David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson appears poised to visit the New York City Public Housing Authority (NYCHA), the nation’s largest public housing agency, one year after taking the helm of HUD and promising big changes but delivering miniscule results.

Despite its being the nation’s first and largest public housing program, Dr. Carson has waited more than a year to pay a visit. Long-regarded as the model for other cities to follow, NYCHA has fallen on hard times primarily because it has been starved of federal funding for decades. Carson’s visit, announced at a June 18 town hall meeting in Brownsville Brooklyn by HUD Regional Administrator Lynne Patton, promises to be a doozy.

So far, the HUD secretary has embraced policies that not only denigrates tenants but also makes it harder for the poor to stay in public housing. Lest we forget, the retired neurosurgeon admitted when he was first offered the job that he had no housing experience. Now it’s clear he’s simply cover for President Trump’s dismantling of HUD and the obliteration of housing protections for the poor.

As the lone African American cabinet-level official in the Trump Administration, Carson has spent months on a national listening tour at a time when HUD’s own budget is on the chopping block. His visits have followed a pattern: he offers no clear answers as to how the programs being touted on these tours will continue in the face of steep budget cuts.

Why has it taken this long for Carson to visit NYCHA? Perhaps it had something to do with the ongoing federal investigations of lead paint at NYCHA public housing facilities. But now that the city has agreed to a consent decree and federal monitor, Carson apparently thinks it’s a good time to visit.

At NYCHA, Carson will find an agency that provides housing for a half million people – one out of every 14 New Yorkers. Its 176,000 units constitute one out of every 12 rental units in the city. Despite the local government and HUD’s important role in providing affordable housing, a $20 billion backlog in major capital improvements has some residents living in deplorable conditions that are the result of across-the-board government disinvestment and indifference to the housing needs of the poor.

Here’s what Dr. Carson should know: NYCHA needs major capital investment as well as operational reforms. The appointment of a federal monitor actually offers a timely opportunity not only to set priorities for major infrastructural improvements, but also to make way for major improvements in the way the NYCHA manages its operations.

In an ideal world for NYCHA and city subsidized housing residents, Carson would be an advocate for federal funding to sustain public housing: a critical cog in addressing the NYC housing affordability crisis. He’d live up to the promise he made when he first came to HUD: a promise to include public housing along with roads and bridges in a national infrastructure development program.

What public housing residents don’t need from Carson is more empty platitudes. In his hometown of Detroit, for instance, Carson touted by name on Twitter a small business grant program that helped remake a popular restaurant. Ironically, the funding came from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program which the Trump Administration wants to eliminate completely. In Jacksonville, Florida Carson opined about the virtues of the Section 8 program which the Trump administration wants to cut by $600 million.

After a stop in Dallas, Carson announced a change in HUD’s mission statement, removing promises of inclusive and discrimination-free communities. Coincidently, Dallas was the focus of the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling that housing policies which segregate minorities in poor neighborhoods, even if they do so unintentionally, violate the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Carson decried the Fair Housing laws and regulations as “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality.”

More recently, Carson was the driving force behind a callous Trump proposal to raise rents on residents of subsidized housing by as much as 44 percent. Even a Republican-controlled Congress has repudiated the Trump proposal. It’s doubtful, but we hope Carson has a change of heart.

The truth is Dr. Carson is the President’s stalking horse. He’s at HUD for one reason: to put a black face on the Trump Administration’s devious and shameless gutting of the federal agency and plans to privatize public housing for his developer friends.

I hope I am proven wrong about this. And I hope Dr. Carson will actually listen to the concerns of tenants when he visits NYCHA and make time to speak with local housing experts. Maybe he will be disabused of some of the strange, groundless notions he has about undermining HUD as the means to fix public housing.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.