Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, joined me this morning:
HH: If you are just joining us, I am so pleased to welcome back to the program Dr. Ben Carson, the Secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department. Dr. Carson, it’s a little bit early, but let me greet you with a Happy Easter. So glad you can be back.
BC: Thank you, good to be back with you.
HH: I’ve been waiting to ask you this. I know you didn’t really want to go into the government, but you accepted the call. How much did your faith play in the decision to accept this job?
BC: Well, it’s true that I had other significant plans. But you know, a number of people in the administration, including the President and the Vice President convinced me that you know, it really does require a certain sensitivity and understanding in order to accomplish what needs to be done not only in our inner cities, but in communities throughout our nation. And as I’ve thought about my life and things that I’ve been prepared for, and you know, I used to wonder why am I getting all this business experience, you know, 18 years on the Kellogg board, 16 years on Costco’s board, starting a national non-profit, doing a multitude of other things, and I said now I can see where that would fit when you take a department that is heavy in bureaucracy and try to run it like a business. And we’re going to make some very good progress there. Almost every mayor, every governor, every housing director I’ve talked with across the country say we like your programs, we like your grants, but it’s almost not worthwhile, because we have so much red tape.
BC: So many hoops to jump through. And we need to fix that, obviously.
HH: Dr. Carson, I want to focus on a couple of populations that need a lot of help with housing that I have some experience with and personal acquaintance with. The first are adults with developmental disabilities. Now they have a lot of definitions for developmental disabilities, and a lot of states have different definitions from the federal definition. That’s a problem at the beginning. But let’s focus on the federal population. There are 22,000 adults in my old home county of Orange County, California, who have developmental disabilities. There are about 2.3 million in the state of California alone, about 20 million adults in the United States have developmental disability, and they look to HUD often for help in finding housing as adults. You know, their parents take care of them or the state when they’re young, but Section 8, whether it’s project-based or tenant-based, is a key thing in their lives. It’s not supposed to impact their income under Social Security Disability under the ABLE Act, right? You’re supposed to be able to get Section 8 housing without losing your disability insurance.
BC: Well, you know, there’s some alternations that need to be made so that you make it consistent with common sense, obviously. You don’t want to be working against yourself. But the fact of the matter is you know, throughout this nation, there are a number of organizations that work very well with disabled adults. You may be familiar with Opportunity Village.
BC: …in Las Vegas.
BC: I mean, incredible, and people are given, you know, an opportunity to work according to their ability. They actually receive payment. Their self-esteem goes through the roof. You know, you help them find adequate housing. These are the kinds of things that we want to do. But the best way to do these is to work with the private sector, to work with the faith community, to work with non-profits with the government being the over-arching stimulus to help direct all of this. And you know, it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what the government is supposed to facilitate. They’re not supposed to, people have gotten the ideal that the government’s supposed to do everything. And that’s not true. It’s supposed to lead and facilitate.
HH: You know, there is one of those in my backyard in Orange County, what used to be my backyard, called Glennwood Housing. And if you have a chance to look up www.glennwoodhousing.org, it costs $7 million bucks to renovate an elder care facility for 42 adults with developmental disabilities. They worked hard at it. You know, a couple of parents got involved. I just know about it from a friend. And they couldn’t get HUD to give them any help at all. And I just wonder if you are going to focus like a laser on clearing out the bureaucracy that doesn’t, that prevents HUD from doing what it’s supposed to do, which is help lead.
BC: Of course. Of course, we are. And recognize that those kinds of projects can be done extraordinarily well, creating win-win situations when you work with, you know, low income housing tax credits and things of this nature. It’s fabulous what can be done. You know, I’m on a listening tour right now here in Miami, and you know, looking at the Liberty Square, which is one of the notorious, horrible public housing facilities, and looking at the plans that have been envisioned by the city, by the developers, by the community, how they have leveraged the federal dollars at a rate of at least five to one, and it’s spectacular what is going to be done. You know, and I find the same thing in Detroit and Dallas, around the country. It’s really a new paradigm, the paradigm where the federal government helps to start the program, puts in the seed money, backs it up, and then you create a win-win situation that brings the private sector in. We’re not asking them to donate money. They’re going to make money in the process. But you have to create the right environment.
