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.

FHA Whitewash

While preparing for my talk tomorrow on The FHA and Housing Affordability, I was reviewing some of the recent literature on the FHA. I came across a recent HUD working paper with some interesting data about recent FHA crises but also with a disturbing spin on the FHA’s history. The FHA Single-Family Insurance Program: Performing a Needed Role in the Housing Finance Market states that in its early years “race was not explicitly regarded as a factor in FHA’s mortgage insurance operations.” (9) This is flat out wrong and has been known to be flat out wrong at least since Kenneth Jackson published Crabgrass Frontier in 1987. Jackson clearly demonstrated that race was “explicitly regarded as a factor in FHA’s mortgage insurance operations.”

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Jackson writes that the FHA’s Underwriting Manual from those early years stated that “[i]f a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall be continued to be occupied by the same social and racial classes” and recommended that owners employ restrictive covenants to exclude African Americans (and some other groups). (208) The working paper has other extraordinary statements that minimize the FHA’s central role in promoting segregation during the mid-20th Century. For instance, it states that the FHA’s “early policy may have inadvertently promoted redlining practices.” (18) There was nothing “inadvertent” about it.

I typically find that federal government reports make great efforts to be factually accurate, so this paper is a great exception.  One might think that the authors deserve some leeway in their interpretation, but Jackson’s history has only been confirmed by later research, such as last year’s Do Presidents Control Bureaucracy? The Federal Housing Administration During the Truman-Eisenhower Era which was published in Political Science Quarterly. It makes much the same point as Crabgrass Frontier. I would be curious to hear the authors’ response to my assessment, but I really can’t see how they can deny it.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana)