Ben Carson, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who made a political career preaching against government dependency, is now poised to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency tasked with ensuring that the poor have safe, affordable housing. Policy observers expect he might change rules to make fewer people eligible for subsidized housing or institute work rules similar to those imposed under the welfare reform of the 1990s. In that regard, his agenda dovetails neatly with the anti-dependency rhetoric of House Speaker Paul Ryan, so the chances of Congress acting as a check on Dr. Carson's inclinations seem slim.
That alone should be of concern in Baltimore, where the demand for affordable housing far outstrips the supply. In 2014, Baltimore opened its wait list for Section 8 housing vouchers for the first time in a decade. During a nine-day enrollment period, nearly 74,000 people signed up for 25,000 spots on the list, which were assigned by lottery, and only about a quarter of those who made the list will actually get vouchers. A May, 2016, Abell Foundation report concluded that Baltimore's affordable housing problem is two-fold. The city is home to a substantial number of poor households who earn too little to afford housing. Few of them receive government subsidies, so the rest are forced into unaffordable apartments in the private market, leading to frequent evictions and instability. But Baltimoreans who earn somewhat more — between $20,000 and $75,000 a year — are often caught up in rising housing costs in the city's mid-market neighborhoods. The upshot is that 57 percent of Baltimore's renters pay more than 30 percent of their earnings for housing, the report found.
But in Baltimore, the issues of poverty and substandard housing are inexorably entwined with race, and that is precisely where Dr. Carson stands to do the most damage to the city he long called home. Last year, HUD for the first time put policy teeth into the Fair Housing Act's mandate that the federal government affirmatively promote fair housing. It produced new tools for local housing authorities to measure racial and socio-economic segregation and tied funding to the agencies' efforts to foster integration.
Dr. Carson adamantly opposed the rule. He wrote a Washington Times op-ed calling it "failed socialism" and offering up a specious analogy to the unpopular school busing programs of decades ago. He went so far as to say HUD's efforts are equivalent to "redlining, restrictive covenants, discriminatory steering by real estate agents and restricted access to private capital" in that both are "attempts at social engineering."
"In practice," Dr. Carson claimed, "the rule would fundamentally change the nature of some communities from primarily single-family to largely apartment-based areas by encouraging municipalities to strike down housing ordinances that have no overtly (or even intended) discriminatory purpose — including race-neutral zoning restrictions on lot sizes and limits on multi-unit dwellings, all in the name of promoting diversity."
In practice, it means no such thing. The purpose is not to create new pockets of poverty but to provide opportunities for the poor to benefit from the economic and educational opportunities available in wealthier neighborhoods. Despite Baltimore's legacy of segregation, it has actually been a leader in helping poor, almost exclusively black, families to move out of poor, inner-city neighborhoods into more prosperous areas throughout the region. The mobility program, the product of a court order in a landmark housing segregation case, has provided extensive supports to more than 3,000 families, many of whom have moved to the suburbs with no appreciable backlash whatsoever. Crime hasn't increased in the neighborhoods they've moved to, and property values haven't dropped. By and large, their neighbors have no idea they receive public assistance. The only fault is that its scale is inadequate to the scope of the problem.
But the potential benefit to the families who participate is enormous. A 2015 study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found that Baltimore City was by far the worst among the nation's 100 largest counties (or county equivalents) when it came to the long-term economic effects of growing up poor. For each year a child grows up poor in Baltimore City, his or her earnings as an adult drop by 0.86 percent. The effect for boys is much worse. Meanwhile, in a companion paper, the researchers looked at the long-term effects of HUD's Moving to Opportunity experiment of the 1990s and found that poor children who moved to better neighborhoods before the age of 13 had starkly better outcomes compared to those who didn't. They lived in better neighborhoods as adults, were less likely to become single parents, and by their mid-20s they earned 31 percent more than their peers who didn't move.
Dr. Carson roots his beliefs about government dependence on his own experience growing up poor in Detroit. Now that he's going to be in charge of a major federal agency, he should root his policies in the data instead.