BEN CARSON, a celebrated neurosurgeon and unsuccessful presidential candidate, had no experience in political office or housing policy before Donald Trump nominated him to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It was unclear what Dr Carson, long sceptical about government assistance and social engineering more generally, would do with an agency that funds rental-assistance schemes for the poor, only half of whom actually live in cities (despite what the department’s name suggests). The administration proposed a 13% cut in HUD funding in its first budget. Dr Carson seemed not to know how individual programmes would be affected when testifying before Congress. HUD, with its annual budget of $46bn, is a tiddler compared with other federal departments, but in several ways it is a sort of miniature version of the Trump administration.

In the nine months since he took the post, Dr Carson has stayed inconspicuous and inscrutable. The agency seems directionless. Only four of the 13 top positions, which must be confirmed by the Senate, have been filled. No nominee has been announced to be either the inspector-general or head of the policy development and research office. Eric Trump’s wedding planner runs the agency’s largest regional office, in New York. Local public-housing agencies, which actually administer the federal programmes with HUD funds, privately complain of uncertainty. Dr Carson’s most significant policy decision to date has been a two-year delay of the “small-area fair market rents” (SAFMR) rule, finalised by the Obama administration, which aimed to help voucher-holders move to better neighbourhoods. This is especially perplexing because five years of testing showed that the rule has achieved its goals while reducing expenses, which conservatives should cheer.

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