Dr. Ben Carson is the 17th secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After a successful career in medicine and his own presidential race in 2016, the celebrated brain surgeon joined President Donald Trump’s administration to lead an agency that focuses on housing issues and lifting Americans out of poverty to a better life. The Daily Signal’s Rob Bluey and Ginny Montalbano recently spoke to Carson about his tenure at HUD and how he’s making a difference. An edited transcript of their interview is below.
Rob Bluey: What’s the most rewarding part of your job at HUD?
Ben Carson: There’s so many rewarding parts because even though we have the ugliest building in Washington, D.C., we have the best people. The best people to work with. They’re enthusiastic and they understand the mission because the real mission here is to turn this aircraft carrier around from a place that just sort of houses people to a place that invigorates and empowers people and helps people to actually get out of poverty—become self-sufficient contributors. For the people who are elderly or disabled, finding a way to take care of them in a meaningful way so that their lives are still meaningful.
Ginny Montalbano: You’re certainly doing some great work. What would you say your biggest challenge has been so far during your time as secretary?
Carson: There are a lot of challenges, but affordable housing I think is the biggest challenge and that’s a nationwide problem. It’s a supply-and-demand problem, but it’s also secondary to some things that we as a society have created ourselves with all of our zoning restrictions and other regulatory barriers that we’re placing.
Nimbyism—which is the idea of “not in my backyard”—a lot of that stems from the fact that people still think of assisted housing as the kind of thing that you saw in the big cities. Concentrated skyscrapers with no planning around them, that were left to deteriorate the minute the last brick was laid. That’s not what’s done anymore.
It’s completely different now. Now we do public-private partnerships, mixed-income planned neighborhoods, holistic neighborhoods that blend in nicely and make it possible for us to have teachers and firemen and policemen living in the same neighborhood where they’re working. Those are the kinds of things that are beneficial for everyone.
Housing is not built in a disruptive way. Certainly you don’t break up an established neighborhood. You wouldn’t do that anywhere. We obviously think about these things. We have lots of examples where holistic, well-planned neighborhoods have been done around the country.
Beautiful results. Everybody wants to live there. Schools are working well. I mean, these are things that we can do.
Bluey: That’s great to hear. I want to ask you about some of the other accomplishments that you’ve experienced here. One of the things that I know is near and dear to your heart is the EnVision Center model. If you could share with our listeners what that looks like and how that vision has been implemented for HUD?
Carson: First of all, it comes from a Bible verse, Proverbs 29:18. It says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” There were a lot of people who really didn’t have a vision. They just wanted to exist.
America is really about people with vision, about the American dream, thinking about what you can do, all the opportunities that exist, and we want to give that back to people again. It’s not their fault that they don’t have a vision. It’s the way that they’ve grown up, the way that their mother grew up, the way that heir grandmother grew up.
EnVision Centers are an opportunity to take 23 federal programs—each of them have things that are devoted toward self-sufficiency—and amalgamating those things along with state and local government and some of the things that they offer, as well as the private sector, the faith-based groups, and a whole host of individuals who are interested in empowering people. For example, one of the agencies actually will train elderly people in child care. They can actually get child care certification. They can make more money.
That’s a wonderful thing because the system as it exists now—we’re in the process of changing it through our rental reforms—means if you make more money, you immediately have to report it so your rent can go up. You say, “Well, why am I going to do that?” If you get married or bring another income-producing person into the environment, your rent goes up or you lose your subsidy all together.
Anyway, they come in, they train these elderly women in child care. Now she’s incentivized to actually do it. Her three neighbors, who are likely to be single moms, whose education ended with that first child, now have an opportunity to get their GDE or associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, become self-sufficient, teach that to her children, and that’s how we begin to break those cycles of poverty.
The EnVision Centers have facilities to help people be able to get that education and get those degrees, get the training. We hook them up with a whole host of apprenticeships and training opportunities for people so they can get the kind of skills that will allow them to become independent.
Bluey: I’m glad you brought it back to some of the people who are seeing progress in being helped. I know one of the other things that you’re doing at HUD is telling those stories. The Humans of HUD, if you will. Why is it important to relate it back to the individuals who are turning their lives around?
