If social housing provision in the United States is already highly marginalised and directed towards the very poor, it’s due to get worse under the next president as budgets are hacked back. And the appointment of the new secretary for housing could be the worst news of all.
Social housing in the US caters for barely one per cent of households, and is disproportionately occupied by the very poor, with one-third earning less than $10,000 per year. Nearly half of tenants are black, even though black people make up only 19 per cent of the population overall. But the Housing and Urban Development department, HUD, has a budget of $47 billion overall, because its housing voucher programme assists millions more poor households in the private rented sector. With the focus of its spending so strongly on the poorest and on black communities, it’s easy to see it as a potential target for Trump’s budget cuts.
Traditionally HUD has been a low-key cabinet post awarded to a competent administrator (the incumbent is Julian Castro, a Clinton supporter and former city mayor). Even previous Republican presidents usually put it in safe hands. But Trump has appointed the uniquely unqualified Ben Carson to be the new secretary, a man whom even his friends describe as having ‘no government experience’ or ability to run a federal agency. However, Carson does have one characteristic that may have suggested to Trump that he was right for the post: he’s black, and originally from a poor background. Perhaps because of this he was initially thought to be the only pick for the HUD position who had actually lived in a public housing scheme (it later turned out he hadn’t).
What he does have, apart from his ‘gifted hands’ as a highly competent brain surgeon, is a strong commitment to small government that means he’s hardly likely to fight for the bigger budget that HUD badly needs. At present, almost all new rented housing is created for middle-income earners and above. Despite being a person of colour, Carson’s on record as opposing Obama’s attempts to get HUD to put more social housing in wealthier neighbourhoods and to challenge discriminatory practices that the agency has tolerated. Obama, according to Carson, is guilty not just of social engineering but of failed socialism. In the UK we would call it trying to create mixed communities. In the US the principles are enshrined in the Fair Housing Act, and it would be an extraordinary irony if it were a black housing secretary that had to be taken to court for failing to observe this particular law, because of his belief that poor people must continue to live in poor areas.
Indeed, Carson’s priorities, if he follows them when he takes up the HUD post later this month, could hardly be more misplaced. Federal housing policy has in key respects been a disaster for the poor and for minorities in particular. The failed, state-backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae was guilty of leaving many poor households destitute as a result of the crisis in and collapse of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage market in which it had had a major role. Empty homes that have been foreclosed (repossessed) are often mismanaged (see photo), especially those located in poor areas, making it more likely that the former owners are still in debt and unable to obtain new credit. Homelessness has surged: more than half a million people are living on the streets, in their cars or in official shelters. Several cities, such as San Francisco and St Louis, seem to have decided to launch a war on the homeless rather than on homelessness. At the same time, social housing is far too small a sector to cater for the millions in need who are, of course, now much less likely to ever become home owners. New housing policies, like those which Bill de Blasio is pushing in New York, are needed across the United States.
The incoming housing secretary, however, believes that ‘poverty is really more of a choice than anything else’. Oh, and he doesn’t believe in evolution either, or that abortion should be permitted in any circumstances, and he thinks that gun control in pre-war Germany may have fostered the rise of Hitler and produced the holocaust. He was also the would-be presidential candidate with an unusual theory about the origin of the pyramids, leading one person to tweet that ‘it’s amazing how one can be a neurosurgeon and a dimwit at the same time’. Welcome to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson.