Guest Opinion: A surgeon in charge of, housing?
Dr. Ben Carson may be a fantastic neurosurgeon, but there is simply no reason for President-elect Donald Trump to assume he will be a capable, engaged secretary of housing and urban development. It’s not just his stumbling performance as a Republican presidential candidate. It’s that three weeks ago, when Carson was reportedly under consideration for secretary of health and human services, this is what his business manager said: “His background didn’t prepare him to run a federal agency.”
Now perhaps running the Department of Housing and Urban Development isn’t as daunting as being at the Department of Health and Human Services and overseeing the overhaul of the Affordable Care Act. But while housing secretary is not a high-profile position, HUD has arguably never been more important — and its housing policies aren’t serving large parts of America very well.
Instead of working with other federal agencies to aggressively encourage construction of new housing to keep down the costs of rent and home ownership, HUD instead relies on subsidies to help poor families get housing. Unlike state programs that amount to long-shot lotteries that help a handful of residents, federal programs help 4.8 million households, according to a 2009 think tank report.
But that still means three-quarters of low-income U.S. families facing housing distress go without assistance; most communities have long voucher waiting lists. And it’s not just poor people who are hurt by expensive shelter. In California and the Northeast, housing costs have grown so high that many middle-income families find themselves living paycheck to paycheck. This burden can be heavy even in cities with much less expensive regulatory climates. A Trulia survey, for example, found that Dallas residents spend more than half their income on housing, commuting and utilities.
The high cost of housing causes broader problems as well. Research by Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, shows the cost makes it more difficult for workers to move in search of better careers and thus damages productivity and promotes inequality.
So Americans need the next housing secretary to be much different than any we’ve had before: Someone who aggressively takes on an anti-housing status quo of heavy regulation and NIMBYism.
But what’s also needed is someone who can reform a complacent agency that’s often targeted by government watchdogs for indifferent performance. One example: The Section 8 rent-subsidy program was meant to help poor families escape impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Yet because landlords can and often do refuse to accept Section 8 vouchers, the program increasingly pushes its 2.2 million client families to, you guessed it, impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Every American should hope Dr. Carson does a great job because the stakes are high. Nevertheless, as the Bush 43 administration learned when it sent unqualified political operatives to oversee the U.S. occupation of Iraq and disaster resulted, expertise matters. In choosing a novice to run a vitally important federal department, Donald Trump is asking for trouble.