Politics & Policy

Ben Carson Takes on High Housing Costs

Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testifies on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
By setting his sights on local zoning and land-use laws, the HUD secretary might just help millions of poor Americans — and silence his critics in the process.

When Ben Carson was appointed the nation’s 17th secretary of housing and urban development, there were ample reasons to doubt his qualifications, and the first few months of his time in office were largely dominated by missteps and misstatements, including a mini-scandal over a $31,000 dining table, which seemed to validate his critics.

But since then, Carson has quietly pushed a number of policy initiatives that could cement his legacy as one of Trump’s most consequential cabinet members. If successful, Carson’s efforts could be some of the biggest boosts for the poor and disadvantaged to come out of Washington in quite some time.

Carson has not hesitated to challenge many of his department’s sacred cows. He’s called for the elimination of Community Development Block Grants, long known as a source of both corruption and political patronage, and he’s been willing to slash some of the bureaucratic red tape that has long afflicted HUD. He’s also shown a willingness to adjust rents in public housing in an effort to control the department’s ballooning expenditures.

But Carson’s most important initiative — and the one that holds the most promise — is his full-frontal assault on zoning and land-use ordinances that deprive the poor of affordable housing.

Born largely out of racism (Baltimore’s zoning laws, for instance, explicitly prohibited anyone from buying a house or renting on a block where more than half the residents were of a different race), zoning has evolved into a tool for wealthy property owners to protect their property values at the expense of the poor and minorities. It is a simple question of supply and demand: By restricting the supply of new housing, zoning and land-use regulations drive up the cost of housing and rents beyond the reach of many poor Americans. Studies show that such regulations add as much as 20 percent to the cost of a home in Baltimore, Boston, and Washington, 30 percent in Los Angeles and Oakland, and an astounding 50 percent or more in cities such as San Francisco, New York, and San Jose.

Is it any wonder that the poor have trouble finding affordable housing?

The traditional response to this regulation-driven increase in housing costs has been to simply chase rising costs with higher subsidies. That is the approach currently championed by California senator and probable 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who has sponsored legislation that would provide a tax credit to subsidize rents for families earning as much as $125,000 per year whose housing costs exceed 30 percent of their income.

But instead of pursuing this costly policy that mostly redounds to the benefit of landlords, Carson has decided to go directly after the source of the problem. Specifically, he has let it be known that he intends to link federal housing funds to local officials’ willingness to reduce regulations that restrict affordable housing. He wants to ensure that if mayors and governors continue to pander to wealthy special interests by enacting barriers to housing construction, Washington will no longer bail them out.

The high cost of housing is an important factor in trapping millions of Americans in poverty. On average, Americans in the lowest third of incomes spend more than 40 percent of their income on housing, a number that rises to more than 50 percent for renters. In addition, high housing costs can prevent geographic mobility, making it all but impossible for the poor to move to areas with less crime, more jobs, and better schools. Zoning also continues to be an important factor in reinforcing American racial segregation.

Carson aims to change this state of affairs for the better. “We’ve been looking for ways that we can remove some of the restrictions nationally and some of these zoning ordinances nationally so that we can, in fact, build more affordable housing,” he has said. “Because we have the capacity to do it; we just have to be able to get out of our own way.”

If he’s able to make good on that potential, Carson will strike a powerful blow on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. And in that case, his critics might be forced to admit that they severely underestimated him.

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