By the time neurosurgeon Ben Carson finally indicated he was willing to become the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development last Wednesday, hardly anyone noticed. Whatever outrage could be summoned about the potential appointment of someone so clearly unqualified and ill-prepared was quickly subsumed by President-Elect Trump's other, more visceral outrages — the appointments of more extreme crackpots and bigots, the truculent conspiracy-mongering, the brazenly untidy business dealings, and the coyly explosive tweets du jour.
In the grand scope of Trump’s antics, Carson’s appointment may seem relatively harmless — even petty. Carson was an inept and distracted surrogate, so of course Trump would reward him with a nondescript and distant post. Be honest: Can you name the current HUD Secretary? What makes you think either of them could?
But we do know a little about how Carson views HUD. He compared the Obama administration's campaign to move public housing out of minority and low-income neighborhoods to forced busing, calling it a "socialist experiment." In a Facebook post about heading the agency, he talked about "making our inner cities great for everyone,” though one suspects he really meant "great for everyone already there." He also mentioned "ensuring that both our physical infrastructure and our spiritual infrastructure is solid.” I'm not sure with which I trust him less.
As a candidate, Carson was unusually hostile to government aid. In one town hall, he said, “‘We the people' have the responsibility to take care of the indigent. It's not the government's job. You can read the Constitution all you want. It never says that [taking care of the poor] is the government’s job." He romanticized a past when even basic medical care was up to neighbors, and "If somebody got killed by a bear, everybody took care of their family." (I guess because bears aren't mentioned in the Constitution, either?)
It's possible he had a change of heart, but it seems more likely that Carson sees HUD less as a job for himself than a place that shouldn't work at all. Remember, this is the posting he took after bowing out of Cabinet contention, a spokesman relaying, "Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency." Which leads one to wonder whether he’s agreeing to run HUD because crippling it is exactly his goal.
While it's rarely in the news, HUD is not one of those government agencies that becomes important only in emergencies or crises. Its jurisdiction is not even limited to “inner cities,” despite what Carson apparently thinks. Nor is it just about public housing and the poor. HUD is embedded in the fabric of every American’s life. Do you have a mortgage? HUD oversees federal mortgage protection. Do you rent? HUD enforces your right not to be discriminated against. And if you’ve ever driven through a city (or even a town) that has public housing, you’ve experienced how HUD policies can shape neighborhoods and lives.
Under Obama, HUD became even more proactive. Citing a reinterpretation of the Fair Housing Act, it began using its authority to push cities to “affirmatively further” the act. If a local government wanted HUD money, it would need to show that its housing plans were more than just non-discriminatory — they had to actively pursue integrated, affordable housing. This mission expanded with a narrowly decided Supreme Court case in 2015 that widened the scope of what kinds of discrimination HUD could address. The agency could attack not just discrimination by intent, but policies (however well-meaning) that might lead to discrimination in practice.
The Obama administration chose to use HUD as a tool. If Carson wants to dramatically change the nature of HUD, all he needs to do is nothing — a course of action he seems temperamentally inclined to accept. Under Carson, HUD could stop enforcement of that "socialist" Fair Housing Act. It could stop prodding local governments to increase access to homes. It could look the other way when local ordinances sequester government-mandated affordable housing away from those with enough pull to say "not in my backyard." Carson’s HUD could stop insuring mortgages (something he has already suggested) and privatize the companies that take care of that now.
What’s the worst that could happen? Oh, that’s right, we already know. One reason why Obama's HUD moved so aggressively to create more affordable housing has been to address the wreckage of the 2008 crash. When the mortgage bubble burst, the subsequent foreclosure boom shoved millions of families into a rental market that was already bursting at the seams: In the past 10 years, over 9 million Americans became new renters, even as cities lost more than 100,000 affordable units a year. Almost 50 percent of households spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent (30 percent is the threshold for what’s “affordable”). Over a quarter of households spend half of their income or more on rent — a condition that creates what’s known as “housing insecurity,” because those households are one missed paycheck or personal emergency away from homelessness. Since 2000, the number of “housing insecure” Americans has risen 82 percent. Experts expect that population to increase.
These are problems that exist right now, problems the Obama HUD was still workshopping solutions to counteract. In fact, a HUD rental voucher plan unveiled last spring was aimed directly at middle-class families trying to hold it together in neighborhoods slowly getting priced out of their reach. Or, as conservative commenters described it at the time, "Obama’s last act is to force suburbs to be less white and less wealthy."
And we know how Carson feels about that.
The current housing crisis has tempered to a slow boil, so it’s easy to consider it mostly in the abstract. Rents are high, but they've been high for years. Affordable housing is scarce, but it's been that way for decades. Statistically speaking, the near-homeless "housing insecure" are next door to most of us, and perhaps that's why the phenomenon is easy to ignore. You can only call something a "crisis" when it's somehow different from just how things are.
When it comes to Trump, we are still most definitely in a crisis, and we can't afford to forget it. Carson may be a smallish flare-up, at least until he's allowed to fully ignite, at which point the disasters at HUD might actually compete in scope with the disasters at State or Homeland Security or any number of civil rights emergencies looming at the moment. But for now we’ve forgotten, which allows Carson's flame to stay alive.
Trump's lurching transition to the presidency has run roughshod over so many norms it’s easy to get drawn into describing the whole fantastic, mesmerizing spectacle rather than each somewhat ordinary catastrophe. But every catastrophe is special (just ask an unhappy family), and each one urgently needs to have its story told. Trump is an ADHD seventh-grader set loose with a lighter in a firecracker store: It may be exhausting to follow him down every single aisle, but we need to keep track of each and every fuse that he lights along the way.