Ben Carson was, for a brief period of time, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, so it’s come as something of a surprise that he’s kept such a low profile since joining the Trump administration. Part of the story is that Carson is serving as HUD secretary, which was always an odd choice. He had little to say about the federal role in housing or urban development during his decidedly unconventional 2016 campaign, which made his appointment seem a bit, well, random. Carson is best known for his prodigious accomplishments as a surgeon, not for his experience steering a large bureaucracy. Critics on the left warned that he would gut the department and vitiate its desegregation efforts. Skeptics on the right, meanwhile, feared that Carson would be out of his depth, and would wind up leaving HUD pretty much untouched. Both agreed, though, that President Trump didn’t really care all that much about the department’s mission, and that it would fade into the background.
But as Laura Kusisto of the Wall Street Journal has reported, there are rumblings of a more ambitious agenda at HUD — one that liberals and conservatives might find appealing. In short, it seems that Carson is trying to repurpose a highly controversial Obama-era desegregation initiative, which sought to impose stringent new requirements on local governments that receive federal housing funds, into a broader policy that would use federal aid to encourage local governments to relax land-use regulations that limit housing supply, thus rendering housing unaffordable for many low- and middle-income households. Though it remains to be seen if Carson will get very far with his new effort, a number of observers have expressed tentative enthusiasm, including Kriston Capps of Citylab and Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion. And I feel the same way. I recommended a similar course of action shortly after he was named as President-elect Trump’s choice for the HUD job in January of last year:
What happens when you limit supply in the face of increased demand? Housing values soar, which is of course a very good thing for incumbent property owners. On one level, you could say that it’s not the federal government’s business if California homeowners vote for stringent land-use regulations that choke off increases in housing supply. Sure, they’re locking poor people out of the region and low-income Californians are four times as likely as other Americans to live in crowded conditions. But that’s their problem, right? Not exactly. Because low-income Californians have to spend such a high share of their incomes on housing, they’re more likely than low-income people elsewhere to be eligible for federal rental subsidies, which are paid for by taxpayers across the country. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the entry limits imposed by productive regions are damaging America’s growth prospects.
While I acknowledged that there was only so much even the most energetic HUD secretary could do about excessive land-use regulation, I suggested that crusading against it would be a good fit for the Trump administration:
Railing against Silicon Valley and Hollywood elites that are building regulatory walls around their neighborhoods—all while railing against Trump and his allies for wanting to build a wall around the country—might make for the perfect Trumpist crusade.
I certainly hope Carson stays the course, and that the president gives him the backing he’ll surely need.