It’s fair to say Donald Trump’s choice for housing and urban development (HUD) secretary isn’t exactly passionate about the subject.
Some have joked that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s major qualification for the role is that he owns a house. He himself argued that growing up in the “inner city” made him equipped for the role. The fact that the term “inner city” is widely discredited (for being racially tinged) among pretty much everyone who studies cities is but one of the nuances of the topic he’ll have to learn.
Parsing Carson’s stated views on the subject doesn’t take long—they seem to stretch as far as one 800-word opinion piece in the Washington Times last year. In the piece, he took on the Obama administration’s policy, put in place last year, of forcing cities that receive a major government grant (almost every city in the US does) to align with “fair housing” law.
This law says government housing policy mustn’t perpetuate poverty and racial segregation. In practice—according to both a Supreme Court ruling and the Obama administration—that means making sure that as much affordable housing is built in affluent areas as in poor ones. The aim is for poor families, usually from racial minorities, to have a chance of moving to those areas and getting the same access to good public schools and infrastructure as wealthy white families.
Carson dismisses this policy as “social engineering” and suggests it will join the “history of failed socialist experiments in this country.”
Racial and economic segregation in cities is widely seen as one of the most pernicious perpetrators of racial divides (paywall), limited social mobility, and concentrated crime in modern American history. Detailed research by Rutgers University professor Paul Jarkowsky shows that even though most of the intentionally racist housing policies ended in the 20th century, levels of concentrated poverty have skyrocketed since 2000; the number of people living in “high poverty ghettos, barrios or slums” has almost doubled from 7.2 million to 13.8 million.
This has hit ethnic minorities far harder than whites. One in four of the black poor and one in six of the Hispanic poor lives in extreme poverty, as opposed to one in 13 poor whites. And, despite what Trump and Carson may think, this is isn’t a problem of the so-called large “inner cities.” The places most affected are metropolitan areas ranging from 500,000 to 1 million people.
Jarkowsky’s conclusion? “Every city and town in a metropolitan area should be required to ensure that the new housing built reflects the income distribution of the metropolitan area as a whole,” rather than concentrating low-income housing in low-income areas. In other words, do exactly what Carson is against.
HUD has among the most impact on domestic poverty of all the federal departments. And there’s a sick irony in the fact that the only policy position of Trump’s only African American appointee is one that would likely be really bad for African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities.
Perhaps even more worrying is what Carson’s appointment says about the value Trump places on the department at all. The two people who held the office under Barack Obama were the former mayor of San Antonio, one of America’s 10 largest cities, and the former head of New York City’s housing department. Carson, on the other hand, has neither urban policy credentials nor any government background, and just three weeks ago was saying—through a spokesman—that he wouldn’t join a Trump administration because his lack of experience “could cripple the presidency.”
Housing wonks are already concerned that his appointment means Trump’s administration will cut spending on the department—perhaps to persuade congressional Republicans to back his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Having an apathetic HUD secretary leaves it open to being torn apart.
“All the existing programs that we’re so dependent on for building affordable housing in this country could be thrown in the air or dismantled,” Melora Hiller, CEO of community-focused non-profit Grounded Solutions Network, told CityLab. “Decades and decades of programs could be dismantled.”