Some HUD Secretary Possibilities Are Serious—Others Laughable

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on November 23, 2016

[Edited to add: As of 11/28, We learned that Ben Carson accepted this position. We'll have more on what this means in weeks to come.]

Attention has been rightly focused this past week on the fact that the incoming administration has been proving itself completely uninterested in governing in a decent or appropriate manner. Between the president-elect's refusal to make even a nominal show of avoiding conflicts of interest with his businesses and his appointments of an explicit, proud white supremacist and misogynists to positions such as strategy advisor and attorney general, this is not a normal situation of settling in for four years of figuring out how to find common ground across political differences. That can still happen with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are willing, but no one should treat appointees like Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions as business-as-usual.

So far, some of the names floated as potential HUD secretaries fall into the camp of being a giant flyng middle finger to everything the department stands for, or to the idea that any experience might be needed to run a cabinet-level agency. Others seem more along the lines of extremely ideologically conservative, but nonetheless at least relevant.

The Bad

In the first camp was Robert Astorino, the county executive of Westchester County, New York, who has made his name fighting tooth and nail against a fair housing lawsuit and the consequences of losing that lawsuit. He does not currently seem to be under consideration, but that Astorino's name might even have been floated is a slap in the face to the idea of fair housing and the idea that cabinet secretaries ought to come with more qualifications than a bitter grudge against the agency they might head. It also makes clear where President-elect Donald Trump stands on fair housing in general, no matter who he appoints.

The Baffling

Currently, Ben Carson is being discussed, which again seems to be an indication that the president-elect does not care about the work of the agencies he is appointing people to, nor in fact to anyone's opinion of the people whose names he is floating. Carson has already turned down an open-ended offer of some cabinet position, with an advisor telling The Hill, "Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he's never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency." Of course I wouldn't expect Trump to understand no means no. He probably thinks Carson is playing hard to get. Maybe Carson thinks so too.

It's hard to speculate what Carson would bring to HUD beyond staggering incompetence—it would be a question of whose agenda he was implementing. (Edited to add: Not surprisingly, he has attacked the affirmatively furthering fair housing regulations.)

Until Carson's name was floated, two people with actual experience on the topic had been under discussion (and might well still be). 

The "Culture of Poverty" Conservative

Robert Woodson Sr., though a full-fledged conservative with some ominous views about how many poor people have "character deficits" and are "harmed" by too much government assistance, has at least been working in the community development field for a long time. And he has some critiques of it too.

Woodson heads the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), a national nonprofit whose "mission is to transform lives, schools, and troubled neighborhoods, from the inside out” by bringing training and resources to existing local leadership, mostly within faith-based groups. The organization believes in market principles, but also resident empowerment. Much of how it describes itself will sound familiar to other community developers.

But Woodson sees CNE as very different. In an extensive C-span interview in January 2016, Woodson claimed that “government and charities harvest the failures of the poor and make money off of them” and that “outside experts design their own remedies for the poor and parachute them into these communities," while his organization finds "indigenous local leaders who are already doing things right and applies Miracle Gro."

Woodson also asserted that there were "four categories of poor people":

1. Some people who are broke, but their "character is OK", and who use the system as it should be used get help.
2. Some whose character is intact, but see disincentives in place (against getting off assistance, was implied) and logically follow them.
3. Some permanently disabled folks who deserve help.
4. Some with "character deficiencies" who are poor because of those deficiencies, and for whom just giving them help injures them further. They need "transformation."

"Liberals think all poor people are category 1, conservatives think they are all category 4. Looking at poor people, liberals see a sea of victims, conservatives see a sea of aliens. Do you want to be patronized or ignored?" said Woodson.  "Conservatives say the programs aren’t working, just cut them. But you need to do something else. We love and respect people in category 4 enough to enable them to be agents of their own uplift."

Despite this, he does himself seem to focus entirely on people supposedly in category 4 (and at one point implied that they make up as much as 70 percent of poor neighborhoods), and it's notable that Rep. Paul Ryan's "anti-poverty" plan, which Woodson advised on and appears to support, was primarily a bunch of repackaged Republican standards like punitive work requirements and time limits, conveniently ignoring root problems such as lack of available jobs, and especially a lack of family-supporting jobs.

It's hard to say what exactly would come out of a Woodson-led HUD. Indications are good that it could be very damaging to low-income people, no matter what "category" Woodson might assign them to. His descriptions of "category 4" and his belief in it being widespread are clearly incredibly insulting.

But at least he has not written off the idea that there are people in need whom the government should help, and his belief in local empowerment could at least provide some conceivable basis for a conversation. The bar has been set low.

The Hopeful?

And then finally, to complete the stunning range of options, we have essentially one of our own. Pam Patenaude, president of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation and former director of housing policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, has also been mentioned as a contender. Patenaude has actually served at HUD, as assistant secretary for community planning and development. That's an astonishing amount of relevant experience for this administration. And she could be a great advocate if allowed to do so.

The Terwilliger Foundation, while known for being dedicatedly bipartisan in its outreach, even through this past campaign season, knows housing and advocates explicitly for more affordable housing construction in a way that generally wouldn't seem out of place for most Democrats. Ron Terwilliger, for example, chairs Enterprise Community Partners. The foundation's upcoming housing forum will feature Matthew Desmond, the author of Evicted, and Carol Galante, the former FHA commissioner. In this video, Terwilliger actually talks about the imbalance of the federal government subsidizing well-off homeowners through the mortage interest deduction and not providing enough rental assistance to those who need it. 

Clearly we'd like to see Patenaude get the nod. It's completely impossible, however, to know how possible that might be. 

Image (slightly altered): Courtesy of Joe Hart, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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COMMENTS

martin french
30 Nov 16, 10:32 am

Cabinet Secretaries make, with help from their Assistant Secretaries, policies. Assistant Secretaries make the policies happen, including lining up support for funding in Congress. Regardless of the chosen Secretary of HUD, there will be much less to fear if Assistant Secretaries come with credentials like Patenaude’s. Cameras may focus on hearings for Secretary nominees, but all of us should focus on the next tier in each Federal agency.

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