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Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and failed Republican nominee, has now been cleared to serve as Secretary of Housing for the next four years. For many, his appointment remains perplexing. Carson has no political experience and no obvious knowledge of housing and development issues. At least some concerns about Carson’s fitness for the job were put to rest during his Senate hearing on January 12. Beyond a contentious exchange with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Carson dodged any major attacks. Still, there is no question that under Carson’s direction, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will roll out a series of changes over the coming four years. While some changes will impact housing and development in New York City, Carson’s influence is expected to be minor.

The Role of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) governs a wide range of housing and development issues from homelessness to housing discrimination to lending rules. As stated on its website, “HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination, and transform the way HUD does business.” Simply put, the reach of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is broad, and with a budget of approximately $47 billion, it also has the potential to significantly impact the ability of American families to rent and purchase affordable homes.
First, the good news: President Trump is the most pro-development president in U.S. history. Whatever Carson’s positions on housing and development may be, it seems certain that President Trump’s own pro-development position will profoundly shape the HUD mandate. As a result, many developers are already eagerly anticipating substantial tax cuts and other incentives designed to scale up development citywide and nationwide. There is also speculation that the new administration will relax at least some of the regulations on personal borrowing implemented during the 2009 recession—a move that is expected to in turn drive real estate sales as well. Despite these welcome boosts to development and real estate, there are still lingering concerns about Carson’s ability to effectively manage HUD.

Carson, HUD and Trump Family Investments

As it is now widely known, President Trump chose to divest in his businesses by simply handing over his extensive holdings to his children. In most cases, elected officials divest by placing their investments in the hands of a neutral third party, since it is assumed that as long as family members continue to control one’s business interest, conflicts of interest are bound to arise. It is on this account that Carson’s job may prove most controversial.
When pointedly asked by Senator Warren if he could assure Americans that “not a single taxpayer dollar…will financially benefit the President-elect or his family,” Carson simply asserted that he would do what is in the interest of all Americans. “I can assure you,” explained Carson, “that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values. And therefore I will absolutely not play favorites for anyone.” When pressed further, he did suggest that if someone related to Trump might made a mere $10 from a housing and development initiative that held the potential to benefit millions of Americans, he would certainly overlook any potential gain.
While Carson’s hearing may not have assured everyone that he is committed to regulating Trump family businesses, his hearing did provide reasonable assurance that he is committed to helping struggling Americans find affordable housing. Indeed, even if he was short on details about whether or not existing HUD programs will be maintained in their current form, there was no sign that Carson would push to immediately abandon this central part of HUD’s mission. In New York, where affordable housing relies heavily on HUD funds, this is good news.

Carson’s Influence on Fair Housing

Another contentious issue raised during Carson’s Senate hearing arose in response to a question posed by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. The question asked, “Do you believe that HUD has a duty to take actions that promote equal access to housing opportunities for LGBTQ people?” Carson confirmed that he would uphold “all the laws of the land” but added, “no one gets extra rights.” While not immediately alarming, Carson’s comments did raise at least some concerns.
New York City has had anti-discrimination laws prohibiting landlords from denying housing to people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity for well over a decade. More recently, similar regulations have been adopted at the state level. Carson’s comments during the hearing were generally interpreted as a confirmation that there will be no further movement on attempts to have explicit language introduced to protect LGBTQ people from housing discrimination at the federal level. Notably, under the current HUD Fair Housing Act, housing discrimination is prohibited on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status. This raises a critical question: Could Carson use his position at HUD to undermine the city’s and state’s robust housing protections for the LGBTQ community?
A representative from the New York Legal Assistance Group interviewed for this article explained that HUD regulates at more of a “floor than a ceiling level,” which means that “cities and states can generally provide more protections and that they are not bound to the same laws that dictate minimum standards at the federal level.” Thus, despite Carson’s questionable track record on LGBTQ issues, there is no immediate concern that his presence at HUD will impact the city or state’s approach to providing fair access to housing.
More generally, the LGBTQ fair housing example underscores the limits of Carson’s and HUD’s reach over housing and development issues in general. The bottom line is that while developers and even individual borrowers may have much to look forward to over the coming four years, and it is possible that some affordable housing programs will see their funding restructured, it seems highly unlikely that Carson and HUD will be able to undo fundamental programs, including the city’s fair and affordable housing mandates. The worse case scenario is that while federal taxes may plummet, city and state taxes may increase as both government bodies scramble to make up for potential lost federal funds.
Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.