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Why Ben Carson’s HUD isn’t equipped to address the country’s housing crisis

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The federal housing agency simply isn’t functioning

Over 84,000 New Yorkers applied for 181 affordable units in Brooklyn’s 461 Dean, designed by SHoP Architects.
Max Touhey

Ben Carson’s appointment to run the country’s Department of Housing and Urban Development was met with widespread befuddlement due to his lack of experience and puzzling policy statements.

But a new and devastating profile of the department under Carson’s leadership shows that there is real reason to worry about the federal agency that’s driving the future of our cities at a critical moment in its history.

Is Anybody Home at HUD?” is an investigation co-published by New York magazine and ProPublica in which writer Alec MacGillis shadowed Carson over the course of a few months. What MacGillis uncovered is an agency on the verge of collapse due to Carson’s apparent indifference about pretty much any of the pressing housing and affordability issues facing the country.

Among the more troubling passages are details about most major leadership roles still not being filled, employees being barred from attending conferences that are deemed too liberal, and the elimination of programs designed to address LGBT homelessness. But perhaps the most alarming parts of the story outline just how little is being accomplished at HUD right now, period:

More upsetting for many ambitious civil servants than the scattered nays coming from the tenth floor, though, was the lack of direction, period. Virtually all the top political jobs below Carson remained vacant. Carson himself was barely to be seen—he never made the walk-through of the building customary of past new secretaries. “It was just nothing,” said one career employee. “I’ve never been so bored in my life. No agenda, nothing to move forward or push back against. Just nothing.”

MacGillis tags along on Carson’s “listening tour”—where the itinerary was kept private and he was chased out of several events for attempting to report on what Carson said. Here, Carson displays a frightening cluelessness about how basic efforts funded by his department work:

The next morning, Carson held photo-ops at two homes that had undergone HUD-funded lead abatement. At the first home, he looked confused when workers explained that one of their first steps had been to make sure the home’s doors closed properly in the door jambs. “What does that have to do with lead?” asked the nation’s secretary of Housing. The workers explained that a key to reducing lead-paint flaking was to reduce the friction involved in opening and closing windows and doors. A moment later, a deputy housing commissioner noted that the work had been made possible in part by Community Development Block Grants, which Trump’s HUD budget eliminated.

In many ways, Carson’s decisions to roll back regulations and leave his department understaffed is aligned with other cabinet members, like Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s ongoing attempts to dismantle his agency from the inside out. He also seems to be taking his cues from President Donald Trump’s White House by giving his wife and son prominent (although not official) advisory roles, and appointing an event planner for the Trump family with no housing experience to a top HUD department in New York.

It could be argued that no other cabinet secretary’s actions more directly impact the physical well-being of millions of Americans. With the agency’s inaction compounded by $6 billion in budget cuts, Carson’s willful aloofness is going to put many people at financial and personal risk.

When former HUD secretary Shaun Donovan gives MacGillis a prediction for the future of the agency—and for housing in the U.S.—his assessment is bleak: “You’re going to be throwing people out of their homes. You’re literally taking vouchers away from families, you’re literally shutting down public housing, because it can’t be maintained anymore.”

Read the entire story at New York magazine or ProPublica.