Robbing the poor of public housing

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Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, once referred to poverty as a “state of mind.” When coming under fire for purchasing a $31,000 dining room set for his government office, he apparently forgot his own warning: American public housing should not be so comfortable it makes somebody want to stay. The irony, then and now, seems lost on him.

While words and actions do not always align, they unfortunately do in the case of Carson. In the 2019 department budget rejected by Congress last year, Carson wields the executioner’s axe with bloody impunity. In so doing, his “gifted hands,” which happens to be the title of his 1990 autobiography, have taken up a new specialty in robbing the poor. On the heels of a $1.5 trillion tax cut by Republicans for wealthy individuals and corporations, the 2019 department budget cuts affordable housing for low-income Americans. It slashes $8.8 billion in funding, an 18 percent reduction of the 2017 levels enacted by Congress This budget attacks the poorest of the poor by imposing additional costs designed to push residents out of public housing.

{mosads}Most critically, Carson’s budget raises the rents of public housing residents. Residents are required under the proposed budget to pay 35 percent of their gross income in rent, compared to 30 percent of their adjusted income under the present rules. Carson’s budget calls for this, notwithstanding the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own website recommending that homeowners and renters limit housing cost to 30 percent of income. Indeed, the agency classifies families who pay more than 30 percent as cost-burdened and warns they “may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.”

Carson doubles down, however, by eliminating income deductions for medical or childcare expenses and by giving housing providers broad flexibility to impose work requirements. He does so without providing adequate resources to help people gain the skills needed for jobs that pay enough to cover the higher costs of housing he imposes. In other words, the budget quite deliberately pushes poor people deeper into a cost-burdened condition, forcing many to choose between housing, food and medical care. This should come as no surprise. After all, it is more important that public housing residents, even if purchasing “necessities” far less expensive than Carson’s $31,000 dining room set, not feel so comfortable it makes them want to stay.

Structural cuts in programs are similarly designed to push residents out of public housing. While the backlog of public housing capital repair needs is upwards of $40 billion, Carson’s proposed budget entirely eliminates federal funding for capital repairs and slashes funding to operate public housing. The proposed budget eliminates the National Housing Trust Fund, an indispensable tool in funding housing for the poorest of the poor, and the Community Development Block Grant, a major source of state and local funding for affordable housing.

While funding to build more public housing is eliminated altogether, and funding to sustain existing public housing is either cut or eliminated, programs intended to privatize public housing are increased under the proposed budget. The budget forthrightly says it anticipates both “releasing certain housing assets to local control” and “a strategic reduction of the public housing portfolio.”  The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Our nation needs much more public housing, combined with the kind of job training, placement and creation that can build real bridges to opportunity in poor communities.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States has a shortage of 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available for extremely low-income renter households, resulting in 35 affordable and available units for every 100 of those renter households. More than 70 percent of extremely low-income renter households are already severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities, even before Carson’s budget is implemented.

I anticipate Congress will, like last year, and particularly in light of the midterm elections this fall, repudiate the Trump administration’s heartless attempt to decimate one of the pillars of the civil rights movement, which is fair housing, a social movement in a long lineage of movements to make America greater again and to create a more perfect union. Yet, it is not the hypocrisy of department’s budget that most galls me. Rather, it is the brazen ignorance of, deliberate indifference to, and repudiation of values at the core of our national identity that so sadly shocks me about our present political moment, one capable of producing a budget as draconian and inhumane as this.

From the progressive era to the New Deal, political, legal and cultural movements taught us, among other things, to never place limits on American greatness. They taught us to not simply rediscover ourselves but to reimagine and reinvent ourselves as a nation, to refashion old destinations as new beginnings, and to see what more we can wring from the values of liberty, equality and equity for all.

Anthony Cook is a professor at Georgetown Law Center.

Tags Americans Ben Carson Congress economy Government Housing Income

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