The President as Developer-in-Chief

Posted by Seema Agnani on January 13, 2017

People have been asking me what I think about Ben Carson as the nominee to be Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s not just family, friends, and acquaintances who ask this question, but allies—people who work at other national organizations like and unlike mine.

But can I admit something? This question—what do I think about Ben Carson as nominee for HUD Secretary? —is an especially hard question for me to answer. Sure, I have set of pat answers that I’ve been giving people. I express skepticism because the nominee has so little prior experience with issues of housing and community development or with public administration. I talk about my displeasure that someone who recently and publicly called fair housing a failed socialist plot would be at the helm of a federal agency charged with enforcing fair housing. I talk about my and my organization’s commitment to fight for quality, affordable housing for low-income people; for equitable, vibrant, and sustainable communities; and about how these commitments stem from our larger vision of racial and economic justice. And I express my hope that all of these values remain a core part of HUD under the new administration, regardless of whoever becomes the head of the agency.

But underneath my answers, I admit to being uncomfortable, and even stifled with my own talking points. Ben Carson seems like a nice enough man, but my real feeling is that he is probably what they called a “Chamcha” in India under British rule—conveying a person without a backbone who facilitates the erosion of society by being uncritical and instead a pawn of the empire. I hope I am wrong.

But even more than that, the real issue is not Ben Carson.

In normal times, you can almost compartmentalize a HUD nominee and evaluate the nominee on his or her own merits, separate from the President. HUD can typically function with a certain level of autonomy from the President. You can have a leader like Jack Kemp being given a degree of space for enacting his own vision.

But these are not normal times. This is not a normal president. And anything having to do with HUD or the issues in HUD’s purview must be evaluated in the context of Donald Trump, the real estate magnate. Instead of asking what we think about Ben Carson, we should be asking what does it mean for affordable housing and community development now that we have a Developer-in-Chief?

Before moving to DC, I spent most of my adult professional career in New York City. Among other things, I ran a grassroots nonprofit organization based in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights that was focused on housing justice in one of the most diverse zip codes in the country, and today is facing the threat of resident displacement and speculative real estate development. As someone who has lived in New York City and who has worked extensively on community development advocacy in the city, I am well familiar with Donald Trump as a developer.

So, what does it mean that the worst kind of developer—one of the biggest, wealthiest, and most aggressive developers—is the boss of the boss of HUD?

What does it mean for fair housing that a landlord with a history of fair housing violations is Houser-in-Chief? It means that Ben Carson’s ignorance of fair housing law wasn’t some incidental flaw—something that one might associate with the normal shortcomings of an underqualified political appointee—but rather, it is his central qualification for the job. It is license for racist landlords to discriminate more openly, for racist city leaders to more aggressively create policies and allocate resources in ways that segregate and exploit communities of color. It is the signal of the intent to dismantle fair housing as we know it.

What does it mean for the future of our neighborhoods that the president elect’s gilded real estate empire is made of luxury hotels, high-end housing, casinos, and golf courses? It means that, as long as the economy is growing, gentrification and displacement are going to get much, much worse. It means that the “Gentrifier-in-Chief” (as aptly named by Right to the City) will be unsympathetic to policies that would promote equitable development or mitigate the negative impact of new infrastructure that will inevitably fall disproportionately on poor communities and communities of color. It means that the continued existence of our neighborhoods will be at risk, now more than ever.

What does it mean for HUD to have a president who has been so cavalier about conflict of interest? And who has such a long history of ties to contractors, developers, predatory investors, and a whole set of players in the real estate industry? What does this specifically mean for federally subsidized housing and infrastructure development? With the worst of the industry taking their cues from the Developer in Chief, I fear it will create a climate of graft where important and scarce federal resources will be siphoned into private pockets or will be channeled toward developments that have dubious public benefit. Any and all block grants, federal pass-throughs, and Public-Private-Partnership activities should be examined in terms of their impact on the Trump brand or their propensity to line the pockets of Trump’s companies and those that he works with.

What does it mean for HUD to have a president who has proposed multiple hateful policies targeting immigrants and Muslims? It means that all owners and operators of federally funded affordable housing have to worry about being drafted into Trump’s war against immigrants and Muslims, that affordable housers might be deputized into the surveillance state, and, like sanctuary cities, be blackmailed to violate the trust of residents at the threat of losing federal funding. Would Ben Carson have the values and the inclination to stand up to the Trump administration in the case of such scenarios?

So, I bristle at the question of what I think about Ben Carson as Secretary of HUD. It’s not the fault of the people who ask me the question, it’s the state of our politics, which are in crisis. What is happening is not normal, and we can’t respond as if it is business as usual.

In the days ahead, affordable housing, community development, and fair housing advocates must step beyond our normal advocacy. In these times, we can’t narrowly focus on HUD or the agencies, appointments, programs, and issues that are normally in our wheelhouse. We must step up and stand with the communities made more vulnerable by this recent election, and we must stand for a broad, inclusive vision of social, racial, and economic justice. It is not only what is morally right but also what is tactically necessary. If we do not ally with larger movements, the Developer in Chief will steamroll us faster than a bulldozer clearing tenements for the next new, shiny Trump Tower.

(Image: By Christine Rondeau, vif flickr, CC BY 2.0)

About the author more ยป

Seema Agnani is executive director of National CAPACD, and has nearly 20 years of experience working in the community development and immigrant rights sectors, focused primarily on the challenges of providing housing, economic opportunity, and support systems for new immigrants. She is a founder and former executive director of Chhaya CDC, a member of National CAPACD that works with New Yorkers of South Asian origin to advocate for and build economically stable, sustainable, and thriving communities. Her former positions include coordinating consultant to the Fund for New Citizens at The New York Community Trust, and director of Training and Technical Assistance at Citizens Committee for NYC. She began her work in New York City with Asian Americans for Equality.

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COMMENTS

Rich Gross
17 Jan 17, 2:15 pm

Great article!  Thanks.  I’ve sent this around to others at Enterprise.

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