When Secretary Ben Carson appeared before Congress at the end of May, I came prepared for a serious discussion about our nation’s housing supply. In my home district in Orange County, California, we have both a rental affordability crisis and a homeownership affordability crisis, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has an important role to play in helping working families who are feeling the squeeze.
While I wanted engagement from Carson on these critical issues, what I got was evasion. The American families losing their homes deserve details, but the secretary only offered deflection. In fact, Carson's two-plus years as the leader of HUD have been marked by failure after failure to do right by this country’s working families.
To start with, in last month’s hearing, Carson demonstrated no awareness of even the basics of his agency’s jurisdiction. His lack of familiarity with the term “real estate owned” or “REO,”an industry-standard term that anyone working with foreclosures would immediately recognize, was unsettling, particularly given the centrality of the concept to one of HUD’s most dire current failures. Too many Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-backed homes are being forced into unnecessary foreclosure proceedings, and when the foreclosure sales fail, the properties become REOs; they remain vacant for years and become eyesores.
Equally concerning was the fact that Carson falsely claimed in subsequent television interviews that the homes foreclosed by FHA, an agency fully within his purview, are sold very quickly. The fact of the matter is that the typical time for these houses to return to market is over 500 days. And that means fewer houses on the market and more blight in our communities.
But this wasn’t the first time Secretary Carson ignored the facts about working families’ lived experiences.
When my colleague Rep. Nydia Velazquez in the same hearing asked Carson how many low-to-moderate income families were waiting to get help with housing payments from his department, he estimated a few hundred thousand. The actual figure is closer to 4.4 million, according to the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation (PAHRC). This was not just a factual error; it underscores the secretary’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the problems faced by the department he is supposed to oversee.
In his first year in office, he said in a radio interview that “poverty to a large extent is… a state of mind.” The evidence shows, however, that nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t have the funds to cover a $400 emergency. Those families are one injury or car breakdown away from a vicious cycle of financial instability.
Meanwhile, the number of HUD properties cited for unsafe living conditions increased under Carson’s leadership of the department. For example, 830 properties that receive funding from HUD failedan inspection in 2017 or early 2018. Prior to Carson’s takeover of the department, 44 percent of those same properties performed extremely well; they had inspection scores of 80/100 or better (with a score of 60 being the minimum required for passage).
Indeed, as issues with low-income housing and foreclosures persist at HUD, one would expect that Carson would take decisive action to tackle these problems head on. Instead, he’s proposed slashing HUD’s budget and pushed the department toward privatization, all while reportedly spending lavishly on office makeovers and ignoring ethics guidance from federal lawyers.
At times, one questions whether Carson is merely unaware of what is happening at his own agency, or actively working to undermine HUD’s role to help working families.
Last year, he tried to increase rent on millions of Americansreceiving federal housing assistance. If implemented, the plan would have targeted some of this country’s most vulnerable families, when they are already struggling to make ends meet.
Under his watch, HUD also delayed enforcement of a fair housing rule that would analyze housing segregation and make plans to reverse it. It should come as no surprise, then, that the department later also removed anti-discrimination language from its mission statement.
At multiple times during his hearing with the House Financial Services Committee, as my colleagues and I pushed Secretary Carson to talk to us about these issues, he refused to take responsibility for problems at HUD. Instead, he pinned the blame on Congress.
He was the one, however, who failed to implement his own signature initiative to provide job training, healthcare and education to low-income families.
As a consumer advocate and commercial law professor, I spent over a decade working with families going through foreclosure. I’ve had to look parents and children in their eyes and tell them that the bank was going to take their house away.
I remain ready to work with anyone who is serious about reforming our housing system to keep American families in their homes. And I am about to send Carson a letter detailing ongoing issues at FHA and possible solutions. But in his over two years as HUD secretary, Carson has failed to show a genuine commitment to assisting families on the brink. The American people deserve better.
Secretary Carson can start by fixing the well-documented problems at FHA. And if he can’t — or won’t — do this, he needs to step aside to make room for someone who can.