Pointing to experience in Baltimore, Ben Carson sails through HUD confirmation hearing

Ben Carson cannot commit that Trump businesses would not benefit from HUD funding.

Retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson appeared poised to be confirmed as the nation's next housing secretary after he breezed through a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday in which he largely avoided difficult questions about the department he hopes to oversee.

The nationally renowned doctor said his experiences growing up poor in Detroit and working in East Baltimore gave him perspective on the $48 billion Department of Housing and Urban Development and its safety-net programs.

Carson escaped the combative exchanges faced this week by some of President-elect Donald J. Trump's other Cabinet nominees, in part by adopting a softer stance on the entitlement programs he criticized during his brief presidential run. He said repeatedly that federal rental assistance is essential for many families in need.

"If we can give those people hope, then they can move out of that situation," Carson told the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. "Giving them hope starts with giving them a safe and productive environment."

If confirmed, Carson would oversee a bureaucracy with expansive power to shape cities like Baltimore through development, federal grants and regulation.

About 27,000 families in Baltimore live in HUD-subsidized public housing or receive help to pay the rent.

The department also has a critical role in stabilizing the nation's home mortgage market.

In one of the few confrontational moments of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pressed Carson on whether Trump's real estate business could benefit from money the department distributes.

Carson did not answer directly, but vowed to develop a system by which HUD would alert the committee of those circumstances.

"Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will ... financially benefit the president-elect or his family?" Warren asked.

"I can assure you that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values, and therefore I will absolutely not play favorites for anyone," Carson said.

"Let me stop you right there," Warren said. "Can you just assure us that not one dollar will go to benefit either the president-elect or his family?"

"It's for all Americans," Carson said. "Everything that we do."

Carson, 65, managed to mostly dodge questions about controversial housing regulations that have become partisan flash points.

Carson has criticized a rule approved by the Obama administration to nudge cities toward reducing racial segregation, describing it as a "mandated social-engineering scheme."

On Thursday, his position was less sharp.

"I do have a problem with people on high dictating when they don't know anything that's going on in the area," he said. "We have local HUD officials, and we have people who can assess what the problems are in their area."

The rule at issue, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, requires local housing agencies to develop plans to reduce segregation. It was unclear, based on his answer, whether he would support the rule or try to unwind it.

Several low-income housing advocates said they were grateful to hear Carson's support for housing vouchers and similar programs, which make up the bulk of the department's budget.

"Contrary to what he had previously said, I was pleased to hear Dr. Carson state his belief that the federal government has an important role to play in supporting deeply poor households and families," said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But Yentel noted Carson's commitment to trimming the department's budget, which has concerned some housing advocates. Carson shed no light Thursday on where those cuts would fall.

Carson said he believed regulations to combat lead poisoning, a persistent problem in Baltimore, were good. But he did not discuss specific regulations, and quickly added that "I am just a little wary of overregulating, as were the founders of this country."

Carson appeared to take a centrist approach on Federal Housing Administration loans. He said he believes the government has a role in providing a backstop in the mortgage market, but added that the private sector should have greater involvement than it does now.

He said he would "really examine" a recent decision by the Obama administration to reduce mortgage insurance premiums.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who questioned Trump's nominee for secretary of state aggressively earlier in the week, said he got to know Carson on the campaign trail. Rubio described him as "an extraordinary and accomplished individual."

Carson, a former Baltimore County resident, grew up in poverty in Detroit. He used the hearing to recount his impressions of that time.

"I have actually, in my life, understood what housing insecurity was," he said.

With the help of scholarships, Carson earned degrees at Yale and the University of Michigan's medical school. At 33, he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, the youngest person to lead a major division at the institution. He retired from Hopkins in 2013 and moved to Florida.

Carson burst onto the political scene that year with a speech at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Two years later, he entered the race for the Republican nomination. His campaign theme alluded to his career in neurosurgery: "Heal, inspire, revive."

He was prone to controversial statements, often in criticizing same-sex marriage and gay rights.

Asked Thursday about protection from housing discrimination for gays and lesbians, Carson reprised language he used during the campaign, saying no one should receive "extra rights."

"I would enforce all the laws of the land," he said. "What I have mentioned in the past is the fact that no one gets extra rights. Extra rights means you get to redefine everything for everybody else."

john.fritze@baltimore.com

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