Carson’s Call of Duty

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Hill published my most recent column, Ben Carson’s Call of Duty as America’s Housing Chief:

Ben Carson, the nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has made almost no public pronouncements about housing policy. The one exception is a Washington Times opinion piece from 2015 in which he addresses an Obama administration rule on fair housing.

While Carson appears to agree with the Obama administration’s diagnosis of the problem of segregation, he attacks its solution. If he refuses to vigorously enforce the rule at HUD, it is still incumbent on him to address the underlying problem it was meant to address.

Carson acknowledges the history of structural racism in American housing markets. He notes that segregation was caused in part by the federal government’s reliance on “redlining,” which refers to the Federal Housing Administration’s mid-20th century practice of drawing a red line around minority communities on underwriting maps and then refusing to insure mortgages within those borders.

He also acknowledges that racially restrictive covenants played a significant role in maintaining segregation. Racially restrictive covenants were legally enforceable agreements among property owners to keep homes from being sold to members of various minority groups. African Americans were the group most often targeted by them.

These covenants were very common in the mid-20th century, until the Supreme Court ruled that they were not legally enforceable. Shockingly, the Federal Housing Administration continued to encourage their use, even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Carson also acknowledged that “the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing” but that “significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist.”

All in all, Carson’s take on the history of American housing policy is consistent with the consensus view across the left and the right: the federal government promoted segregationist housing policies for a large part of the 20th century.

Where he veers sharply from the Obama administration is in crafting a solution. The Obama administration promulgated a rule pursuant to the Fair Housing Act that would require localities to affirmatively promote fair housing if they chose to take funds from HUD.

While Carson states that the Obama rule is based on a “tortured reading of Fair Housing law,” the statutory authority for it is pretty clear. The Fair Housing Act states that HUD is to administer housing programs “in a manner affirmatively to further the policies” of the law.

Carson has characterized the Obama administration rule as a “socialist experiment.” I think his characterization is just plain wrong, particularly because the federal government often ties the provision of federal funds to various policy goals.

Think, for instance, of how federal highway dollars were tied to lowering state speed limits to 55 miles an hour. Such linkages are hardly socialist experiments. They merely demonstrate the power of the purse, a long-time tool of the federal government. Even if Carson cannot be convinced of this, the debate over how to address this legacy of discrimination does not end there.

After all, Carson’s opinion identified a serious problem: segregation resulting from longstanding policies of the federal government. He then stated that he does not agree with the Obama administration’s approach to solving the problem. He concluded by stating, “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens.”  But he failed to identify a single policy to address the problems caused by those longstanding and discriminatory federal policies.

If confirmed, Carson must outline how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can address the legacy of structural racism in American housing markets. The text of the Fair Housing Act makes it clear that HUD must administer its housing programs in a manner that would affirmatively further the policies of the law.

The problem Carson faces is clear. The duty imposed upon him by the law is clear.  What remains unclear is how he will fulfill that duty. He has both a legal and moral obligation to set forth his vision, if he is bent on rejecting that of President Obama.

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office released “Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) Report,” showing the Treasury’s participation for TARP housing programs.
  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report on SNAP Benefits, or what used to be known as food stamps, finding that between 500,000 and one million people will no longer received these benefits in 2016.
  • A report from Joseph A. Smith found that JPMorgan Chase has fulfilled its obligations under the required $4 billion 2013 Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Settlement.

Location, Location, Location of NYC Affordable Housing

NYU’s Furman Center has released a white paper, Housing, Neighborhoods, and Opportunity: The Location of New York City’s Subsidized Affordable Housing. The report opens,

Rent burdens for low- and moderate-income renters continue to grow in New York City, inviting calls for more affordable housing. While the primary goal in developing affordable housing should arguably be to provide safe housing at a reasonable cost so that households have more residual income available for food, medicine, transportation, and other essential goods, housing programs also take people to particular neighborhoods. New York City neighborhoods provide widely varying access to services and opportunity. Thus, city policymakers need to pay attention not only to the number or quality of subsidized, affordable units produced, but also to the characteristics of the neighborhoods where those units are built. (1)

In order to provide some data about that, the paper examines where 235,000 units of subsidized rental housing are in New York City. Unsurprisingly, many of the units are in neighborhoods like Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn where land costs were historically low.The paper studies important characteristics of neighborhoods where the subsidized housing stock is located: isolation from the rest of the City; student performance; public amenities like parks; public safety; poverty; and housing cost. It also looks at how these characteristics have changed in the 2000s.

One key finding from the report that will be of interest to those who think about how New York City is changing over time: tens of thousands of properties have opted out of affordability restrictions, particularly in more expensive neighborhoods like Manhattan below 96th Street, and it looks like tens of thousands more will opt out over the next decade.

As the Mayor’s team develops its affordable housing strategy of building and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing, this report presents some sobering data on the affordable housing challenges that the City faces. My takeaway is that the City should be doing more to encourage housing construction more generally to increase the overall supply, in addition to subsidizing affordable housing directly. Subsidies will never create enough units on their own to house all of the people who call and want to call NYC “home.”