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Housing secretary nominee Ben Carson: what you need to know

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Confirmation hearings start today

Public housing in New York City
Public housing in New York City

The former neurosurgeon, a one-time rival for the Republican presidential nomination—who became a favorite of Christian conservatives due to his inspiring tale of overcoming poverty—will start confirmation hearings today to become the secretary of Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Here’s what you need to know about Carson and his nomination to lead, under President-elect Trump, the $47 billion agency tasked with providing “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”

He has no direct experience in housing policy or urban planning

Dr. Carson’s resume lacks any professional experience in the field and no stints in government. Instead, his personal experience growing up in poverty in Detroit is being held up as key reason he’s qualified for the position.

His up-by-your-bootstraps tale of prevailing against poverty, with a mother who worked numerous jobs and used food stamps to support her family, offers an inspiring story, and according to prepared remarks he may present at his hearing today, gives him a unique ability to “understand housing insecurity.”

Housing experts oppose his nomination

Carson’s lack of related professional experience (in addition to previous statements against government interference) has unnerved housing experts.

“There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens,” he wrote in a Washington Times op-ed in 2015, “but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”

An open petition signed by hundreds of academics states that “we consider Dr. Carson completely unqualified to anticipate or promote appropriate solutions to the pressing housing and urban development needs facing our country.” Current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who has met with Carson, told NPR "I'd be lying if I said that I'm not concerned about the possibility of going backward, over the next four years.”

Dr. Ben Carson introduces Mike Pence at a November 1 campaign rally in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Ben Carson introduces Mike Pence at a November 1 campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

He plans to bring a “tough love” philosophy to the position

Due in large part to his life experiences, Dr. Carson espouses a conservative philosophy that government shouldn’t foster dependency or get engaged in “social engineering.”

“The government should build and maintain infrastructure that supports population growth, business and self-improvement endeavors,” he wrote in his book, A More Perfect Union. “It should not, however, meddle in the affairs of all the citizens or control every aspect of their lives, as is done in many communist and socialist countries.”

Carson has spoken out against the “affirmatively further fair housing” (AFFH) rule, which says that cities and communities receiving HUD funding need to create plans that address segregation and inequities. His own Carsons Scholars Program, which funds scholarships for students across the country, with a particular focus on inner-city students, is perhaps indicative of his approach: providing the tools for self-support.

He initially considered himself unqualified for any cabinet position

Critics also point to Dr. Carson’s initial reluctance to accept any cabinet position. Early in the formation of the Trump administration, Dr. Carson said he wasn’t interested. His longtime advisor, Armstrong Williams, told The Hill that "Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency."

He’s likely to be a key player in enacting Trump’s urban agenda

Carson’s biography makes him an ideal point person for President-elect Trump’s urban agenda, a “New Deal for Black America” which promises a series of job-creation measures for the “inner-city.” Yet the Trump administration’s blueprint doesn’t include measures that would directly alleviate the nation’s affordable housing crisis, leaving some questions over Carson’s policy directives and goals.

Lawmakers will likely be asked Carson to outline his approach to tackling poverty and affordability, and to clarify his philosophical views on government interference and how that squares with the mission of a government agency tasked with promoting housing access. This morning, it was announced that a coalition of housing leaders from a dozen states sent Dr. Carson a letter asking him to support a bipartisan bill that would expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit by 50 percent.

Carson’s hearing with the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs will begin at 10 a.m. EST and can be seen live here. And you can read his statement here.

Update 2:00 p.m. ET: The hearing has concluded, but we’ve embedded some tweets from our coverage below.

Update 1/24: Ben Carson was unanimously confirmed by the committee, even with vocal concerns from some Democratic senators. His appointment still needs to be approved by the full senate.