On Monday morning, Donald Trump announced that he was officially nominating neurosurgeon Ben Carson as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency, which has a budget of almost $50 million, oversees public housing programs for the poor, guarantees mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and has been working to desegregate cities across America under Barack Obama. It's a big job, as is any cabinet post, and it's hard to figure out why Trump is tapping Carson for it.
Carson was born in poverty and had a poverty-stricken childhood in Detroit*; he went on to become a neurosurgeon and an inspirational figure for many. He's obviously qualified to do a lot of things, but he doesn't have any governmental experience. His only job in politics was running as a sleepy and extremely conservative presidential candidate, and even then he was treated mostly as a sideshow. Carson alluded to his lack of experience when he said just a few weeks ago that he'd turn down a post in the Trump administration. "Having me as a federal bureaucrat would be like a fish out of water, quite frankly," he told the Washington Post.
It's also odd that Trump selected Carson for the HUD spot in particular, since the doctor has shown little interest in the topic of housing during the primaries or since, with one notable exception of taking Trump to his boyhood home in Detroit this past September.
But Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, who focuses on issues of race and housing, told me that the real problem is not Carson's empty résumé but his ignorance of history.
"A lot of the headlines I've seen have made a lot of his inexperience," he said. "I don't think that matters. What matters is principle, and the problem is that he doesn't have––apparently––the principles that are up to this task."
Last year, the Obama administration implemented a rule that the federal government could withhold funds from municipalities that don't come up with plans to desegregate by offering low-income housing in wealthier areas and marketing it toward minorities. In an op-ed for the conservative paper the Washington Times, Carson called the policy "social engineering," which Rothstein says shows he doesn't understand the basic history of his native city.
Detroit would look very different today, he said, if the city had originally distributed public housing for black people across the metropolitan area, or if it hadn't given federal subsidies to builders who didn't allow black people to rent suburban homes, or if the city hadn't exacerbated income inequality by building factories that only people in those whites-only suburbs could get to.
"Carson says he grew up in Detroit, but he might not realize that the reason Detroit is so segregated is not because of natural market forces, or because of African Americans having low incomes, or because of white prejudice," he told me. "What he fails to take account of is that the segregation of every metropolitan area in this country, including Detroit, is the result of social engineering on the part of the federal, state, and local governments that pursued plans throughout the 20th century to ensure that the African Americans and whites could not live near one another."
Republicans, unsurprisingly, were more optimistic about Carson's appointment.
Pam Patenaude, a former adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said that she hasn't seen such an inspiring figure get tapped for the post since Jack Kemp, a former football star who served as director under the first president Bush. Patenaude was the HUD assistant secretary who was reportedly under consideration for the department's top job, but though she was unable to articulate any of Carson's opinions on housing, she told me that he's "one of the brightest people on the face of the earth" as well as the perfect person to bring attention to issues like the rent-affordability crisis.
Carson has said some controversial things, mainly about the Holocaust, but it's hard to say how his views will manifest once he takes his post. Not only has Carson rarely talked about housing, it was barely an issue on the campaign trail.
"A lot of us who work in that industry bemoan the fact that housing wasn't brought up in the primaries at all," said Brian Montgomery, the former Federal Housing Administration commissioner under Barack Obama. He added that as the head of HUD Carson will have to quickly come up with ideas of how to deal with Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac, and about what kind of regulations should be on the mortgage industry.
Like Patenaude, he said that Carson was the most visible and inspiring person to take up the post since Kemp, and both expressed admiration for Carson's rag-to-riches story, claiming that in his case, life experience made up for lack of know-how.
"Put aside partisan politics for a second," he said. "You have to admire what the man's been able to do with his life."
Update 12/6: An earlier version of this piece repeated the widely reported claim that Ben Carson spent some time in public housing, but this claim turns out to be false.
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