HUD secretary Ben Carson told the right-leaning outlet Newsmax on Monday night that he intends to leave his cabinet post at the end of the current president’s first term, reported the Washington Post.
“I would be interested in returning to the private sector because I think you have just as much influence, maybe more, there,” he told Newsmax.
Let me repeat that—Ben Carson, neurosurgeon, thinks he could have as much influence on housing in the private sector as he does as the leader of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the United States.
Now, this could be sour grapes from having experienced pushback to his plans and discovering that the world of housing is in fact complicated. It could also be a libertarian, private-sector-worshiping talking-point providing handy psychological cover for a personal retreat.
But either way, it is flat out wrong.
Yes, the ship of state is big and slow to turn. Yes, even the HUD secretary is significantly hampered by Congress’s willingness to appropriate funds. Yes, the private market has a huge effect on people’s housing conditions—most low-income renters live in unsubsidized rentals, and private equity firms are creating a whole new class of single-family rentals with problematic effects, just for starters.
However, in terms of one single player, the federal government is still dominant in the world of low-income households. The largest private apartment owner in 2018 had just shy of 100,000 units. HUD provides rental assistance to 5 million households. And that’s only one of the things it does—as we all know, just for a few key examples, it oversees fair housing implementation, provides mortgage guarantees to a large percentage of the market through the FHA, and distributes funds (and sets the rules for those funds) that can be used for affordable housing to states and localities through HOME, CDBG, and other programs.
The HUD secretary from 2020 to 2024 will have a hell of a lot of influence—for better or worse. Along with their team, they will need to advocate for the department’s budget with Congress. They will have to figure out how to handle a huge impending loss of affordability as affordability restrictions expire. They will need to navigate how to provide rental assistance to both keep people housed and increase access to opportunity in a worsening affordability crisis. How they handle the capital backlog in public housing and inspection regimes in HUD subsidized housing will have crucial effects on millions of young people’s physical and mental health.
Carson has already shown us that a HUD secretary can throw fair housing efforts into chaos. The HUD secretary could also move them forward, listening to real concerns about implementation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations and pushing for something that is both strong and practical.
A HUD secretary could use their bully pulpit to take the lead on reframing the conversation on how we understand housing assistance, and capitalize on a growing call to reconsider social housing by encouraging that we think boldly about what is possible.
This list is, of course, by no means exhaustive. The point is, it is a pernicious lie that we cannot make people’s lives better through government. (Not his first by far.) If Ben Carson found it too difficult to implement his generally punitive and counterproductive agenda, I won’t shed a tear about that. But no one should accept for a minute that this means HUD—and the choice of the next secretary—is not vitally important.