WASHINGTON – At a training last month for hundreds of fair-housing advocates, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson crowed about his suspension of an Obama-era rule mandating that communities fix long-standing patterns of segregation.
The regulation, hailed as one of the most ambitious efforts to fight racial bias in housing in decades, was too burdensome on cities, he said, according to four people present. So was another Obama rule that held lenders and landlords liable for policies that lead to discrimination even if none was intended, he added.
The audience, many of whom had spent years working to make sure marginalized groups get equal access to housing, was stunned. “Tone deaf,” said one attendee.
The scene illustrated the uncomfortable reality for Carson as he nears the end of his second year as HUD secretary. Though he is charged under the law with eliminating discriminatory housing practices, Carson is also a longtime skeptic of using government power to remedy such inequality.
Beyond his attempts to roll back the agency’s fair-housing rules, Carson is overseeing a department whose fair-housing budget and staffing have been cut. And, notably, he has departed from the practices of recent Democratic and Republican predecessors of using their secretarial power to root out systemic racial discrimination by launching broad-based investigations into bias by banks, real estate companies and others.
Carson has only once used his authority as HUD secretary to scrutinize widespread housing discrimination, moving ahead under public pressure on an investigation against Facebook that was initiated during the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama’s HUD secretaries used the tool – known as “secretary-initiated complaints” – an average of 10 times per year, while President George W. Bush’s second HUD secretary used it an average of five times per year, according to a Washington Post examination of the agency’s annual fair-housing reports to Congress.