Dr. Ben Carson, nominee for secretary of Housing and Urban Development, sought to assure a Senate committee Thursday that there was a real “nexus” between health and housing, and that makes the neurosurgeon more than qualified for the job.
He would not, however, promise to avoid the nexus between the billions of dollars HUD pours into the real estate industry and the Trump real estate empire.
“Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president elect or his family?” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, asked during the confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee.
“I can assure you that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values, and therefore I will absolutely not play favorites for anyone,” he answered.
“Do I take that to mean that you might manage programs that might significantly benefit the president-elect?” continued Warren.
“You can take it to mean that I will manage things in a way that benefits the American people. That is going to be the goal. If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that’s working for millions of people and it turns out that someone that you’re targeting is going to benefit, you know $10 from it, am I going to say no, the rest of you Americans can’t have it? I think logic and common sense probably would be the best way,” responded Carson.
Warren replied: “The problem is that you can’t assure us that HUD money, not of $10 varieties, but multimillion dollar varieties, will not end up in the president-elect’s pockets, and the reason you can’t assure us of that is because the president-elect is hiding his family’s business interests from you, from me, from the rest of America.”
HUD is clearly at the crossroads of the Trump industry and the president-elect’s conflict with government. Carson, the former GOP presidential candidate, has no experience in housing, but as a strong supporter of Donald Trump, he has the valuable ear of the White House. Conflicts are obviously possible, and Carson gave no assurance that he would place a firewall between Trump the real estate developer and Trump the president of the United States.
Carson did immediately address his lack of experience in housing policy, the primary complaint against him from opposition groups. He noted his experience on various corporate boards, which included selecting chief executive officers.
“A good CEO doesn’t necessarily know everything about the business, but he knows how to pick people and how to use them, and that is one of the marks of good leadership,” Carson said in his remarks to the panel.
Carson focused much of his opening remarks on race relations and health, using his expertise in both to highlight their importance in housing. Previous HUD secretaries have woven race into housing, emphasizing how fair lending practices and government aid to struggling communities are necessary to bridging the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
” I see HUD as part of the solution, helping ensure housing security and strong communities,” he said in the statement. “HUD has several different ways it helps people, through insuring financing for that first home to helping those in poverty, which has been an intractable problem for decades.”
Carson’s emphasis on health issues in housing clearly draws on his professional experience and marks something of a new take on housing in low-income neighborhoods. He cited mold, lead paint, pest infestation and poor ventilation as dangers that are particularly prevalent in poorer neighborhoods and housing projects.
“I am passionate about health as you may have guessed, and where one lives should not cause health problems. So I look forward to working with HUD’s Safe and Healthy Homes program and others on these issues. We cannot have social mobility without a strong healthy foundation in the home,” he said.
On one closely watched policy question, specifically the recent announcement by the current HUD secretary, Julian Castro, that the Federal Housing Administration would reduce its annual premium by 25 basis points, Carson was non-committal.
“I, too, was surprised to see something of this nature done on the way out the door. Certainly if confirmed, I’m going to work with the FHA administrator and other experts to really examine that policy,” Carson said in response to a question from Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.
Carson was more emphatic on rental assistance programs, saying: “I think the rental assistance program is essential. When it comes to entitlement programs it is cruel and unusual punishment to withdraw those programs before you provide an alternative.”
He also told the committee he had changed his mind about cutting government spending across all federal agencies by 10 percent. He trimmed that to 1 percent.
Carson was also clear on the question of government funding in the mortgage market. Republicans, including Trump Treasury Steven Mnuchin, have suggested aggressive moves to bring private capital back to the mortgage market.
“We do have to have a mechanism, a backstop of some type. Otherwise when someone comes in and buys up the loans, securitizes them, we’re probably not going to be able to sell them to the entities that buy them,” Carson said.