HH: Well, I pray that you get great success on that. One last question on the developmental disability community. A lot of the problems have to do with Social Security Administration and what they count as income, and HUD has the Section 8 voucher program. And parents make up the difference, and they end up getting screwed on this. Have you got someone to work with the SSA, with the Social Security Administration, to make sure that housing doesn’t, that housing supplement and parental support of housing doesn’t dis-incentivize doing this?
HH: You’ve got to get someone to go and be…
BC: Yes, absolutely.
HH: Great, great, great. Do you have…
BC: We’re looking at that, and you know, a whole hosts of things that don’t make any sense. You know, these regulations and rules have been layered one on top of the other.
BC: And you know, that’s what bureaucracy is, with people more concerned about the rules than the goals. All of those things are going to be changed, big time.
HH: That is good news. Second population – families in crisis. A couple of groups that I’m familiar with, Families Forward in Irvine, the Orange County Rescue Mission, you may know Jim Palmer.
HH: They just need money to replicate. They just need, they don’t need bureaucracy. They know what they’re doing. How are you going to get that done, because you’ve got a bureaucracy there that has an incentive not to change? I mean, they’ve been doing, as you said, layer after layer, and the people actually get the work done with families in crisis are local folks.
BC: Well, you know, interestingly enough, you know, I was told when I came into HUD that it was the most bureaucratic organization on Earth, and that you would get no cooperation, because people would only be interested in preserving their little fiefdoms. I have not found that to be the case at all. You know, when you lay out clearly what the vision is, and you also get people’s input into how that should be accomplished, the first thing I did was start listening inside of HUD to people that have been there 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And they are understanding what the impediments are because of all these bureaucratic bills, and every department is working to facilitate logical implementation of what the goals are.
HH: You know, Dr. Carson, if you put points on the board, whether it’s Liberty City in Miami or in Nevada at the disable community, or if you go to Glennwood Housing, and if you put points on the board and you keep a scorecard, that really will impact the understanding of the Trump administration. Are you keeping a scorecard of where you’re able to assist and motivate and promote the private sector to help these special communities?
BC: We will absolutely be keeping a scorecard, and we will be making it clear what is going on. And you’re going to see, I think, a very substantial change in the opinion of a lot of people when they see results as opposed to rhetoric that we normally have with political administrations.
HH: Now traditionally, I go back to the Reagan years when I started in government. HUD has always been a garden of corruption. Bad stories come out of HUD over the course of four to eight years. It seems like inevitably, a scandal erupts. How are you putting up guardrails to prevent that from happening in the Carson tenure at HUD?
BC: Well, we’re already putting in place a structure so that we can monitor where every penny goes.
BC: You know, when I started doing that, these people looked at me like I had six heads.
BC: But I think they’re starting to understand, you know, what we’re doing now. That will make a huge difference. People, my goal is to change that perception completely, to be the most honest department in the government.
HH: Oh, that’s a great goal. That’s a terrific goal. Now let me talk to you about the President. How much time do you get to talk with him about your agenda, whether it’s Liberty City or the inner city, or whether it’s developmentally disabled or families in crisis? How much time do you get on his calendar?
BC: Pretty much anytime I want. And we’re quite well-aligned. You know, we’ve talked about the goals of empowering people, not maintaining people, not just putting a roof over people’s head, recognizing that if we’re going to develop our population, you have to take a holistic approach looking at education, looking at health care, transportation, looking at, you know, job creation. All of these things are important. And you know, we’re trying to eliminate a lot of poverty, also. And you have to understand, what are the factors that drive poverty in our country? You’re probably familiar with the Brookings Institute study, a big study, that said there are three things that a person can do that will reduce their chances of living in poverty to 2% or less. Number one, graduate from high school, number two, get married, and number three, wait until you are married to have children.
