Will HUD Secretary Ben Carson Enforce the Fair Housing Act?

HUD Secretary Ben Carson

By Julianne Malveaux

The Fair Housing Act was passed a week after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson encouraged Congress to pass the legislation as a tribute to the slain civil rights leader, who, along with several civil rights organizations (including the NAACP), strongly supported the act. African-American veteran’s organizations (including the American GI Forum) were especially passionate about the legislation, especially since Vietnam veterans were among those experiencing severe housing discrimination. Senator Ed Brooke (R-Mass.), the only African American in the Senate at the time, along with his Massachusetts colleague, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was especially focused on the legislation.

The Fair Housing Act is also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (which was later amended in 1988) prevents discrimination in the sale, rental, financing, and advertising of housing because of race, color, religion, disability, family status, and national origin. But with the severe wealth inequality in our nation, there are still major gaps between homeownership by race; African-American households were more heavily impacted by the Great Recession than any other racial group. Between 2004 and 2016, every group experienced a decline in homeownership, but while Whites experienced a 4.1 percent decline, African American households experienced a 7 percent decline, dropping from nearly half (49 percent) of Black households owning homes to just 41.9 percent. Meanwhile, White homeownership remained over 70 percent. As much as a third of African-American wealth was wiped out by the Great Recession, and this is partly due to discrimination in banking, including the ways that some banks aggressively pushed subprime loans on African- Americans, even those who qualified for traditional loans.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing the Fair Housing Act, as well as providing rental assistance, public housing, and housing vouchers for those who cannot afford housing on their incomes. Our 45th president had proposed deep cuts in the HUD budget, but the budget that was passed on March 23, 2018, just hours before the government was scheduled to shut down, actually adds money to the HUD budget, especially in the rental assistance and public housing capital funds program. Still, cuts are scheduled for the next fiscal year, and the issue of non-discriminatory and affordable housing remains a pressing one.

But will HUD Secretary Ben Carson enforce the Fair Housing Act and effectively administer an agency that can make a difference in the quality of life for low-income people? One has to raise the question, especially as Dr. Carson seems to want to spend more time looking for a $30,000 dining table than administering his agency. Trump’s pick of Carson to administer the agency was a strange one, given that Carson’s only qualification for running one of the government’s largest agencies seems to be that his mom avoided public housing because of its “dangers.” Trump does not seem to be high on finding qualified people to run HUD. For example, Lynne Patton, the HUD administrator for Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey, was Eric Trump’s wedding planner.

It may seem snarky to point out things that some would call “minor,” and both Patton and Carson will, perhaps, grow into their roles. They have to; their work makes a difference in the quality of life, and the quality of housing, for millions of Americans. And, there is no evidence that Carson has spearheaded innovative programs (wait – did I write Carson and “innovative programs” in the same sentence?) to close the homeownership gap or to help African-American families recover from the ravages of the Great Recession.

Furthermore, while this has little to do with Carson, the effort to roll back Dodd-Frank reforms and the evisceration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau strips power from consumers, especially those of low and moderate incomes. By making it more difficult to file class action lawsuits, individuals who experience banking discrimination are handicapped in their ability to fight back. Carson, singing from the “45” playbook, when he opens up his mouth at all, is not likely to be an effective advocate for the people he has frequently disdained.

Indeed, though he has thrown his wife, Candy, under the bus on the matter of the dining table, he is no different from other cabinet officials who have a “let them eat cake” attitude toward those they serve. First class travel, high-end furniture, and chicanery are the name of the “45” cabinet game. Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is not clear that the current HUD Secretary will be a warrior in the fight against housing discrimination.

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