Dr. Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials

photo by Gage Skidmore

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s Slim Housing Credentials To Be Confirmation Focus (behind paywall). It opens,

Dr. Ben Carson will face a barrage of questions Thursday on topics ranging from his views on anti-discrimination enforcement to the basics of running a government agency with a multibillion-dollar budget at his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson, a famed neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, was President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise choice for HUD secretary, given the nominee’s lack of experience or statements on housing issues. That lack of a track record means that senators and housing policy advocates will have no shortage of areas to probe when Carson appears before the Senate Banking Committee.

“I want to know whether he has any firm ideas at all about housing and urban policy. Is he a quick study?” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Trump tapped Carson in early December to lead HUD, saying that his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The nomination came as a bit of a surprise given that Carson, who has decades of experience in medicine, has none in housing policy. It also came soon after a spokesman for Carson said that he had no interest in a Cabinet position because of a lack of qualifications.

Now lawmakers, particularly Democrats, will likely spend much of Thursday’s confirmation hearing attempting to suss out just what the HUD nominee thinks about the management of the Federal Housing Administration, which provides insurance on mortgages to low-income and first-time home buyers; the management and funding for public housing in the U.S.; and even the basics of how he will manage an agency that had an approximately $49 billion budget and employs some 8,300 people.

“You will have to overcome your lack of experience managing an organization this large to ensure that you do not waste taxpayer dollars and reduce assistance for families who desperately need it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a letter to Carson earlier in the week.

To that end, Carson could help allay fears about management and experience by revealing who will be working under him, said Rick Lazio, a partner at Jones Walker LLP and a former four-term Republican congressman from New York.

“The question is will the senior staff have a diverse experience that includes management and housing policy,” Lazio said.

One area where Carson is likely to face tough questioning from Democrats is anti-discrimination and fair housing.

Carson’s only major public pronouncement on housing policy was a 2015 denunciation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized after it languished for years.

The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

In a Washington Times, op-ed, Carson compared the rule to failed efforts to integrate schools through busing and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote.

Warren has already indicated that she wants more answers about Carson’s view of the rule and has asked whether Carson plans to pursue disparate impact claims against lenders and other housing market participants, as is the current policy at HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Warren’s concerns are echoed by current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who said in an interview with National Public Radio Monday that he feared Carson could pull back on the efforts the Obama administration has undertaken to enforce fair housing laws.

“I’d be lying if I said that I’m not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years,” Castro said in the interview.

HUD, as the agency overseeing the Federal Housing Administration, has also been involved in significant litigation against the likes of Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others, seeking to recover money the FHA lost on bad loans they sold to the agency.

“Will you commit to continuing to strictly enforce these underwriting standards in order to protect taxpayers from fraud?” Warren asked.

Carson has also drawn criticism from fair housing advocates for his views on the assistance the government provides to the poor, saying in his memoir that such programs can breed dependency when they do not have time limits.

To that end, housing policy experts will want to hear what Carson wants to do to ease the affordability crisis, boost multifamily building and improve conditions inside public housing units. HUD also plays a major role in disaster relief operations, another area where people will be curious about Carson’s thinking.

“I’d be looking at hints of his positive agenda, not just critiques of past programs,” Reiss said.

Reiss on FHFA Leadership of Housing Finance Reform

Law360.com quoted me in FHFA Set To Take The Lead In Housing Finance Reform (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

With hopes for a legislative fix for the U.S. housing finance market fading after six key Democrats reportedly refused to support a reform bill pending in the Senate Banking Committee, the Federal Housing Finance Agency will become the central player in reshaping the market and set the terms for any future changes.

The Banking Committee’s leaders — Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and ranking member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho — were unable to scare up the overwhelming support their housing finance reform bill needed in a last-gasp effort at getting a vote from the full Senate. That leaves the bill’s prospects of getting to President Barack Obama prior to the midterm elections at near zero and the FHFA, the conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac since 2008, as the biggest player in reshaping the U.S. housing market.

“It was always my operating assumption that it was going to be exceedingly difficult to get congressional consensus. Most of the action was going to take place by way of the actions at the FHFA,” said former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, now a partner at Jones Walker LLP.

The lack of legislation also throws a wild card into the equation, since FHFA head Mel Watt has essentially been silent about his intentions for the FHFA since he won Senate confirmation in December.

“Hopefully, Watt will have a positive vision of the future of the two companies,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

More than five years after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed under FHFA conservatorship after receiving a more-than-$187 billion taxpayer bailout in the fall of 2008, Congress has yet to act on creating a new system for home purchases and eliminating the two companies.

And then, beginning last spring, Congress kicked into gear.

First, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced a bill that Johnson and Crapo would use as the basis for their own legislation, leaving a limited role for government in guaranteeing the mortgage market.

Soon after, the House Financial Services Committee passed its own housing finance reform bill looking to eliminate the government’s role in the housing market entirely.

Johnson and Crapo released their bill, which would eliminate Fannie and Freddie within five years and replace it with a mortgage insurance agency modeled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in March. They scheduled a markup and vote on the bill for late April.

But the two senators delayed the vote at the last minute when it became clear that while they had the 12 votes needed to pass the bill out of the 22-member committee, they lacked the 16 to 18 votes needed to force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring it up for a vote.

Johnson and Crapo said they would continue negotiations with six undecided Democrats, but according to media reports, those negotiations foundered on worries about access to affordable housing in the bill.

Undeterred, Johnson vowed to bring the bill up for a vote next week.

“Those involved in the negotiations have indicated they are interested in continuing to work together to try and find common ground, so the Banking Committee will keep working after favorably reporting out the bill next week,” Sean Oblack, a Democratic spokesman for the committee, said in a Thursday statement.

Still, the failure to get overwhelming support for the Johnson-Crapo bill essentially dooms the prospects for housing finance legislation this year, Lazio said.

“The administration will probably wait until early next Congress to make a decision about whether they think reform is possible,” he said.

But reform efforts will not stop, since the FHFA has a large amount of discretion over the futures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“The regulator here is very powerful,” Reiss said.

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