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The nomination of Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has left many tenant advocates in a state of worry.
Critics of Carson, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate (he has already received a nod from the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs), say he has little experience with housing policy; according to The Hill, he has also previously expressed doubts about his own competence in heading a federal agency.
With Carson having no track record in affordable housing to speak of, it’s challenging to predict how he’ll steer HUD. But many housing experts are already voicing their objections to his potential leadership. Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams, for instance, wrote in Quartz that he finds Carson’s appointment “truly frightening” for the views he has expressed in the past about fair housing.
Williams was referring to one of the only indicators available of Carson’s views on housing, an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Times in 2015. In it, the presumptive future HUD leader objected to a rule implemented under the Obama administration requiring communities to build affordable housing in a variety of neighborhoods—not only low-income ones—to promote integration. Carson reportedly dismissed the initiative as “social engineering.”
Katie Goldstein, executive director of Tenants & Neighbors, is also concerned. “Having someone with so little experience as HUD Secretary is an insult to tenants,” she says. Goldstein acknowledges, however, that due to that lack of experience, “there’s very little we know.”
But given the fact that a substantial proportion of NYC’s housing budget comes from federal funds, advocates are bracing for the possible changes to come should Carson take the helm at HUD—specifically, a downsizing to the federal agency's funding and how those would reverberate locally.
How HUD funding cuts could impact NYC
Frank Lang, director of housing for St. Nick’s Alliance, which works with low and moderate-income tenants in NYC, says that HUD funding is funneled to a variety of city housing programs, so cuts could impact a wide swath of New Yorkers.
And Lang does anticipate some cuts to come, though not exclusively because of Carson. “We have a Congress that is predisposed to [those kinds of cuts] already," he explains. "Carson is not one that’s going to fight to protect that money, whereas in prior administrations, there was a belief that that kind of funding is essential to impacting the lives of low- and moderate-income residents.”
Remarks made by Carson himself in his congressional hearing has stoked fears. Paul Kealey, the chief operating officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, points out that Carson voiced his support for President Trump’s “penny plan,” which would enact a one percent cut annually to all non-defense discretionary spending.
One percent may not sound like much, but it would quickly add up to major reductions when inflation is taken into consideration. “That one percent over 10 years, because of inflation, would mean a real reduction of 30 percent by 2026,” Kealey explains.
Diminished funding from HUD would mean a crunch for a number of NYC’s housing initiatives. Some $150 million in HUD money, for example, goes toward supplementing the construction and preservation of affordable units in NYC. “All of that is at risk with this Congress,” Lang says. “That’s a dire concern for preserving properties and neighborhoods.”
Furthermore, according to WNYC, 75 percent of NYCHA’s funding comes from HUD, as do Section 8 subsidies for 200,000 New Yorkers. As this Gothamist article points out, NYCHA is already operating at a deficit, due in part to a 2013 cut to federal funding for public housing.
“The lack of operating subsidies meant that maintenance support went down,” Lang says, which has led to crumbling infrastructure in many public housing developments throughout the city.
Adds Goldstein: “These programs have been underfunded, and would need to have full funding to be able to provide the services that New Yorkers need."
Another housing initiative that stands to lose under Carson’s tenure is the Section 8 voucher program, through which the federal agency helps to supplement rental costs for low-income tenants. Section 8 vouchers also provide housing for the elderly and people with disabilities, Lang says, all of whom could be in danger of losing much-needed rental assistance.
St. Nick’s Alliance manages 1,400 units where rent payments are supplemented by Section 8 vouchers. “These projects are underwritten at a very narrow margin, and if tenants can’t pay rent, the building is put at risk," Lang says. "And if we don’t have the ability to help these people stay in their homes, it’s going to put more pressure on the homeless system.”
What could happen in housing on a national scale
If Trump’s “penny plan” becomes a reality, Kealey says that on a national scale, housing for many of the most vulnerable Americans could be threatened.
“Eighty-four percent of HUD's budget provides direct housing assistance to the lowest income households,” he says. “About half of all the households who receive assistance are seniors and people with disabilities.”
And others who benefit from this program are primarily the working poor; Kealey notes that only six percent of those who receive HUD housing assistance are unemployed.
Nationally, Kealey says, there is already a serious deficit in affordable units available to poor people: For 11.4 million extremely low-income Americans (those whose earnings fall below the federal poverty level or 30 percent of Area Median Income, aka AMI), there are only four million units of affordable and available rentals.
In New York, that amounts to 35 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income households today; 73 percent of those households devote more than half their income to rent.
“Even keeping funding flat from 2016 would mean 100,000 families having to come off assisted housing,” Kealey says. “Cuts would mean even fewer people get assistance. They spend so much on rent, there’s virtually nothing left over for food, medicine, and transportation. They end up homeless or constantly moving.”
Taking a "wait and see" approach to Carson's appointment
Considering that Carson is practically a blank slate when it comes to housing policy, Kealey says that many are adopting a "wait and see" approach. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has invited the future HUD Secretary to a Housing Policy Forum that will be attended by low-income tenants, housing advocates, and developers. "We'll engage with him and ask him lots of questions, so by then we'll have a better understanding," he says.
Kealey adds that much of what Carson said during his congressional hearing was promising. "He stated strong support for rental assistance, public housing, and rent abatement programs. He also talked about housing as a social determinant of health, which it is," he says. "With his health background, we're optimistic he would make that case."
And Goldstein acknowledges that despite his support for the penny plan, Carson did not explicitly say he intends to cut programs. Nonetheless, she points out, "[Carson] will be part of a Trump administration, and Donald Trump is someone who made money off being a racially discriminatory landlord." (In the 1970s, the US Department of Justice filed a "discrimination complaint" against the Trump Organization, Fortune Magazine reports, which already had Trump serving as its president at the time.)
"We need to keep talking, and protect the programs that people depend on for survival," Goldstein says.
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