unit price tag of $226,000. The Independence Heights project sits in a census tract with a poverty rate of 39 percent -- more than five times the rate of the upscale area around the rejected Fountain View project.

The neighborhood is also 47 percent black compared to Fountain View, where only 4 percent of the population is black, according to the latest census estimates.

Turner commented on that disparity, saying he's still interested in building housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods but "that doesn't mean that we stop all public housing completely until it's done," reported the Houston Chronicle.

Turner, who declined to comment for this blog post, may actually have some common ground with Carson. In his own op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle in August, Turner wrote:

You see, I value all neighborhoods of Houston and do not believe that only wealthy areas have value to our children. We cannot and must not say to the kids in Fifth Ward, Second Ward, Sunnyside, Denver Harbor or Acres Homes that unless you move to the Galleria area you will forever be trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder and unable to take part in the American Dream.

The "silver bullet" to eliminating systemic poverty is not moving families from areas that have been overlooked and underserved.

Researchers have tried to assess the impact of moving low-income families to areas with less poverty, with mixed results. Back in 1994, HUD selected several thousand families living in public housing in cities like New York and Los Angeles and created three groups: one that had to move to a low-poverty neighborhood for at least one year with assistance, one that could move to any neighborhood with their vouchers and one that remained in their current housing development. Initial research suggested limited improvements for the families that moved to low-poverty neighborhoods relative to the other groups.

But as Jonathan Rothwell, a former fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Center wrote for the Brookings Institute, longer term studies have produced stronger results in favor of "moving to opportunity." While early research found some health improvements for kids who were able to move to wealthier neighborhoods, more recent research has also found better jobs and earnings prospects, along with an improved sense of wellbeing and mental health and higher test scores. There's also been a growing understanding of what makes this type of intervention most effective; for example, children who move when they're teenagers may see smaller long-term gains than those who move at a younger age.

Carson, though, has taken his criticism a step farther. While there "are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens," he wrote in the Washington Times, "entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous."

Nationally, experts have expressed concern about Carson's lack of experience and Trump's own housing history, which includes a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination which his family settled without admitting guilt. Several have taken a cautious approach. “Whatever agenda or whatever priority they have, I look forward to learning what that is,” Maurice Jones, CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, told NextCity.

Like Mayor Turner, former housing authority chairman Gilliam takes issue with the term "high-opportunity," and he sees affordable housing as a potential stabilizing force in high-poverty neighborhoods while also pushing for developments in low-poverty neighborhoods, including the Fountain View project.

Carson at the head of HUD might bring "balance," according to Gilliam. "My hope is that he will bring some balance to HUD and recognize that in providing housing for one community, so-called 'high-opportunity' neighborhoods, we don't have to exclude others," said Gilliam. "My concern, is he picks one over the other."

Following the Supreme Court ruling and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that gave HUD more enforcement muscle and increased anti-discrimination obligations, cities still have a commitment to fair housing. "At the end of the day, there are three pillars of power, and until Congress changes the [Fair Housing Act] or the Supreme Court changes its ruling, the administration has a limited impact," said Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority

Still, he said, enforcement might look different under Carson if fair housing is not a priority.

Another big concern: funding. "Our housing authority has always used every dime it receives," said Gilliam, arguing that authority could be hurt by cuts. "There is no fluff there."

And HUD funds more than just housing. Its Community Development Block Grants provide for a variety of urban development projects, offer disaster recovery assistance and other programs that many cities rely on. "We're probably looking at funding cuts,"Gunsolley said. "I think public housing is probably most vulnerable." But, he said, Carson might also decrease some of the regulations associated with the many HUD programs. The Moving to Work program, which promotes locally-developing housing programs, already allows some flexibility for local agencies, and Gilliam is hopeful Carson might be supportive of that.

"There are many opportunities to decrease the regulations and you'd think that would be attractive to a Republican Secretary," said Gunsolley. "The argument we're making is; if you're going to cut our budgets, you have to also cut some of the regulations."

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