What Carson Can Do as HUD Secretary

Ben Carson was nominated secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Monday and his appointment will be debated endlessly over the coming months, with critics quickly honing in on his lack of housing policy and government experience. No matter, though; the naysayers need not stop him from doing an excellent job as HUD’s top administrator. The job can be done well if the following ideas remain front and center.

High-cost housing is a product of government regulation

Carson would be wise to remind everyone that cities do have control over sky-high housing prices: in fact, if cities relax zoning and land use regulations and simplify developer approval processes they can decrease the cost of housing across the board, no exceptions. Zoning regulations are the real culprit in places like Manhattan, where research demonstrates that regulations price the poor, the young, and the unestablished out of high opportunity areas. Local regulation also hampers innovation in the housing market, just look at the sad demise of low-cost micro-housing in Seattle.

HUD is not the nation’s urban planner

We can be quite certain that Carson will move away from the social-engineering-of-cities model advanced under HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Specifically, Carson should dig his heels in on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule promulgated last year, a rule that allows HUD to oversee where people live locally based on their race. Fortunately, Carson has voiced opposition to the rule, and President-Elect Trump agrees, so it seems that Carson may have the support that he needs to remind the agency that not every local municipality’s land use and zoning regulations are under HUD’s jurisdiction.

Cities are unique, so housing solutions should be, too

Carson should keep in mind that what works in one city is not likely to work in all of the other ones. Past HUD Secretaries, like Shaun Donovan, made the mistake of thinking about HUD policy as urban policy, and operated under the belief that the lessons of his native – and hyper-urban – New York City could be applied everywhere. A better idea is to remember that the diverse United States includes small towns, rural America, and suburbs where a cookie-cutter approach won’t be successful. HUD policies should reflect a high degree of latitude for cities so that local governments can sort out their problems on their own.

Social justice doesn’t mean preferential treatment

Likewise, Carson should eliminate small area fair market rents, a social engineering tack used to push low-income individuals to locate in wealthy neighborhoods. Housing policy should remain neutral toward where people decide to live. From a political angle, Carson would do well to remember that small area fair market rents are exactly the type of policy that treat low income individuals preferentially as compared with lower-middle income individuals, and therefore, the kind of policy that Trump voters resent most.

HUD money is taxpayer money

Speaking of which, Carson must remember that HUD money is simply taxpayer money. This isn’t difficult to understand in the abstract, but the practical implications for HUD policy are more challenging to grasp. Carson should work to eliminate rules that require local communities to comply with federal checkboxes in order to obtain agency block grants. Citizens are entitled to sharing the benefits of their own tax money, independent of whether state administrators fill out the forms on time.

HUD does not know better than individuals and private businesses

Although apparently tempting for both Democratic and Republican administrations, Carson should eschew policies that prioritize homeownership over renting, and vice-versa. Each of Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have promoted their personal housing predilections, in spite of the fact that history indicates that government does not know better than individuals what sort of homes they should live in, and housing policy should be neutral rather than preferential in that regard. Consider the housing market fallout of the financial crisis – a result of government policies that promoted the irrational belief that everyone should be a homeowner – a cautionary tale.

Housing technocrat or not, with these ideas in mind, Carson will be well on his way to success.