U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came to Baltimore Wednesday to promote the Trump administration’s efforts to improve urban areas. But Carson ran into trouble when his entourage was kicked off the Southwest Baltimore property where it planned to hold a press conference.
HUD officials hoped to stage their event on a vacant lot, but didn’t ask for permission from Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ, which owns the land and hopes to build a parking lot there, said church member Gregory Evans. Evans asked the HUD group to move.
“It’s nothing personal,” Evans said from the church lobby, where he was reading The Baltimore Sun and checking children in to a vacation Bible school camp. “I didn’t know it was Secretary Carson. I just know there were a bunch of people over there that were taking over our site. And we said, ‘Why are they here?’ They’ve not even asked for permission to be here.”
Evans said the church has had persistent troubles with the lot, with construction crews for other projects leaving materials on the site.
After Evans confronted HUD officials, they scrambled to move the news conference to an adjacent alley.
Carson was not pleased. He cited what happened as an example of people refusing to work together to solve Baltimore’s problems.
“We just have all this animosity all the time,” Carson told reporters during the press conference. “For instance, you guys know, you were set up on this property, and right here is this church that said: ‘Get off our property.’ You know, a church? When we’re talking about helping the people. I mean, this is the level to which we have sunken as a society.”
When pressed to clarify his comments, Carson responded: “What I’m saying is, you know, we have a society in which people, instead of trying to be helpful, think only about themselves. That is a problem.”
Evans said the church serves the community, distributing clothes and food, offering addiction counseling and providing youth programs. He said HUD has done little to help the neighborhood under the Trump administration.
HUD officials pointed to the nearby Hollins House apartment building, which was renovated through a federal program. That work began under the administration of then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Carson’s visit came on the heels of Republican President Donald Trump’s controversial tweets about U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and the city. Trump began tweeting Saturday about Cummings’ 7th congressional district, which includes portions of Baltimore that Trump called “disgusting, rat and rodent infested."
Carson, the highest-ranking African American in the Trump administration, has defended Trump’s comments. Appearing Monday on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” he discussed his time in Baltimore and spoke of how, as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he treated children who sometimes lived in homes infested with rats and other types of vermin.
“Now, fortunately, God is giving me the opportunity to do something about it,” he said in the segment. “That’s one of the reasons I’m delighted to be in this administration.”
Carson’s hastily arranged trip — The Sun was notified Tuesday night of his plans — included not only the snafu over permission to use the location. It also involved a last-minute invitation to Cummings, whose district it is in, and confusion on the part of HUD officials over whether it was in an Opportunity Zone, a federal economic development program Carson sought to tout.
According to Cummings’ office, the congressman was invited Tuesday night but could not attend because of schedule conflicts.
Caitlin Thompson, a HUD spokeswoman, told reporters the neighborhood where Carson spoke is in an Opportunity Zone. However, government maps show both the vacant lot and the Hollins House building are just outside the boundaries of one.
The Opportunity Zone program came under fire this summer after ProPublica reported Kevin Plank’s ambitious Port Covington redevelopment — which is not in an impoverished area — qualified to be in an Opportunity Zone due to a mapping quirk. Plank, the founder of Under Armour, and investment partner Goldman Sachs stand to benefit from lucrative tax breaks for building the massive mixed-use project. (The Sun is a tenant on the Port Covington property.)
In his remarks Wednesday, Carson built on Trump’s comments a day earlier about “billions and billions” of federal money “stolen” or “wasted” in Baltimore. Trump and the White House have not offered any proof of extensive misspending or misappropriation of federal funds, and city officials have disputed the claim.
“Perhaps we need to look at how that money was utilized,” Carson said of federal aid that’s been delivered to Cummings’ district, which includes not only much of Baltimore city, but many suburban neighborhoods.
“The federal government has invested a lot of money in Baltimore and will continue to do so,” Carson said. “But as you can see from looking around, there are problems here in Baltimore. There are good things in Baltimore, there are bad things in Baltimore.”