WASHINGTON (AP) — Housing Secretary Ben Carson told lawmakers Wednesday that his department “has, is now and will continue to rigorously protect people from discrimination regardless of their color, race, national origin, sex, disability or family status.”
But during a three-hour hearing, Carson faced harsh questioning from Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee who were less convinced of his commitment to upholding the tenets of the Fair Housing Act, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.
“I am very concerned about the actions Secretary Carson has taken to undermine fair housing in this country,” said Maxine Waters, D-Calif., before asking Carson, “Do you believe that housing discrimination continues to be a serious problem in this country?”
“There’s no question there still is discrimination in our country,” Carson said.
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“Do you believe it’s a serious problem?” Waters asked, becoming exasperated.
“Any time you see discrimination, it’s a serious problem,” he said, adding that the Department of Housing and Urban Development “has not slowed down at all” in identifying and eradicating it.
Since stepping into his role as secretary, Carson has gone after Obama-era rules designed to root out and prevent housing discrimination and segregation, prompting fury and lawsuits from civil rights groups and housing advocates.
Carson suspended enforcement of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act, which for the first time required more than 1,200 jurisdictions receiving HUD block grants and housing aid to analyze its housing stock and come up with a plan for addressing patterns of segregation and discrimination. If HUD determined that the plan wasn’t sufficient, the city or county would have to rework it or risk losing funding. In May, a coalition of organizations sued HUD over its decision to suspend the rule, contending it had done so illegally.
Last year, a federal judge blocked HUD from delaying a different rule that calculates voucher subsidies based on ZIP code rather than region after civil rights groups sued, arguing that such a move would increase segregation and concentrations of poverty. And earlier this month, HUD published a notice that it is seeking public comment on whether to amend a regulation that establishes legal liability for housing practices that are neutral but have a discriminatory effect.
Carson has also come under fire for moving to overhaul HUD’s mission statement; draft language stripped “free from discrimination” from the motto.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, scolded Carson for failing to respond to her letter about the proposed changes to the mission statement, and she reiterated her concern about the shift in language.
“You’re an African-American male who touts that you grew up in public housing,” she said. “Are you looking at taking out the anti-discrimination clause?”
Carson said the agency hasn’t yet settled on the final language.
Carson also faced criticism for his proposal to raise rents for millions of households across the country and implement work requirements for tenants in public and subsidized housing. Carson initially said that the proposal would help tenants achieve self-sufficiency by encouraging them to work. But after increasing pressure, Carson seemed to walk back the proposal, telling reporters he’d suggested raising rents as a cost-cutting measure that’s since become unnecessary.
On Wednesday, Carson said he still backed the plan and reverted to his original justification, telling committee members “that it would give people more skin in the game and encourage them to bring in more income for their households.”
“I continue to advocate for fiscal responsibility as well as compassion,” he said.
Some Republicans on the committee praised Carson’s performance at HUD’s helm.
“I want to applaud you and this administration, not only for your efforts in attempting to root out discrimination, to promote affordable housing, but very, very importantly to help able-bodied citizens … achieve lives of dignity and respect that comes from self-sufficiency,” said Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, in his opening remarks.
Carson was also questioned on the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for the agency, including eliminating community development block grants and a capital fund that earmarks funds for repairs to public housing complexes.
This month, HUD and New York City Housing Authority reached a settlement to rehabilitate the city’s squalid public housing complexes, with the city agreeing to pay $1.2 billion for lead paint abatement and other pressing improvements.
“How do you expect NYCHA to meet these terms and make these upgrades when you requested zero dollars for the capital fund for FY2019?” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y. “It’s great that you are exercising proper oversight, but money talks.”