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The Department of Housing and Urban Development assists more than five million families with affording their rent, among other programs. Yamiche Alcindor talks to HUD Secretary Ben Carson about his reaction to President Trump's rhetoric on race, whether Carson plans to remain in his position, HUD achievements during his tenure and criticism he's received about his use of government resources.
President Trump's proposed budget would cut funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 18 percent, including cuts to public housing programs.
Yamiche Alcindor takes a closer look now at some of the challenges the department is facing and solutions its leadership is considering.
Through federal rental programs, HUD assists more than five million families to have a home.
For the past two years, decisions about how to spend the department's $50 billion budget have been made by Dr. Ben Carson.
Secretary Carson joins me now.
Thank you so much for being on the program tonight.
I first want to talk to you about President Trump.
He recently suggested that white supremacist groups are — quote — "a small group of people."
Experts in organizations that study white supremacists say that they're actually a growing group and that they're leading to a rise in hate crimes across the country.
Do you agree with the president's stance on white supremacists?
Well, I don't know that anything useful comes from talking about what size they are.
They're a despicable group of individuals, as any group that hates others and purports themselves to be superior.
But the president said that they're still a small group. Do you see them as a rising issue? Should the government be dealing with them in some way?
Well, I think we should all, regardless of what our political prospects are, condemn anybody who is a hate group, no matter what their size, whether they're getting smaller, whether they're getting larger.
But the problem is getting worse, you think, or…
I personally have not seen evidence of it. But, again, if there is even one, it's a problem.
And you said recently that you're open to serving a second term as HUD secretary, but you also said that you might leave after first term.
Are you concerned — as the only black Cabinet member for President Trump, are you concerned that the lack of diversity in the Cabinet and in the administration might impact the president's rhetoric and policies?
Well, first of all, I indicated that, you know, I would prefer to be in the private sector. I would prefer to be in the private sector now. This is sacrificial work.
However, it's very important work, because, for an extremely long period of time, you know, the poor people in our country have been taken for granted. And, you know, we have concentrated, both administrations, Democrats and Republicans, on getting people under roof and getting them into programs.
We haven't concentrated on, how do you get them out of those programs in an economically viable way?
Are you worried about the lack of diversity, though, that the administration would have if you left?
I am not concerned about what happens if I leave.
But I do believe that there needs to be a representative sampling of our society.
You have said that poverty is a state of mind. Do you still believe that?
Again, let me correct the record.
What I said is, largely, a part of the mindset, because — I give it as an example, if a rookie playing baseball comes up and, you know, his first time at bat and there's Nolan Ryan out there, he says, Nolan Ryan, oh, no, he's got a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. I'm probably not even going to see it.
But you have said that it's still largely a state of mind.
Well, let me finish.
And then another rookie comes up and says, Nolan Ryan? He's an old man. I'm going to knock the cover off this ball.
A lot depends on how you look at it. That doesn't mean that you don't sympathize with people who are poor and that you don't understand why they're in that situation. Many people grow up in a situation where they don't have an opportunity to see any other way of life. So, naturally, they feel that way.
You couple that with some of the things that are in the way — for instance, if you're getting assisted housing, you're told that, if you make any more money, you have to report that, so your rent can go up. If you bring another person into the household who is making money, you have to report that, so your rent can go up.
Don't even think about getting married. Not only your will rent go up. You may lose your subsidy altogether.
These are not useful things.
Well, you're talking about rent going up. You have called for tripling the rents on people living in public housing.
What do you say to people who think you're making life harder for poor people?
Well, I'm glad you brought that up, because what we're talking about are the people who pay the minimum rent of $25 to $50 who are able-bodied. We're not talking about disabled people. We're not talking about elderly people.
We're talking about people who are perfectly capable of working, who are paying $25 to $50 a month. We need to get those people stimulated. They need to get out there. This is a perfect time. There's actually more jobs out there than there are people to do them.
And, you know, we need not to couch and coddle these people, but we need to develop them. It'll be for their own good.
And you have said that you came to HUD to fix the rats, the roaches, the lead, the violence.
But HUD records show that, last year, more families lived in HUD housing that failed health and space — and safety inspections than before, as compared to 2016. It was a rise of 30 percent.
What do you say to people who think, under your leadership, under your tenure, public housing has become more dangerous to live in?
I think they should find out what the real facts are.
The real facts, I have been very concerned about this. So we have stepped up the inspection process,and we put more controls on it. So, obviously, you're finding things that were glossed over before. That's going to be the case.
And we're doing something about it. We decreased the number of days to 14 for an inspection, so you don't have time to cover over all the things. And we're training the inspectors the right way. We're bringing I.T. systems in, so that we get consistency.
These are things that take time. And you can spend them any way you want, depending on what your political perspective is. But we're concerned about the people.
Your administration has championed opportunity zones, and your signature program is EnVision Centers.
But some of these centers and some of these opportunity zones, experts say, have failed to garner financial backing from the White House and from the private sector.
Can you point to one tangible achievement that EnVision Centers have achieved since you have been at HUD?
I'm glad you asked that question, actually.
You know, in Chicago, the EnVision Center there is having a system where they take addicts and they give them medically assisted treatment, programs that will actually get them out of addiction. In Detroit, they're actually teaching young people some skills, like how to run a pizza shop.
You know, what people don't recognize is that, when you create a new program, you don't just declare it and it pops up.
Just to be sure, those are all open EnVision Centers? Because I was reading some — that there was a soft opening in Washington state. Are the other ones that you're talking about open already?
Yes, they're already functioning.
And there are more, several more, that are going to be opening before the summer is over.
And I want to ask you about the group, the watchdog group American Oversight.
They got ahold of some of your schedules. They said that you went to Florida dozens of time — dozens of time. They also say that you and your wife…
Actually, they said I went a dozen times.
They said that you went several times or a dozen times.
They also had e-mails that showed that you and your wife were directly involved in purchasing a $31,000 dining room set for your office.
What do you say to people who think that that schedule and…
I'm glad you brought that up.
… and that also — and that dining set, that they are really not aligning with the mission of HUD?
I'm glad you brought that up, because, as you know, in Washington, D.C., most of the members of Congress go home frequently on the weekend.
It wouldn't be any different for a Cabinet member, quite frankly, and many of them go home on Thursdays. They're complaining about the fact that I left on Friday afternoon. If that's all they have got to complain about, I think we're in pretty good shape.
What about the dining room set and how that aligns with HUD's mission?
I find that kind of hilarious, because you would have to look long and hard to find anybody who cares less about furniture than I do.
But you were directly involved, along with your wife?
And even harder to find somebody who's more thrifty than my wife.
We were involved only in the sense that they said, you need to look at these catalogs and tell us what you want to pick, because this has to be done. They said, the furniture that's in there is no longer repairable. We have tried to repair. It's there for 50 years.
And then they try to say it's a table that cost $31,000. It was 17 pieces of furniture. And anybody who knows anything about solid furniture knows that that's not an exorbitant price. And that was the government catalog that they ask you to choose from.
So what was really going on is, there were people who wanted to say, you're cutting the budget on poor people, and you're buying expensive furniture. That's the only narrative they wanted. They didn't want the truth.
And those people would be wrong?
They would be extraordinarily wrong.
And it would be wonderful if people would actually look for the real news and not try to create these narratives.
Well, thank you, Secretary Carson. I really appreciate you coming on tonight.
Absolutely. A pleasure.
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