As President Trump reshuffles the top layer of his administration, it's easy to forget about his appointees who have managed to maintain their jobs for a year and have kept a relatively low profile. Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a prime example — but he hasn't flown under the radar of Senator Elizabeth Warren. When he testified about his first year to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Thursday, Warren castigated Carson and said he deserves firing.
"Mr. Secretary, a lot of people are criticizing you for spending tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on fancy furniture," she began, referring to his recent decision to purchase a $31,000 set of dining room furniture for his HUD office. "And don't get me wrong, I think scamming the taxpayers is a scandal. But the biggest scandal of your tenure is your unwillingness to do your job and enforce the laws that reduce housing discrimination and segregation across this country."
Warren brought up multiple instances in which Carson has attempted to delay implementation of Obama-era policies meant to end housing discrimination. She reminded Carson that he sworn under oath to enforce anti-housing discrimination laws during his confirmation hearing. She also noted that the Fair Housing Act obligates Carson's department to "affirmatively further fair housing."
"The gap between white homeownership rates and black homeownership rates is 30 percentage points, larger than it was back in 1968," Warren said. "We have gone backwards since the Civil Rights Era. It is HUD's job to help end housing discrimination — that's what the law said. You said you would enforce these laws. You haven't, and I think that's the scandal that should get you fired."
Carson's tenure has been criticized not just by liberals like Warren but also by some conservatives. In January, The National Review called his first time in office "uninspired," noted that he "seems to have lost his interest in bold reform," and concluded that his "conservative firebrand seems to have quickly been extinguished in the dank Washington swamp."
Carson has said that his biggest agenda item is to help low-income people who currently rely on government housing subsidies to become more financially independent. He also wants to limit housing regulation.
"I want to move us from a mindset, not only at HUD but across the nation," he's told Time, "of government riding in on a white horse with a bucket of money."
At the beginning of this year, Carson announced that HUD would award $2 billion in "Continuum of Care" grants to local programs that help get homeless people into shelters. But mostly he doesn't seem to have done much in office, for good or ill. His HUD strategic plan is nonspecific. He's vaguely said that he would "reinterpret" the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that obligates states to create anti-segregation plans in order to receive federal money (conservatives wanted him to completely get rid of it). He's unsuccessfully tried to put off implementation of the 2016 Small Area Fair Market Rents rule, which increases the housing vouchers of recipients who live in expensive areas.
Looking back on his first year, Carson may be better known for the minor scandals he's caused than for anything he's accomplished at HUD. There's the $31,000 furniture Warren mentioned. There's also the time he called enslaved Africans "immigrants" or the time he said that "poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind." These comments were awful, but didn't last long in the news cycle; since Trump's inauguration, the country's attention has mostly stayed focused on his more high-profile administration officials.
HUD just received a significant increase in funding with Thursday's passage of an omnibus spending bill despite the Trump administration's original intention to dramatically cut its budget (of course, the president may still veto the bill). Maybe Carson will use that money to enact some effective anti-discrimination policies. Warren, for one, doesn't seem hopeful.