It was only last month that a spokesperson for Ben Carson said that the pediatric neurosurgeon turned very sleepy presidential candidate wasn’t interested in running the Department of Health and Human Services because he has “no experience running a federal agency.”
“The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency,” the friend and Carson ally said.
But President-elect Donald Trump announced on Monday that Carson would be his nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, because, man, life sure comes at you fast.
Fair housing advocates are concerned. Senate Republicans, for their part, are thrilled.
When asked about Carson’s lack of experience on issues of urban development and housing, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told Politico that “he has medical experience” and will “pick it up so fast their heads will be spinning.”
More from Politico:
Indeed, in interviews on Monday evening, GOP senators said Carson’s complete lack of government experience could actually be a selling point. They suggested that Carson is a quick study who will rapidly pick up how to run a Cabinet agency with more than 8,000 employees that oversees public housing and housing finance and is currently run by Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio.
Now why would so many Senate Republicans be enthusiastic about the selection of Carson, a man who reportedly does not see himself as qualified for government office, to lead the federal agency that enforces fair housing laws?
It might have something to do with longstanding indifference, or outright hostility, to the agency’s core functions.
This goes back a while. In 1980, Hatch, along with the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, fought to raise the standard of proof in housing discrimination claims to make it more difficult to challenge discriminatory housing practices.
It was just one of several attempts by Hatch over the years to include language in the Federal Fair Housing Act that required proof of “intent” to discriminate—like maybe writing in your landlord diary that you dream every day of denying black couples and trans women housing—rather than what’s called a disparate impact standard, which means showing that discrimination happened because the effect of an action perpetuated housing segregation. (Hatch’s amendments ultimately failed.)
More recently, there was a Republican split in the Senate over President Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, which made the agency’s work of preventing housing discrimination an equal priority to responding to bias claims.
Early compliance with the mandate showed promise. As the Times Picayune reported on Monday, New Orleans became the first city in the country to complete its own housing assessment earlier this fall. That analysis found “high segregation” throughout the city and, using that information, offered policy recommendations to expand access to affordable housing and reduce housing discrimination.
Under the new rule, every city in the country that receives federal housing funds would have to carry out a similar assessment. But Carson, joined by Republican senators like Mike Lee of Utah, opposes the rule. Back in 2015, after Obama first rolled out the new mandate, then-presidential candidate Carson called it a “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality.” And this may be the real qualification Senate Republicans are looking for in a candidate: what Carson lacks in experience he makes up in ideology.
This has fair housing advocates worried, not just about Carson’s lack of qualifications, but his clear opposition to anti-discrimination laws. Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told The New York Times that Carson’s comment on the new fair housing mandate “reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of obligations that have been around since 1968.”
But here we are all the same, with a critic of anti-discrimination laws—who last month told Fox News that growing up in Detroit was a kind of qualification to be HUD secretary—set to lead a housing agency for a president-elect who was himself sued by the federal government for anti-black housing discrimination.
So what does a fair housing agency look like without fair housing enforcement? We’re about to find out.