Carson: Because so often we get nothing but bad news. There’s nothing that encourages someone like seeing somebody who is exactly like they were and how they’ve managed to turn things around.
Our whole website is beautiful now. I encourage people to go to HUD.gov. It’s really more entertaining than HBO. You’d have a really good time looking around and clicking on things, but make sure you click on the Humans of HUD and see some of those stories, one of which is about a woman who is having trouble finding a place to live, even though she had a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. Finally, she was able to find somebody who will take it, enrolled in one of our self-sufficiency programs, got nursing training, became a nurse, became independent, became a homeowner, and is now also a landlord who accepts Housing Choice Vouchers. A complete 360 there.
Montalbano: There’s so much power in telling those personal stories. I know at The Daily Signal we try to do that as well. How would you say HUD is operating today differently under President Trump and your leadership than in the past?
Carson: One of the big things, perhaps the biggest thing, is that we now have a CFO. This organization was without a CFO for eight and a half years before I came. Can you imagine with the billions of dollars that flow through here?
Irv Dennis, who came here from Ernst & Young, is a 37-year veteran. We are just thrilled the way he’s putting in the financial controls and fixing things now. Some people don’t like it, the people who were benefiting from our inefficiencies out there in the fill, getting money under the table and stuff. They don’t like it, but that’s OK.
He said that Ernst & Young would never have taken this place on as a client because that’s how bad things were, but that is being changed dramatically.
We’re modernizing our IT systems, creating an electronic dashboard, which gives us real-time information about all the places where money has been allocated. All of that makes us into a much more efficient organization.
Bluey: I want to ask you about one of the priorities that President Trump has outlined for all of the different Cabinet agencies, and that’s to take a close look at regulation. I know we’ve seen across the federal government a reduction in some of the burdens that have been placed on businesses and people. How does HUD contribute to reducing some of those burdens on Americans?
Carson: I’ve asked all the divisions to take a deep dive into the regulatory and sub-regulatory environment. They’ve come up with over 700. That’s pretty impressive, but some of the things will be very practical.
For instance, manufactured housing. Now, when most people they think of manufactured housing, they think about trailers. But that’s not really the bulk of manufactured housing now. It’s the modular homes that really can be put up fairly quickly, which are structurally very sound. In fact, they tolerate hurricanes better than site-built homes. In most cases, in looking at one, you wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t a site-built home, and yet the cost is significantly less.
Removing some of the regulations that really apply more to mobile-type homes has opened that market up quite a bit. Those are the kinds of things that we really want to facilitate.
Montalbano: Conservatives often approach government programs with some suspicion. What’s your message to those people who might be critical of government assistance?
Carson: My message is, if you utilize the funding correctly, you empower people and they become self-sufficient, and then you don’t have to support them anymore. If you don’t, you get an ever-growing, unsustainable number of dependent people. Eventually you won’t be able to sustain them, and eventually you’ll have all kinds of riots and class warfare. I say, think ahead. You’ve got to think like a chess game, not like a checker game.
Bluey: President Trump has recently asked you to lead the White House Council on Opportunity and Revitalization. What does it mean to you to serve in this leadership role?
Carson: It’s actually sort of a natural place because many of the opportunity zones, which are selected by the governors in all 50 states, as well as the five territories and D.C., are already the places that we serve. Now to have this extra infusion of capital into these areas on a win-win basis is singing my song exactly.
For those who may not be familiar, the opportunity zones were created as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. It provides an opportunity for people to take unrealized capital gains and invest them in economically deprived areas.
If you leave that investment in for five to seven years, first of all, you get the deferral on paying the capital gains tax for five to seven years, but you also get a 10 percent decrement on the taxes that you may owe. If you put it in for seven or more years, it’s up to 15 percent. If you leave it in for 10 years, then you have to pay no capital gains at all on the new money that resulted from the investment.
It’s a pretty powerful incentive, but more importantly, it’s estimated that it’ll bring at least $100 billion into these zones. Of course, as they start to be revitalized, that automatically attracts other things. There’s the peripheral effect that is even greater than the $100 billion.
Montalbano: HUD recently released its annual homelessness count. What did the latest numbers tell us?
Carson: It is a tremendous problem because you have a lot of pressure on prices going up—rental prices, home prices—much faster actually than wages are. We have a significant supply-and-demand issue, and it’s leaving a lot of people out in the cold.
