The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came to being in 1965. It was the same year that saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act and the year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. HUD was created to oversee federal programs that help Americans housing by increasing homeownership, supporting community development, increasing access to affordable housing and ending homelessness — all free from discrimination.
It’s not a coincidence that HUD came about during a time of progress and change in the country — the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and HUD were all necessary to ensure the rights of people of color and people in poverty. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act gave HUD the huge responsibility of ensuring that fair housing efforts moved forward. While no doubt discrimination in housing (and elsewhere) still persists in 2017, the existence of HUD means $50 billion in the federal budget go to buoying housing efforts and fighting discrimination in housing.
By the time this story goes to press, Donald Trump, a man who has never lived a day experiencing poverty in his entire life, will have been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. His pick for the head of HUD: Ben Carson, a 65-year-old GOP presidential hopeful and a former neurosurgeon with very little, if any, experience in governance. Nearly every other HUD secretary has served in government and/or worked on housing efforts before their work with HUD. The most recent HUD secretary — chosen by President Barack Obama in 2014 — is Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio.
"I'd be lying if I said that I'm not concerned about the possibility of going backward over the next four years," Castro told an NPR station before Carson’s confirmation hearing.
When first asked if he would serve on Trump’s cabinet, Carson’s adviser told reporters that Carson wouldn’t serve because he had never had any experience running an agency, but ultimately when the call came in from Trump, Carson decided to come on board. (Trump has also met with comedian Steve Harvey to talk about housing issues in inner cities — several news sources have reported that they called Carson to discuss HUD efforts.)
The newly-elected Republican president said he picked Carson because he 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. Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans.”
Carson grew up in poverty, and was raised by a single mother in Detroit. He brings to the table an allegiance to the new president: Carson came out in support of Trump after being knocked out of the election himself, even after Trump attacked his autobiography during the pre-general election and called parts of it unbelievable. Carson is also the only black cabinet member chosen by Trump.
“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need,” Carson said in a statement after his nomination. “We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met.”
In Nashville, HUD provides grants toward programs that are lifelines for people experiencing poverty or homelessness as well as providing for the housing voucher program Section 8, which helps families rent apartments in the private market through a voucher subsidy.
Just this past summer, Nashville was designated as a HUD Promise Zone, a program that is supposed to help form partnerships between organizations that serve high-poverty neighborhoods.
“I’m grateful for the leadership of HUD, MDHA and the many community organizations who have stepped up to be partners in this program that will create opportunity for Nashville’s most vulnerable populations,” Mayor Megan Barry said when the grant was announced. “By working together, by sharing data and by making resources available to community leaders, we have a chance to turn deserts of poverty into oases of hope.”
According to a release from Metro Nashville, the designation includes 10 years of federal support, including priority access to federal investments that further communities’ strategic plans, a federal liaison to help local leaders navigate federal resources and five full-time AmeriCorps VISTA members. Nashville was also one of 10 cities awarded the Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant by HUD — an award that came with a half-million-dollar grant to fund a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization plan for the Napier Place and Sudekum Apartments housing developments.
HUD also granted Tennessee more than $20 million toward ending homelessness at the end of December — and a grand total (and record number) of $1.95 billion in grants to nearly 7,600 homeless assistance programs throughout the nation. These funds will support local efforts toward “Continuums of Care,” which according to HUD, “support their highest performing local programs that have proven most effective in meeting the needs of persons experiencing homelessness in their communities. Many of these state and local planners also embraced HUD’s call to shift funds from existing underperforming projects to create new ones that are based on best practices that will further their efforts to prevent and end homelessness.”
Trump’s campaign, while focused on economic prosperity, did not outline what his administration would do regarding homelessness, and while Carson opposes public assistance programs, he also hasn’t said much in the way of support for people experiencing homelessness.
Carson said during his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 12 that the best way to help people on public assistance would be to get them off of it.
However, to his credit, at the same hearing, he did call HUD’s rental assistance program “essential,” and said he wouldn’t remove any programming for people in poverty without a sustainable replacement.
Carson also spent a bit of time in his confirmation hearing outlining (at the request of Sen. Elizabeth Warren) whether he would allow Trump, who has significant real estate business dealings, to benefit from any HUD deals while in office. While Carson did say he wouldn’t allow any one person to benefit from HUD, the New York Times reported that Carson never gave a definitive “no” and said at the hearing: “If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that’s working for millions of people and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to gain $10 from it, am I going to say no?”
The Obama administration has spent a lot of time over the past eight years making attempts, through HUD, to desegregate communities using a fair housing rule that Carson has criticized more than once recently. The Obama effort — which was widely criticized by Republicans, including Carson and Trump — gave grant money through HUD to communities that showed they were actively building affordable housing in affluent areas as well as making low-income areas more desirable by adding parks, libraries and more public services.
“These attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” Carson wrote about the HUD effort in an op-ed in the Washington Times. “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”
Outside of not pulling essential rental assistance out from underneath people in poverty, Carson hasn’t said much about what he’ll do at the helm of HUD, yet he’s faced less criticism and opposition from senate Democrats than that of some of Trump’s other cabinet choices. While it’s unclear whether he supports HUD’s overall mission, it’s clear that Carson doesn’t support social programs in general — and what that could mean for all the HUD efforts is yet to be seen.