“Ben Carson Urges Ending Reliance on Welfare in Bid to Be Housing Chief,” read the headline in The New York Times. This is like saying “James Mattis Urges Investment in National Parks in Bid to Run the Pentagon.” One has little to do with the other. The Department of Housing and Urban Development does not manage Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Its work mostly features distribution of Section 8 housing vouchers, a phrase that didn’t come up in Carson’s confirmation hearing on Thursday. In fact, there was more talk at the hearing about the buffalo in Jon Tester’s office (which Carson admired) than the adequacy of low-income housing assistance in America.
And this was the way the hearing went for the most part. Carson was comfortable opining about the minimum wage, overtime laws, tax reform, the budget deficit, health care, and education, and less so about housing discrimination, community-development block grants, FHA mortgage insurance, distressed-asset sales, and other building blocks of HUD. He displayed interest in HUD policies at rare moments, like the (noble) willingness to work to reduce lead exposure in public housing projects. But he offered no real rationale for why a career neurosurgeon, political gadfly, and presidential candidate should be put in charge of an office dedicated to housing policy.
Someone in Carson’s orbit knows a fair bit about housing. That would be whoever penned his written statement for the record, which showed command of the details of HUD’s Safe and Healthy Homes program, land-use regulations, housing finance, homelessness, community development, the banking industry’s reluctance to use FHA programs, and declining homeownership rates. I don’t agree with all of the ideas in there—for instance, I don’t think access to credit is as much of a problem in housing as income stagnation and the scars of the foreclosure crisis—but it hewed to a knowledgeable conservative line about core HUD issues.
The problem is that Carson didn’t read a word of that statement. His opening remarks mirrored something he might have said at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire, mostly using his rags-to-riches biography as an example for how to pull yourself up by your bootstraps without the heavy hand of government. That continued through the questioning. When asked by Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) if HUD has “gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people,” Carson said the latter. When the nominee meandered into discussing labor-market policy, he said he didn’t support the minimum wage as much as “increasing opportunities for them and creating environments for those opportunities to exist, rather than artificially trying to change it.”
To the extent that Carson was aware of HUD policies, he mostly agreed with whoever his questioner was. When Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked whether he would fight for HUD’s share of appropriations, Carson wanly agreed (though I’m not sure he has another emotional level to share). When Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked if he would enforce HUD’s new rule known as “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” which on the campaign trail Carson likened to “social engineering,” Carson said he would follow the law (again, wanly).