BC: Those three things, you know, you get a 98-plus percent chance of not living in poverty. And yet, we don’t talk about these things. To some degree, it’s become taboo to talk about these kinds of things. And you know, we need to bring that back into the mix when you’re developing a community. You know, almost every community has schools that are all boarded up. Well, open those back up and make them into vision centers where we have people in there who can help the young people realize there’s more than just five occupations. There’s thousands of occupations, and what do you need to do in order to prepare yourself for those occupations? And you know, we need child care for the young girls who get pregnant. Their education ends at that point. And they become dependents. What we need to be able to do is give them that opportunity to get that GED, get their associates degree, their Bachelor’s degree, their Master’s degree, become independent and teach that to their children so we can begin to break these cycles of poverty. Unless we begin to take a holistic approach like that, the patchwork will never work.
HH: Salina Zito, who is a terrific columnist for the New York Post, wrote a piece on Sunday, Dr. Carson, about all the abandoned motels in America. The advent of power steering and the interstate sort of took out their reason for existing, and they’re boarded up and they’re not in use, and they’re all over the country. You know, you don’t need any new programs, but it sure would be good to repurpose a lot of the physical structure, as you just said, old elementary schools, old motels, and just put money into the hands of local communities to get special needs people and underserved communities and pregnant girls, whatever it is, to get money out to them fast. And speed matters. Are you going to accelerate this process?
BC: That’s going, remember, I’m a surgeon.
BC: You know, surgeons get things done. They don’t sit around and talk about it all the time. The patient would be dead by that time.
HH: So when we look back at one year in HUD, is there going to be a report card that says look at these places in the United States, and you’ll see what we did?
BC: I would be very happy to see that.
HH: Let me conclude with President Trump. You’ve gotten to know him very well over the last two years. What, I have a theory that this Sarin gas attack, and what happened to those children, you’ve dealt with children your whole life. It must have torn at your heart to see those pictures.
BC: Absolutely. And I think it had a profound effect on him. You know, people say he’s wishy-washy. He didn’t want to do anything, now he’s doing something. Remember, something big happened in the interim.
BC: You know, big things happen in all of our lives that change the way that we react to things. There’s nothing unusual about that.
HH: You’re a lifelong learner, and people know your capacity to absorb information. Is it wrong to learn from images? I’ve heard this undercurrent in the media criticizing President Trump that images have too much impact on him. But I actually think you can learn any way you want. You’re a learner. What do you think of learning through images like that?
BC: Well, you know, everybody learns differently. And those who are successful, academically, are those who learn how they learn, and then sort of pattern their learning toward their strength, and not toward their weakness. There is nothing wrong with learning from images as long as you continue to learn from other sources as well. Not a problem.
HH: Let me conclude by asking you about refugees and the newly-arrived in the United States, both legally and illegally. Obviously, Attorney General Sessions is having great success in deterring the inflow of people seeking the country illegally. But people get in legally and are refugees. How are you helping to house them? Is that part of HUD’s deal?
BC: Well, you know, not a specific program for refugees, but a program for people in need of housing, because we recognize that when we have, first of all, we have three to four times as many people in need, particularly of affordable housing, than we can provide right now. When those people are out there in need, they become vulnerable to a lot of influences. Some of those are negative influences that impact the rest of society. So of course, we are going to utilize various programs. Now keep in mind, you know, you’ve seen the budget cuts. And I say well, you know, this program’s going to be eliminated, that program’s going to be eliminated. You know, what we’re actually doing is examining all of the programs, looking at duplication, looking at inefficiencies, at finding out what are the things that really work extremely well, what are those things that are not working so well. And then we’re going to preserve those things that are working well, and we’re going to improve upon those opportunities. We may change the nomenclature, but the effect will still be there.
HH: Well, good luck in finding and promoting the Glennwood Housings of the world out there, and expediting assistance to them and streamlining it, because I think in a year from now, if you get, if you get a bunch of points on the scoreboard, things would really change, especially with the developmentally disabled, families in crisis, and these special needs communities. Have a…
BC: I appreciate your concern about that group of people. I appreciate that very much.
HH: Have a great Easter, Dr. Carson, come back early and often, great to speak with you.
BC: You, too. Take care now.
End of interview.