The Consequence of Picking ‘Qualified Candidates’ for HUD Secretary

December 2016

The nomination of Dr. Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate and neurosurgeon, as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been met by an outcry from those asserting that he is unqualified for the position. Dr. Carson’s detractors argue that his lack of experience in housing or community development are instant disqualifiers, which causes one to pause and ponder prior appointees to the position, the career experience those individuals possessed, and the result of their tenures on the present state of urban America.

Other arguments that have been proffered include his lack of government experience, having never managed anything close to the size of the $47 billion agency, and his apathy for the idea of the government being able to act to improve the lives of vulnerable citizens, an assertion attributed to his June 2015 comments where he stated, “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”.

Looking back at HUD secretaries over the last three administrations (Castro, Donovan, Preston, Jackson, Martinez, Cuomo, Cisneros), three had prior backgrounds in housing, two previously served as mayor of the city of San Antonio, then you had one lawyer and one banker. These prior HUD secretaries had varying degrees of success, however, the impact of each secretary draws no direct correlation to the experience they brought to the position. Furthermore, the combined efforts of these former secretaries have culminated in rendering America’s urban communities to the state they are currently in: gentrifying in growing cities, and deplorable in stagnant or contracting cities.

Whether Dr. Carson has the requisite experience to run HUD in the context of his own previous admission is up for fair debate, however, the larger issue we must focus on is the current state of urban and rural America, and the impact the efforts, or lack thereof, of prior secretaries has rendered on these communities. If we are to accept the premise that prior housing experience is a necessary qualifier for assuming the role, then following that logic should point to results that show how previous secretaries with the relative experience, left a legacy of transforming urban and rural communities all over the United States.

This clearly has not been the case, and in light of recent administrative rulings by HUD, and the Supreme Court ruling in TDHCA vs. ICP, urban communities specifically risk suffering deeper underinvestment going forward. Cities such as San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles, which enjoyed significant economic success over the last two decades have watched their inner-city communities undergo significant gentrification, displacing long-term residents. Emerging metropolitan areas are currently undergoing a similar trend, as seen in cities such as Houston, Austin, Washington-DC, and Denver. In each of these cases, communities that for a long-term were neglected and had no significant investment, welcomed revitalization of their areas, only to get swept away as older single-family homes were replaced by multi-story townhomes, and mom and pop shops, were replaced by coffee shops and organic restaurants.

The next HUD Secretary has to commit to assembling a team that will focus on revitalizing communities, rather than simply rehabilitation of existing units or delivery of new housing. Revitalization of these declining communities must prioritize housing, infrastructural investment, economic development, educational improvement, mass transportation, and physical and mental healthcare. The next secretary also must be judicious in application of the affirmatively furthering fair housing (AFFH) rule by prioritizing balancing the need to create housing options in so-called “high opportunity areas”, and the urgent need to invest in communities at risk of gentrification or greater decline into further deplorable conditions.

A Secretary with a fresh perspective might just be the shot in the arm that is needed by HUD, and Dr. Carson could have the potential to not only transform the agency, but to elevate its significance from the perspective of Congress, and in the minds of Americans.

Laolu Davies-Yemitan is a real estate broker and developer who specializes in affordable/workforce multifamily housing development, and urban-suburban revitalization. He editorializes on issues related to real estate and public policy. Twitter: Laolu Davies