Now, a lot of the people who are homeless are in sheltered situations. They’re in transitional homes or emergency shelters. In fact, the vast majority of them are, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to solve that problem. The number actually went up slightly, 0.3 percent, which is just a matter of a few thousand people.
In light of the fact that we’ve got this real pressure on pricing, obviously, if we weren’t making a lot of progress, it would be going up steeply. We want it to go down, which means working with the municipalities to create affordable housing that’s absolutely critical.
We could easily explain away the increase by just talking about Hurricane Irma and Harvey and Maria and the people who had to go into the disaster shelters. If you subtract that out, the number is going down.
I don’t really like to concentrate on what the reasons are as much as what are the solutions. How do we actually get to it? You have to look at focused attention on a specific problem.
For instance, we focus attention on the veterans through HUD and through the VA, which provides the wraparound services while we provide the housing. That number year over year has been down 5.4 percent. Tremendous success there. Also, families with children. That’s gone down 2.7 percent. Obviously we’re making progress.
Thirty-one states have decreases in the amount of homelessness. There is progress, but we still have a lot more progress to make. It is potentially an issue that can be solved, but it requires federal, state, and local cooperation. Where we have that, that’s where we see the most progress.
Bluey: One of the things that comes up frequently it seems with government agencies is religious liberty. There was a recent case out of Washington state, where a senior living center banned its residents from saying “Merry Christmas” or singing religious Christmas carols. They claim the reason that they couldn’t do this is because they accept funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now, whether it’s this case specifically or others like it, what are your comments with regard to actions that people might take like this?
Carson: I hope someone doesn’t think that we’re behind anything so arcane and silly as keeping people from greeting people in that way, but I’ll look and make sure that there isn’t. I don’t know of anything like that. That would be ridiculous.
Bluey: Alliance Defending Freedom, which is arguing the case, has said that there’s no HUD rule or any government rule that would prohibit such a thing. It was probably a convenient excuse that the local operator was trying to make.
Carson: I suspect so. But you know, it is an issue in our society now, the polarization. People getting into their little corner and thinking that it is the only way and nobody else can have an opinion that varies from theirs or they’re their enemy to be destroyed.
I don’t know where this kind of thinking came from. That certainly was not at the beginning of this nation’s origins.
Montalbano: We recently had the opportunity to interview Armstrong Williams and he had nothing but praise for you. He described your role as having a calming effect on President Trump, citing the prayer you delivered in a Cabinet meeting one time. Can you talk about your relationship with President Trump?
Carson: I think the president gets a bad rep. He’s actually a very nice person, but he has a hard time ignoring attacks. Let’s put it that way.
If people weren’t attacking him so much and were working with him, they would find a really very different person, but I don’t know that they actually want to find a different person. I think they enjoy the show and that’s why they keep attacking everything and he keeps responding to them, but he’s a wonderful person. I enjoy being around him. My wife enjoys being around him.
I hope before all this is said and done we see an environment where everything isn’t always attack mode. When people actually see how smart he is, he’s a very smart guy.
I mean, I’ve been around a lot of smart people, but yeah, he has very good insights and instincts, and his wife does, too. She’s very good at identifying bad people.
Bluey: Finally, you have lived such a remarkable life—the American dream—growing up in a rough community and becoming a world-famous doctor and the successful surgeries that you performed, to running for president and now serving in this role. What is your message from your own personal experience to those out there who may be down and looking for a message of hope?
Carson: I would say just remember that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you and the choices that you make. If you have a normal brain, you are endowed with a most special gift.
The human brain is the most fantastic organ system in the universe. It remembers everything you’ve ever seen, everything you’ve ever done, everything you’ve ever heard. It can process more than 2 million bits of information in one second. You can’t overload it.
It is just an amazing thing. If you program it the right way, the possibilities are almost limitless. Having said that, it is our duty and we will be rewarded for it if we make sure that all the people in our society have an opportunity to develop that brain.
We need to provide opportunities, ladders of opportunity, and help people move up that ladder. That will only enhance the strength of our society when we do that.
Montalbano: Secretary Carson, thank you so much for being with The Daily Signal.
Carson: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you.