Advice For Ben Carson: How To Not Make America’s Housing Crisis Worse

Architects and housing advocates have a few tips for the former neurosurgeon who’s expected to take over the government’s $47 billion housing agency.

Advice For Ben Carson: How To Not Make America’s Housing Crisis Worse
[Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images]

Today, the Senate is expected to hold a confirmation hearing for Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon nominated to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If confirmed, Carson, who previously said he would decline a position in Trump’s cabinet and who has never held a government job, would run a $47 billion agency tasked with setting national housing policy.

Carson has said little about what he might do at HUD. But his distaste for government intervention–not to mention complete lack of experience running a federal bureaucracy–has alarmed housing advocates who fear he will gut the department’s more socially progressive initiatives. HUD offers rental vouchers to low-income families, provides block grants for urban renewal, and oversees a New Deal-era administration that helps homebuyers get loans, among other things.

Carson would assume the position at a crucial time: Affordable housing now eludes people in every single county across the United States. As CityLab’s Kriston Capps wrote last year, housing in the U.S. is “not just an economic crisis, but a moral one as well.” We spoke with architects and housing experts about the challenges Carson faces and what he could do to address them.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Founder, PAU

Challenge: Should he be confirmed, Dr. Carson’s primary challenge will be to overcome the anti-government pro-market ideology that pervades our public housing discussion. Understanding this is not rocket science (or brain surgery): It is the inadequacies in the market that necessitate a variety of public housing programs for the lower middle class and working poor.

Advice: HUD should redouble its efforts to strengthen communities in need, and should do so with a multi-pronged focus on density, mixed-use, social services such as health care and vocational training, mass transit, new building technologies, and great design that uplifts the public housing experience while expanding the lifecycle of our public housing stock.

Martin Pedersen, executive director, Common Edge Collaborative

Challenge: The biggest challenge is taking the extremely limited resources of HUD–relative to the real cost of addressing the affordable housing crisis in this country–and deciding which initiatives to choose. The department, even when it’s run relatively corruption-free, as it has been during the Obama years, is basically applying band-aids to a gaping wound. For his first term, Obama appointed Shaun Donavan, a real housing expert, who eventually became the president’s chief of staff, to head up HUD. For all his vision–and I think Donavan is a visionary leader in the field of housing–his initiatives were all small ball. Well-meaning, but so incremental, given the scope of the problem, that they didn’t make a dent in our housing crisis.

Advice: Number one would be for Dr. Carson to acknowledge the extent of the problem. He needs to talk to housing experts and not self-interested cronies. Historically, HUD has been an ethical cesspool, greatly compromised by real estate interests. The housing secretaries of both President Reagan and George W. Bush were accused of improprieties. We have now “elected” (sort of) an ethically challenged real estate developer president. This does not bode well for an innovative and squeaky clean HUD. I feel fairly certain that the agency will have a couple of major corruption scandals before all is said and done. So, my last piece of advice for Dr. Carson is: Try not to get indicted.

Peter Gluck, founder, Gluck+

Challenge: Financing the construction of much needed affordable housing.

Advice: Doing affordable housing, project by project, requires a huge amount of supervision and oversight of quality, speed, and cost. One answer might be to use modular or prefabricated housing, where construction quality is better, built faster, cost-controlled, and with less disruption to the site location over a much shorter period of time. In order to do this, an ongoing market must be provided so that factory production responds to an aggregate demand.

Claire Weisz and Adam Lubinsky, Principal-in-Charge and Managing Principal, WXY Architecture and Urban Design

Challenge: Position HUD as the engine for neighborhoods across the country. Fund neighborhoods to be catalysts of opportunity and mobility for their residents. This means supporting urban design efforts that will generate mixed-income housing and a range of job opportunities along with infrastructure investments.

Advice: Rename HUD. The Department of Neighborhood Development will be the government’s primary housing infrastructure and job-creation agency. New housing and neighborhood development designed to serve a mixed-income, mixed-use community will not only spur the development of schools, transit, and parks in those communities, it will also reintegrate our neighborhoods, which have increasingly become sorted by those who have benefited from technological change and those who have not. Housing is the key to changing that dynamic.

Challenge: Our cities are our future and they need reimagining with public investment. Aging buildings and infrastructure need creative reimagining and increased spending to ensure that we have what is needed for all Americans to have access to jobs and housing that meet the challenges to come.

Advice: Invest in and promote the planning of healthier cities and neighborhoods that are mixed use, mixed income, generators of jobs, zero net energy, and connect people through great public spaces. Recast HUD as the primary engine of economic development with a mission to achieve equitable growth.

Karen Kubey, urbanist specializing in housing and health, former executive director of the Institute for Public Architecture

Challenge: The United States faces increasing disparities in health: the richest 1% of men in our country live 14.6 years longer, on average, than the poorest 1%, and the gap is growing. Fair housing policy is necessary and no more “social engineering” than the history of urban policies that have led to the segregation of rich and poor, and contributed to vast inequalities such as these.

Advice: Housing is healthcare. Studies show that people who obtain well-designed affordable housing live healthier lives than residents who are rent burdened. Those with housing they can afford are less likely to delay healthcare for financial reasons, have a lower incidence of disease, and miss fewer days of school or work. To improve public health in the United States and reduce health care costs, we need to increase investment in public and affordable housing, strengthen fair housing policy, and promote design excellence in housing for all.

James Timberlake, founder, KieranTimberlake

Challenge One: Fully understanding and appreciating HUD’s mission, reach, worth, and legacy of outcomes.

Advice: Set aside what you have long preconceived about a governmental agency, especially from your political persuasion, life perspective, and pre-determined agenda, to learn from those who know more than you the net benefits of federal policy, programs, and funding that reach not only cities at large but many parts of rural America that without this agency and without private investment would be adrift, behind, and lost to generational progress.

Challenge Two: Once you’ve met Challenge One and become fully vested of the advice associated with that challenge, design with outside professional experts in architecture, landscape, planning, and urban design a true, partisan-free series of initiatives in affordable housing and urban and rural economic development.

Advice: There are professional, trained experts in all aspects of housing, urban design, and urban and rural needs and initiatives, that in an environment of collaboration, openness, and truthful exchange can offer intelligent and smart ways forward that advance rural and developed America, allow market forces to invest, and advance a new generational phase of this valued federal agency.

Challenge Three: Embrace data, technology, and urban initiatives that inform your reformed agenda following on Challenges One and Two.

Advice: Data and technology, and initiatives by smart cities and rural environments throughout the country, are knowable, shareable, and worth evaluating and advancing to those areas currently behind in utilizing this information and those tools. Leave a legacy of building, not demolition and destruction.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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