Yesterday, the Senate held a confirmation hearing for Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate nominated as next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The position would put Carson as the leader of a $47 billion agency with a mandate to help low-income renters and struggling homeowners through federal programs.
It’s a job that relies in no small part on design; architects, urbanists, and housing experts play a large role in making housing affordable, safe, and inclusive. Access to affordable housing is the bedrock to a healthy community. A thoughtfully-designed environment is proven to decrease stress and improve health and happiness. And urban design can help make cities more equitable.
Design came up during the Senate hearing—most notably when Carson linked health to environment, and was asked about his views on the Fair Housing Act—but it played a back seat to topics like federal funding and government interference, both of which Carson has vocally denounced in the past. During his testimony, Carson talked about taking a “holistic” approach to overseeing public housing, which includes recruiting private sector dollars and a mission to get people off of government assistance. However, Carson failed to get into specifics when it came to policy plans, spending, or programs that would lead to that overarching goal, and many of his statements ended up contradicting each other.
There were a few points, though, that alluded to design’s role in shaping the next administration’s mandate for affordable housing. We lay them out below.
As noted by Common Edge Collaborative’s Martin Pederson in a Co.Design article asking housing experts for their advice for Carson, a major challenge for the head of HUD is using the department’s extremely limited resources in the most impactful and productive ways. While campaigning for the presidential primaries last year, Carson was critical about government inefficiencies and pledged to cut back on government spending—a position he seemed to both uphold and contradict during the hearing.
In response to New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, Carson defended his earlier promises to cut spending by being selective about certain programs. “The point being, if we can find a number on which we can agree and begin to cut back, we can start thinking about fiscal responsibility,” he said. But he also told Menendez that rental assistance was “essential” and pledged not to withdraw those programs before providing an alternative.
Responding to Brian Shatz of Hawaii, Carson contradicted himself again, saying that he would advocate for a budget for HUD. “I want to come to you with that world-class plan,” he said. “I don’t know what that number is going to be—it might be more, it might be less.”
In his opening remarks, Carson called for a “healthy foundation in the home,” noting that, “There is a strong connection between housing and health, which is of course my background.”
Indeed, studies show that well-designed affordable housing and residential stability has a positive affect on health. As Karen Kubey, an urbanist specializing in housing and health, told Co.Design, “Those with housing they can afford are less likely to delay healthcare for financial reasons, have a lower incidence of disease, and miss fewer days of school or work.” Throughout the hearings, however, Carson didn’t offer a specific plan on how HUD would make environmental improvements to public housing. In the past, Carson has railed against government intervention.
Improving the design of affordable housing would also require financial investment from a department whose budget, as noted before, Carson may or may not cut. Later in the hearing, in response to a question from Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Mast about how much public assistance America should provide, Carson’s replied: “Would we love to put every single person in a beautiful unit forever? Absolutely, that would be ideal. But we don’t necessarily have the necessary funding.”
As head of HUD, Carson would oversee a rule of the 1968 Fair Housing Act that requires local communities to assess their own patterns of racial and income segregation and make plans to address them. Last year, in an op-ed in the Washington Times, Carson criticized it as a “mandated social-engineering scheme.”
Despite Carson’s well-documented criticisms, when asked by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio what he’ll do about the rule, Carson said that his view “has been distorted by many people.”
“We have people sitting around desks in Washington, D.C., deciding on how things should be done,” he said. “I don’t have any problem with affirmative action or integration, I have no problem with that at all. But I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they have no idea what’s going on in an area.”
Carson may be a Washington outsider, but soon he’ll occupy one of those desks. If he’s confirmed, he’ll be forced to get specific on policy setting and consistent with his pledges on departmental spending. For both of those things, he should consult the urbanists, architects, and housing experts who have decades more experience in this sector.