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Housing groups fear Ben Carson will reverse efforts to improve low-income housing

OCTAVIO JONES | President-elect Donald Trump's pick of former 
GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has worried some public housing advocacy groups.Carson has never held office and has no experience in housing administration or urban renewal.
Published Dec. 6, 2016

TAMPA — The choice of a Palm Beach neurosurgeon with no political experience to oversee an agency responsible for providing homes for more than five million of the nation's poorest residents has alarmed some public housing advocacy groups.

President-elect Donald Trump on Monday announced Ben Carson as his nomination for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The former Republican presidential candidate has never held office and has asserted that helping the poor is not the job of government.

That has groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition fearing abrupt changes to programs including the possible rollback of policies intended to desegregate big cities by creating more affordable homes in affluent neighborhoods.

"Dr. Ben Carson's nomination to serve as HUD secretary is surprising and concerning, given his lack of experience with or knowledge of the programs he would oversee," said Diane Yentel, the coalition's president and CEO, who noted the existence of other more qualified candidates.

Local housing authorities, meanwhile, are waiting to see how an administration led by a real estate mogul who specializes in ritzy, up-market development will deal with providing homes for the nation's poorest residents.

"I don't know what the urban agenda is at this point," said Jerome Ryans, chief executive officer of the Tampa Housing Authority, the Tampa Bay region's biggest owner of public housing. "Everyone comes in with their own agenda."

Most immediately at risk may be President Barack Obama's push to force communities to do more to desegregate public housing and ensure that minorities do not disproportionately end up living in poor conditions.

In 2015, HUD passed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, requiring communities set targets to reduce dense pockets of low-income and minority families.

But in a Washington Times column the same year, Carson likened the effort to those intended to make schools more integrated such as mandatory busing, describing them as a "failed socialist experiments."

"These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse," Carson wrote.

That suggests the policy will be undone if, as expected, Carson is confirmed by a Republican controlled U.S. Senate, said Stephanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

"We're at risk of undoing an enormous amount of progress we've made on fair housing," said DeLuca, adding that moving4 low income families into better neighborhoods with better schools is critical to a child's chances of escaping poverty.

The new rule requires housing authorities conduct studies on their patterns of placing residents, looking for racial bias and to report findings to HUD.

"I don't know why he wouldn't want us to do that study and look at where they are being forced to live," said Tony Love, St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO. "Sometimes things are said during political campaigns and once they get to the table, they are influenced by other information that changes their mind. We will just have to wait and see."

Love added that he is looking forward to working with Carson's administration.

One of the biggest challenges awaiting Carson is that many of the nation's 900,000 public housing units are old and rundown, with HUD reporting a $26 billion backlog of needed repairs and redevelopment.

At the start of this century, the federal government was spending an average of $4 billion per year on maintenance of public housing, but that has plummeted to less than $2 billion since 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

At the same time, waiting lists are long and often closed, meaning only one quarter of all Americans who are eligible for public or subsidized homes actually get any help, DeLuca said.

"We don't have enough blanket to cover the bed as it is now," she said.

The appointment of someone with no government experience has raised some eyebrows among housing experts. Previous HUD secretaries typically served in local or federal government roles. Current Secretary Julian Castro had been mayor of San Antonio.

"It is unlike past HUD secretaries, at least in my life time," Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "He doesn't have a track record where we can look to see where he will take the agency in the future."

Carson has said little about his plans for HUD but is on record as saying that welfare programs, which include subsidized housing, foster a climate of dependency. A strict believer in the Constitution, he said during his failed presidential bid that looking after the indigent was not the job of government.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Trump said he spoke with Carson at length about reviving America's inner cities.

Debbie Johnson, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, hopes that under Carson HUD will encourage more people to move out of public housing.

Under the current system, residents who find a job or a better job end up paying more in rent. That creates a disincentive to look for work and leads to families under reporting their income, she said.

"Hopefully we can get to where able-bodied families can be required to participate in self-sufficiency programs and where there are potential time limits for living in housing so we can free up that housing for another family that needs it," Johnson said. "My hope is that he brings a set of fresh eyes and a fresh perspective to programs that have basically stayed the same for decades, and that are truly not working."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

This story has been updated to remove a now-disputed reference to Carson's childhood living situation, which was drawn from Times wires.

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