Dr. Ben Carson, a onetime presidential candidate and renowned brain surgeon, on Thursday will appear before a Senate panel to make the case that he should lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carson’s housing resume can be summed up in a single sentence: He grew up destitute in inner-city Detroit.
That might be enough. Housing advocates and Wall Street weren’t thrilled at his nomination, but they’re not aggressively fighting his confirmation, either. They’re hoping the retired neurosurgeon, author and motivational speaker will draw attention to what they say is a crisis of affordability and access in housing. Not since former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp took the agency’s helm in 1989 have housers had a celebrity running the show.
The question is whether Carson is on their side. His policy positions are largely a mystery and even Trump allies can only guess at how, or whether, the incoming administration will further HUD’s mission.
Carson’s onetime opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, will introduce him at Thursday’s hearing before the Banking Committee. The panel isn’t expected to vote, but here’s what senators are likely to bring up.
HUD is the chief enforcer of anti-discrimination rules, overseeing banks, real estate agents and landlords. Tenant advocates and civil rights groups worry that Carson could unwind advances that were made on their behalf during President Barack Obama’s administration.
In 2015, the agency refreshed fair housing laws with a rule that requires cities and towns to look for and reverse patterns of racial bias in housing. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule has been targeted by conservatives, with Breitbart News calling it a “war on suburbs.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Times, Carson called the rule a “social-engineering” scheme.
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” Carson wrote in the Times. “Based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”
Fair housing rules don’t explicitly protect borrowers and renters based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but HUD in recent years has sought to establish some LGBT protections.
Carson opposes same-sex marriage and during his campaign was forced to apologize after making disparaging remarks about gays. He has said that gay couples should be treated “kindly.”
HUD’s brutalist headquarters is commonly described as a prison, but many see the agency as a ticket to freedom. With a central mission to provide housing to needy families, it’s a key player in the fight against poverty. About 5 million households depend on HUD-assisted housing, including 1.1 million in public housing.
Still, those rentals are in short supply, with only 31 affordable units for every 100 extremely low-income families.
Carson has joked that he hates poverty the way other people hate spiders or snakes, a worldview rooted in his journey from troubled youth to world-class neurosurgeon. He has argued that public assistance fosters dependency on “elites” and expressed shame at having lived briefly on food stamps as a child.
“Elites cultivate this obedience by providing goodies to the less fortunate ones,” Carson wrote in his 2014 book “One Nation.” “In our society, those goodies consist of multiple kinds of entitlement programs.”
HUD’s Federal Housing Administration backs about one in five home loans, and its footprint in the mortgage market is growing. Carson brings no experience in the global capital markets that keep that mortgage money flowing to American homeowners.
Ginnie Mae, the HUD division that pools and sells FHA and other loans to pensions, sovereign wealth funds and other big investors, is short of funding even as it notched another record year for sales of single-family mortgage securities.
Banks and mortgage companies are counting on Carson to tap experienced deputies to help him handle the capital markets side of the agency. This week, the Mortgage Bankers Association, Community Mortgage Lenders and other industry leaders urged the Senate to approve him.
HUD has nearly 8,300 employees and a $50 billion budget. Its mortgage division handles a $1.6 trillion portfolio that’s getting bigger. The agency has suffered through bouts of cronyism and indifferent leadership.
Carson has limited management experience. He ran a dysfunctional, expensive presidential campaign before dropping out in March. At the peak of his candidacy, his fundraising staff numbered in the hundreds.
In his oft-told life story, Carson recounts battles with a “pathological” and explosive temper, which once led him to attack his mother with a hammer.
As director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, Carson built teams of specialists — sometimes numbering more than 50 — to execute complex and sometimes groundbreaking operations. Hopkins declined to provide the division’s annual budget and staff levels.