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Ben Carson Says His Experience Helped Prepare Him To Lead Housing Agency


We know President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that selection is drawing mixed reactions. Yes, he's a retired neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate, but Carson has no experience with housing programs. Carson himself points to his experience growing up in an inner city as preparation for the job. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: HUD is one of those agencies that doesn't get a lot of attention despite doing some important work. It has 8,000 employees and an annual budget of about $46 billion. Much of that is spent to support poor families and to help distressed neighborhoods. Pam Patenaude, an assistant secretary of HUD during the George W. Bush administration, says someone with Carson's profile will bring a much needed spotlight to the agency.

PAM PATENAUDE: He's a great communicator, and most importantly I think, you know, Dr. Carson understands the impact that poverty has and is a definition of the American dream.

FESSLER: Indeed, when he was asked about his lack of housing expertise a couple of weeks ago on Fox's "Your World With Neil Cavuto," Carson brought up his own upbringing in Detroit. He was raised in poverty by a single mother before working his way up to becoming an accomplished surgeon.


BEN CARSON: And have dealt with a lot of patients from that area and recognize that we cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities.

FESSLER: It's a sentiment shared by anti-poverty advocates across the political spectrum, but some of them are worried about how Carson would address the problem if he's confirmed.

DIANE YENTEL: We know very little about his outlook on housing given his lack of experience in that area.

FESSLER: Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She notes that neither Trump nor Carson said much about housing during the campaign, and she finds what little she's heard troubling.

YENTEL: And that's related to fair housing.

FESSLER: Yentel notes that Carson wrote an op-ed last year criticizing the Obama administration's stepped up enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which is intended to reduce segregation. Carson compared the effort to, quote, "failed socialist experiments" such a school busing.

YENTEL: If under this administration they choose to really actively roll back their oversight, they could do some real harm.

FESSLER: Many fair housing advocates say the law was haphazardly enforced prior to the Obama administration, but the current rule, which links funding to desegregation, has met stiff resistance from conservatives. Carson has also complained that low-income families are too dependent on government aid. He said that it's the American people's job, not the government's, to care for the needy. It's not clear what this would mean for HUD, but advocates fear the worst, that it will lead to deep cuts in programs to reduce homelessness and to subsidize affordable housing. Maria Foscarinis heads the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

MARIA FOSCARINIS: Right now, only 1 in 4 of those who are poor enough to be eligible for federal housing assistance actually receives it because there are simply not enough resources. So further cuts would clearly be devastating.

FESSLER: She and others think that's a strong possibility given Trump's promise to cut both taxes and domestic spending. They hope that Carson's rag-to-riches background will make him more understanding that stable housing is an important step to getting ahead. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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