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Dr. Ben Carson Offers Bold Vision And Few Specifics At HUD Secretary Confirmation Hearing

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Thursday morning, the eyes of the housing industry were fixed on the Capitol as the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held Dr. Ben Carson’s confirmation hearing for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

Dr. Ben Carson
HUD Secretary Ben Carson

During the nearly three-hour hearing, Carson offered a broad vision of what HUD could do — saying HUD will be "incredibly different" under his supervision — but few specifics on how it could be done. 

Surrounded by his family members, Carson's opening remarks focused on his experience with housing insecurity growing up in poverty. He urged a "holistic approach" to HUD, saying it "can be so much more than just putting roofs over heads of the poor." Anticipating questions about his lack of housing experience, Carson said medicine and housing often intersect, claiming, "good health has a lot to do with a good environment." The remarks were a deviation from the policy-centric opening statement he submitted to the committee before the hearing. 

Dr. Ben Carson Offers Bold Vision And Few Specifics At HUD Secretary Confirmation Hearing

Carson has previously been dismissive of HUD's role in promoting affordable housing, but said he has revised many of his ideas. When pressed by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey about HUD's rental assistance program,  Carson called the program "essential." Still, he believes HUD has gone from housing to warehousing an "unacceptable" number of people. He intends to incentivize homeownership, saying he believes every American deserves to own a home. 

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania questioned Carson about the Federal Housing Authority's guarantees and the subsequent premium drop, a major source of criticism for the department. Carson replied that if confirmed, he would work with the FHA and other experts to really examine the policy and how it affects private alternatives.

Ben Carson

The most contentious moment came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who, prior to the hearing, submitted 35 questions to Carson. Warren pointed to President-elect Donald Trump's significant business interest in the housing industry, and asked Carson if he can guarantee not a single tax dollar will benefit the president-elect or his family. Carson struggled with the question when pressed, uttering a memorable gaffe, "It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American." Things were smoothed over between Warren and Carson when they agreed to commit HUD resources to tackling lead in federal housing, which affects 62,000 units.

To questions about LGBTQ housing rights by Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Carson emphasized he would fairly enforce the laws, adding that "no one gets extra rights." He was evasive about supporting increased minimum wage and overtime rules, saying creating the right environment can lead to a higher wage.

US Capitol Building

In the last moment of policy questioning, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana asked Carson about the 30-year note, a key factor in promoting housing, but a major source of concern. Carson said he thinks it's possible to have 30-year notes without government insurance. Carson also fielded questions about Native American and veteran housing, which he promised to look at, stating "people who risk life and limb for us should never want for basic things."

Throughout the hearing, Carson promised to look at various issues, saying he was happy to talk more about the concerns of the committee members. When pressed for specifics, the only plan he offered up was a proposed "listening tour" around the country where he would hear the stories of those involved with HUD to understand how to move forward.

Having ditched his original policy-heavy opening remarks and offering more of an open ear than answers, critics of Carson's experience are unlikely to be satisfied. Still, Carson was more acute than he often appeared on the campaign trail, and he said the hearing "was actually kind of fun."