Why Dr. Carson is wrong about public assistance programs

The Hill
By Rafael E. Cestero
Opinion Contributor
March 8, 2017

Congratulations to Dr. Ben Carson, who was confirmed last week as Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Yet, with no experience in housing policy and few specifics given during his candidacy and confirmation, insight into how he will guide the federal agency towards its mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all” remains a mystery.

The few tangible pieces of information leading up to Carson’s confirmation have caused anxiety in the housing community.

First was his 2015 op-ed deriding the fair housing law that HUD is charged with upholding. Then the Trump Administration’s roll back of an FHA mortgage insurance premium discount that would have put money back in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of hardworking American homeowners.

The most prescient insight occurred during Carson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee when Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) asked, “What is the best possible thing we can do for somebody who is on government assistance?”

Carson’s response: “Get them off of it.”

That’s a loaded answer depending on your ideology.

For supporters of affordable and supportive housing, getting people off public assistance is indeed the goal; it’s also the case for increasing access to critical HUD-controlled federal subsidies.

HUD’s programs help provide affordable homes for senior citizens living on fixed incomes, homeless veterans, youth aging out of foster care, and everyday low-, moderate- and middle-income Americans who need a hand-up to find the stability that helps them move forward and build better lives.

A low-income family in stable, affordable housing is no longer spending the lion’s share of their income on rent and has an opportunity to improve their healthcare, education and save for retirement.

Homeless people and other at-risk populations with access to the stability and services through supportive housing are far less likely to need other publicly funded programs such as government subsidized health care, social services, and incarceration—saving millions in taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, many of our elected leaders have bought into the misguided trope that HUD’s programs create lifetime welfare recipients.

They believe that eliminating subsidies and programs and rolling back fair housing policy have the effect of getting people off government assistance. This is callous and harmful to our most vulnerable Americans and our communities.

Based on the President’s address to Congress on February 28th, some advocacy groups like the New York Housing Conference are estimating the proposed historic increases to defense spending would result in a 15 percent cut to vital housing programs.

We only need to look to the recent past to see the damage caused by massive reductions to HUD programs that serve our most vulnerable citizens.

In 2011, Congress stopped funding the HUD 202 program, which provided subsidy to create affordable housing for low-income senior citizens.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 2010-2016 funding was cut by $1 billion (52 percent) for the HOME program, which helps subsidize the construction of affordable housing for low-income families, and by $1.6 billion (21 percent) for Public Housing, which provides homes to roughly 2.2 million low-income Americans.

In 2013, Section 8 program cuts caused the loss of roughly 80,000 vouchers that helped families in need pay their rent. While much has been restored, if the Administration were to defund this program to pay for other budget items, the effects would be devastating.

Advocacy groups are right to worry that the proposed large-scale reductions would, as NYHC put it, “contribute to a rise in homelessness, accelerate the decline of public housing infrastructure and curb production of affordable housing.”

I believe Dr. Carson cares about his country and the people supported by HUD’s work. The challenges he faced and overcame as a young man growing up in a poor family in Detroit are familiar to many American families facing the same struggles and who are looking to HUD so they, too, can build a better life.

As HUD Secretary, Carson has the opportunity and the authority to be a positive force for change. He can direct funding and resources to communities and populations that are struggling, helping millions of people achieve their own American dream.

It is up to Carson to set the tone and chart a clear path.

We welcome Carson to the housing community and stand ready to collaborate on the programs and policies that advance a mission of improving peoples’ lives and revitalizing communities through investment in stable housing opportunities.

Rafael E. Cestero is the President & CEO of The Community Preservation Corporation, and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.