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HUD won one court battle, lost another under Ben Carson in 2018

Lawsuits and spending scandals highlight HUD’s year under an unconventional secretary

HUD headquarters Getty Images

Secretary Ben Carson’s year at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) started off with a bang but zigged and zagged into a slow winter. Here’s a recap.

In 2018, Carson continued his re-evaluation of Obama-era policy, most notably attempting to undo two of the most consequential regulations of that administration.

The first was the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR), which was designed to give Section 8 housing voucher recipients more choice in where to live, in addition to preventing landlords in low-income areas from price gouging.

For context, Section 8 housing recipients pay 30 percent of their income, and the voucher pays the difference between that and their rent; it’s capped at a “fair market rent” that HUD calculates by averaging a metro area’s rents—including the outskirts, which drives down the average and thus puts a lower cap on what the voucher can cover.

The SAFMR rule limits the the average to just a zip code, which makes the rent rate more applicable to the immediate surrounding area. HUD under Carson sought to delay the rule, but was overruled in January after a court challenge from a collection of civil rights groups. The rule is now in effect.

The second was the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which sought to bring teeth to a provision in the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that went largely ignored for decades. The rule would have tied Community Development Block grant money—which many municipalities depend on—to a formal process for reviewing policies that might be contributing to segregation.

Also early in the year, Carson and HUD delayed the AFFH rule. Advocates of the rule sued, confident the delay would be overturned since their grounds were similar to those for the SAFMR rule. A judge disagreed, but plaintiffs in the case have filed a motion for the case to be reconsidered.

Beyond the courts, Carson made clear his stance on the government’s role in combating segregation through HUD policy: In March, the former 2016 presidential candidate removed anti-discrimination language from HUD’s mission statement.

And in February, on the heals of a number of spending scandals within the Trump administration, word leaked that HUD spent $31,561 redecorating Carson’s office. In testimony before a House subcommittee, Carson said of the redecoration, “I left it to my wife.”

The second half of 2018 was relatively quiet for HUD and Carson, but the former brain surgeon took a somewhat unexpected position on so-called NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) zoning policies, first publicly embracing YIMBY-ism (“yes in my backyard”) in September (an approach, it should be noted, embraced by both the liberal- and Libertarian-leaning).

Many affordable housing advocates say NIMBYism contributes to rising housing costs, so Carson’s support of YIMBY-ism is a both a zig and a zag. It follows moves to both increase congressional funding for affordable housing programs and also increase rent for folks who receive federal housing subsidies—an oddly appropriate way to end another unconventional year at the department.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that plaintiffs in the AFFH rule have filed a motion for the judge to reconsider the case.