Since HUD’s inception in 1966 and the bolstering of its enforcement power with the Housing Act of 1968, HUD and the Secretary leading it have been embroiled in the difficult position of providing housing and community assistance programs that support Americans but do not “enable” them, as critics call it. During past presidencies, economic conditions largely dictated major changes in housing policy, but concerns over striking this aforementioned balance of assistance also marked policy changes. HUD is government work at its extreme: its secretary will have to navigate a large and complicated bureacracy under the microscope of US Congressional oversight.
President Trump’s decision to appoint Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon without a background in government, to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) surprised many people. But after being confirmed by a 58-41 Senate vote, Carson took the reigns of the agency tasked with overseeing affordable housing and “utiliz[ing] housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build[ing] inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination” and building safe and diverse communities. While some presidents favor free market and individual choice driven policies to increase home ownership, consistent with Trump’s housing position, others favor more supportive housing first policies.
A look back over past President’s HUD policy will help to set Trump’s policy in perspective.
Before Reagan’s presidency, HUD provided housing assistance to poor and homeless individuals directly through providing subsidies, allocating funds to local and state governments for public housing and rehabilitation programs, and incentivizing private construction of affordable housing in the private sector through tax breaks. However, Reagan’s focus on self-sufficiency and limited government involvement motivated substantive funding and program changes in HUD under his presidency. President Reagan cut budgets for public housing and rent subsidies in half and terminated the Community Development Block Grant program, which funded local development efforts to support affordable housing and anti-poverty programs. According to the president, the economic recession drove the high homelessness rates that marked the 1980s, making it a temporary condition rather than systemic. He called for private religious entities to support welfare families, suggesting that “every church and synagogue would take in 10 welfare families” as a solution.
The economic prosperity and deregulation ethos of the Clinton administration heavily influenced the policy from HUD during this presidency. Like Reagan and other presidents before him, Clinton likewise focused on efforts to increase home ownership through more market-driven methods and reliance on the private sector. Some credit the methods pursued to provide the funding necessary for affordable housing and increased home ownership as responsible for the housing collapse in 2008-2009. For example, a 1992 rewrite of a provision in the Community Reinvestment Act requiring banks to meet local credit needs involved the commercial banking sector in funding low-income housing efforts by requiring investment in low-income areas. As a result, bank regulators essentially pushed these banks to approve subprime mortgage loans. Effective in 1993, the housing bill required banks like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac make affordable-housing loans at least 30% of their mortgage purchases. Throughout the 90s, HUD raised the quota so that by 2000, HUD required 50% of the mortgage purchases from these banks to be on affordable housing.
In addition to these financial approaches to housing policy, the Clinton administration reinvested in HUD assistance programs, tripling the budget that previous fiscally conservative presidents cut back. One such specific effort was Clinton’s HOPE VI program, designed to increase the supply of affordable housing by modernize, revitalize, and renovate housing projects. Later on, the grant program was expanded to provide not only better living conditions for those living there but to attract investment from more affluent communities and eventually build these into mixed-income living areas. The intent behind HOPE VI was to better integrate these public housing provisions with the surrounding community.
In addition to continuing the government backed bank practices started by Clinton, the Bush administration took a rather progressive approach to tackling homelessness when it adopted Housing First policies. Bush’s HUD Secretary, Philip Mangano applied the Bush administration’s mission of "compassionate conservatism” to housing by adopting a somewhat radical approach at the time: start with the difficult, chronic cases. According Mangano, the government would actually save money by moving chronically homeless individuals with difficult histories with alcoholism, mental health, or other issues impeding their ability to retain housing, into "supportive housing" where they could receive the services they need in a concentrated manner rather than relying on a patchwork of welfare provisions. This policy also freed up temporary shelter beds for those experiencing more temporary homelessness, who require less direct support and need more of a helping hand during a time of need rather than a more complex network of care and support. Between 2005 and 2007, the number of the chronically homeless decreased by 30% and dropped another 19% between 2007 and 2012, according to HUD statistics.
The Obama administration continued the Housing First policies of the preceding administration; however, HUD under the Obama administration largely dealt with responding to the housing and financial crisis. Taking office amidst a plunging housing market and economic recession, the Obama administration devoted much of its early focus to anti-foreclosure programs, mortgage loan forgiveness, and bailing out the banks that inflated the housing bubble to the point of bursting. With the clear failure of market driven solutions to housing problems, the Obama administration invested heavily in assistance programs. Much of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funded infrastructure development, better and more public housing, and more supportive wraparound policies to target the intersectionality between poverty and homelessness. Obama also worked towards Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) to tackle continued discrimination in the housing market and provision of services.
Obama also extended the Clinton-era HOPE VI program through his Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which added wraparound services and an explicit commitment to community engagement. Like preceding presidents, Obama’s housing policy also pursued public-private partnerships to increase the supply of affordable housing. He particularly focused on promoting mixed-income developments as a method of increasing the affordable housing stock. In such a development or apartment complex, a certain percentage of the available housing would retail for market price, with a portion of the profit essentially subsidizing the remaining portion of housing going at more affordable prices for lower-income individuals.
Carson recently confirmed that HUD is entertaining the idea of editing its mission statement to replace the explicit anti-discrimination language in favor of language referencing “self-sufficiency.” A leaked internal memo cites the motivation behind the potential change as “an effort to align HUD’s mission with the Secretary’s priorities and that of the Administration.” Upon entering this appointed office, Carson articulated the desire to reign in Obama era anti-poverty policies that he viewed as government overreach, policies that crowded out local initiatives, particularly those grounded in the church. According to Carson,“We the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society… It’s not the government’s job.” While Carson states that HUD’s commitment to fair housing policies remains intact, many housing policy advocates interpret this move as the beginning in Carson’s plan to shift HUD’s focus and mission to a more conservative approach.
In early 2018, the Trump administration delayed implementation for an Obama-era rule requiring HUD block grant recipients to submit reports assessing community composition and the anti-segregation efforts these recipient organizations were advancing. This decision is consistent with a piece Carson authored in 2015, criticizing the rule as a misapplication of the Fair Housing laws to support a “social engineering” initiative rather than focusing on explicit discrimination. A successful lawsuit brought by civil rights groups prevented Carson’s effort to change the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule that afforded Section 8 housing voucher recipients the ability to select housing from a broader area that included higher-income housing. Essentially, SAFMR enabled recipients to elect to live outside of areas of concentrated poverty and racial segregation in which these vouchers viability is often limited to. In order to further Carson’s vision of self-sufficiency, HUD created EnVision Centers a “centralized hub for support in the following four pillars: (1) Economic Empowerment, (2) Educational Advancement, (3) Health and Wellness, and (4) Character and Leadership.” However, this vision only received about $2 million in funding for the year, making it likely that it will fall short of Carson’s expansive goal to build 3,000 of these centers in the near future. Critics also allege that Carson’s anti-LGBTQ+ views and his opposition to gay-marriage might be behind HUD’s recent removal of guides and materials related to ensuring anti-discrimination of this community. However, a spokesperson for the agency, rebutted all such allegations, stating that “any programmatic changes are part of the routine recalibration undertaken from administration to administration, rather than a philosophical shift” and that HUD remains committed to fair housing policies.