Secretary Carson, Focus on What’s Important

This week’s blog was written by Liz Ryan Murray, the new Project Director for CarsonWatch. Liz comes to the CarsonWatch after nearly a decade as the Policy Director at the community organizing networks of People’s Action and National People’s Action, where she provided policy, communications, research and strategic support to the network’s national campaigns, in coalitions and to their affiliates in 31 states on a broad range of economic and racial justice issues.   Liz also led organizing campaigns on affordable housing, ending predatory lending, financial reform, fair taxes and budgets.  Liz began her career in organizing and policy working on Federal Housing Administration reform and community reinvestment issues and is excited to work with all the CarsonWatch partners to realize the goal that our policies reflect  the fact that housing is a basic human right.

Secretary Carson, Focus on What’s Important

Last week, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson laid out his plans for the department, revealing a striking lack of vision for advancing HUD’s mission to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.
Those hoping the Secretary would acknowledge the historic depth of the housing crisis in America, reveal a plan to help the millions of facing housing insecurity, or put the brakes on the escalating corporate and Wall Street take-over our cities and town were disappointed.
In the piece, Secretary Carson offers his “3 R’s” for how he’s going to “reform” HUD.
But instead of facing the real problems head on, Secretary Carson pulled out the tired trope of bureaucratic reform, an intention to funnel more public money into corporate pockets, and the misguided idea that the agency needs to micromanage families’ choices to help them.  This couldn’t be more misdirected.
Here are the three R’s Secretary Carson needs to work on instead.

Reality Check

 Perhaps the most shocking part of Secretary Carson’s plan was what he didn’t say.  At no point did he acknowledge that we are facing a housing crisis of epic proportions in this country.  According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, over 11 million low-income households pay more than half their income for rent, 20 percent more than in 2007.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently reported that it is impossible – in every county in the country – for a full-time worker making minimum wage to afford a 2-bedroom apartment.  And it’s possible for that worker to afford a 1-bedroom apartment in only 12 counties nationwide.   You can’t fix a problem you won’t admit you have.  Secretary Carson has to face the reality of the housing crisis head-on.

Reinvestment

Almost a full one in 4 families that are eligible for housing assistance don’t receive any help from HUD.  The problem is really simple.  There is not enough money invested in helping people access and stay in decent, affordable housing.  For decades Congress has cut back on vital housing programs – sometimes with big bites, sometimes with nibbles, but the constant cuts have left us with the crisis described above.  Secretary Carson needs to loudly and constantly be pushing Trump and Congress to fully fund HUD’s programs.  Unfortunately, the solution that Secretary Carson proposes is to shuffle the paperwork by combining programs and, much more dangerously, hand over resources and public assets to corporate landlords through euphemistically named “public/private partnerships.”   The corporate take-over of housing has been a disaster.  When the only motive is profit, the market will always abandon those that need housing the most. A recent Harvard University Joint Center for Housing report found that rents are far outpacing inflation and that “the number of units available for under $800 declined by 261,000 between 2005 and 2015, while the number renting for $2,000 or more jumped by 1.5 million.”

Renters

We have a massive rental housing affordability crisis, and Secretary Carson’s recommendation seems to be that HUD should focus much more on homeownership.  Homeownership can be a fine thing for families but it is not a panacea – as we saw when Wall Street fraud created a homeownership bubble last decade.  The collapse of that bubble wiped out entire generations of wealth in communities of color, destabilized the entire economy, and made unscrupulous bankers rich.   A focus on homeownership is also a tacit turning away from the most vulnerable – the low and very low-income families who are the most in need. That would be an unconscionable misdirection of HUD’s focus.
Finally, touting homeownership as the only solution belies a prejudice that is as deeply seeded as it is mistaken. There is nothing inherently less about renting versus owning.  Stability, affordability, safety and access to health care, education, jobs are all possible while renting.  It’s only the rampant disinvestment in quality rental housing that has made those fundamental rights more difficult to achieve as a renter now.
HUD has the responsibility to lead the charge on addressing the housing crisis, but that leadership must start at the top.   Secretary Carson needs to face the true nature of the crisis and then point the agency toward real solutions that will solve it.
– By Liz Ryan Murray