Ben Carson Could Change The Culture Of Subsidized Housing

Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich

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Dr. Ben Carson has an opportunity to transform the $47 billion-a-year Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a costly, unaccountable bureaucratic monstrosity that has strayed from its original mission almost from its first day in operation, according to housing policy experts.

President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Carson — a world-famous brain surgeon and former Republican presidential candidate — to manage HUD and use federal housing policy in rebuilding America’s crumbling inner city economic, social and political structures.

Carson should set measurable goals with accountability, assume government can’t solve everything and motivate people to improve their own lives, Vann Ellison, president and CEO of St. Matthews House in Naples, Fla., told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Ellison has studied public housing policy for decades as an academic and on the ground.

“I’d rather have a physician try to fix this problem than have another public-policy bureaucrat appointed to just maintain the status quo,” Ellison told TheDCNF. He is also an ordained Assembly of God minister.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and a Democratic Congress created HUD in 1965 as a part of his Great Society program. Johnson wanted HUD to upgrade “slums,” construct better housing for low-income neighborhoods and limit urban sprawl, said Howard Husock, vice president for research and publications at the New York-based Manhattan Institute.

But HUD has strayed from that mission, particularly under current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, adding focuses like rural housing, Native American communities and global warming to its mission, Ellison said. Meanwhile, the poverty level in the U.S. reached 13.5 percent in 2015, the most recently available figure — compared to 1970’s 12.6 percent.

Ellison said focusing on “political gobbledygook” like global warming “really won’t help any child to advance to a brighter future. It won’t save one citizen in one of our inner cities.”

Husock contends HUD’s original goal was mistaken from its founding. “Even if it is effective, it’s not doing good things. We don’t have a housing crisis. We have a family crisis, which I’m sure Ben Carson will understand and be all over,” Husock said.

Both Ellison and Husock believe HUD relies on the assumption that government can fix everything. President Barack Obama in 2010 pledged to end homelessness by 2017 — but HUD acknowledged in a recent report that he failed to keep that promise.

“You know, Jesus said — and this is the only part where I’ll sound too much like a preacher — Jesus said the poor you will have with you always,” Ellison said. “Obama said he’s gonna’ end homelessness. I would put my money on Jesus’ words, not Obama’s there.”

HUD needs to reverse its “housing first” or “rapid re-housing” policy, which prioritizes offering housing without addressing the underlying issues of why people apply for housing, Ellison said.

Far-reaching government programs that throw funding at housing alone won’t solve communities’ problems — only people getting involved in the broken lives in their community will, Ellison said.

“Our mission has always been, let’s address the underlying problem,” Ellison said of St. Matthews House, which relies on zero government dollars for its $14 million budget.

Working with that worldview, Carson needs a policy approach that holds both the agency and recipients accountable, Ellison and Husock said.

“I think the most important thing is to set new and better goals that are measurable,” Husock said.

HUD’s books are so disastrous, its inspector general has been unable to issue an opinion on its financial statements in three years.

But HUD also needs to require accountability that incentivizes HUD beneficiaries to improve their own lives, Husock said.

The first two policies Carson should push to transform subsidized housing are imposing time limits and giving flat-rate rents to beneficiaries, instead of requiring residents to pay 30 percent of their incomes, which disincentivizes them from earning more, Husock said.

“If you did just those two things you would change the culture of subsidized housing,” Husock said.

The federal government needs to align housing policy with social policy for things like food stamps, which have a time limit, Husock said.

The average Section 8 voucher recipient in New York City has lived in subsidized housing for 22 years, Husock said.

“That means there’s a lot of people … with empty bedrooms while people are on waiting lists,” Husock said. “That’s no good.”

Only a handful of the country’s more than 3,000 local housing authorities have the authority to impose time limits through congressionally approved Moving to Work programs. That authority should expand to all housing authorities, Husock said.  (RELATED: Obscure Delaware Program Is A Public Housing Miracle)

Stricter requirements may seem unsympathetic, but HUD’s current approach is “doing just the opposite” of what it’s supposed to do, Husock said.

“My view on this is that the kind of criticisms and proposals I’m enunciating are motivated by the desire to improve the lives of low-income Americans,” Husock said. “That’s my whole motivation.”

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