Ben Carson Makes An Admission About Running HUD; How Do We Respond?

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The housing secretary's statements reveal clues about how to think about poverty.

Dr. Ben Carson is one of the most intelligent living people in America right now. Formerly a highly successful brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, Carson used his noggin and skilled hands to help people, particularly children, with physical problems with their brains.

He’s an absolutely brilliant man, but how does that brilliance equip him for the job of running the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

It turns out that running a large bureaucracy that deals with poverty across the nation is an incredibly difficult job, even for a brain surgeon. Carson recently told The New York Times that running HUD is far more challenging than he thought it would be.

"There are more complexities here than in brain surgery," he said. "Doing this job is going to be a very intricate process."

The Times wrote up a lengthy article about Carson’s leadership at the agency after it was revealed that HUD had ordered a dining set for his office worth $31,000; the limit for such purchases is $5,000. When the purchase was revealed, Carson canceled the order.

Since the story broke, Carson has been the subject of intense criticism and scrutiny in the media. The critiques range from issues like his lack of government experience, the ethical concerns about involving his son in a "listening tour," and a perceived "secondary player" status in the Trump administration.

Those may be legitimate concerns, but perhaps the bigger issue at play here goes to the core idea behind the creation of HUD.

The agency was created under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. HUD's role is to oversee various federal housing programs in order to promote fair and equal housing while helping low-income tenants with housing vouchers to pay landlords.

Sounds laudable, but HUD also goes afield, running the Federal Housing Administration, which manages, markets, and sells single and multifamily real estate properties. It acts as mortgage insurer and party in foreclosures. It 2017, HUD had an annual budget of $41 billion.

So is Carson not smart enough for the job, or is it impossible for anyone to succeed at it? And if the latter is the case, what have prior housing secretaries been doing to make it work?

Maybe they're all faking it until they make it. But perhaps HUD can get back to its initial purpose, helping the homeless find shelter.

In the entire country, there are only about 600,000 homeless people on a single night and more than 3 million vacant units available for rent. Even if all homeless people were single, they could easily be accommodated in vacant existing units, and that would be much less expensive than building new units for them. The reason they are homeless is they don’t have the money to pay the rent for existing vacant units. A housing voucher would solve that problem. ...

The tenant-based housing voucher program is by far the most cost effective approach to delivering housing assistance. Its recipients capture almost all of the subsidy provided to landlords in terms of reduced rent. In contrast, occupants of tax credit projects capture only about a fourth of the subsidies provided to developers. If Congress wants to serve additional households, it should expand the much more cost-effective housing voucher program rather than the tax credit program.

Instead of lambasting Carson, perhaps some other smart people in Washington could view his comments on the intricacies of HUD as an impetus for real change in how to address poverty in America and how to focus on those who need it. That's a far cry from tweaking the market with a federal government hand in the construction and development of entire neighborhoods across the United States.

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