During his failed presidential run, Ben Carson won over conservatives with his scorn for government social programs that he said were good mostly for keeping people mired in poverty.
But at a hearing Thursday to confirm him as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Carson gave a more nuanced picture of how he would lead the $47-billion agency, whose core mission is to provide housing for poor people.
He said he wanted to get businesses and faith groups more involved in helping people in HUD-backed housing, and find ways to enlarge the role of private industry in backing home mortgages.
“I don’t think we have to continue to come to the government for everything,” he said. Asked by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) what would be best to do for someone on government assistance, Carson said: “Get them off it,” adding that he agrees that too many people are warehoused in public housing.
For worried Democrats, he gave assurances that he would not try to strip programs like rental assistance and said he wanted to intensify efforts to remove lead and other hazards that harm children living in older housing.
“When it comes to entitlement programs, it is cruel and unusual punishment to withdraw those programs before you provide an alternative,” he said.
He said he still opposed “extra rights” for LGBT people, such as gay marriage, but said he would enforce rules prohibiting housing discrimination against them.
“Of course, I would enforce all the laws of the land,” Carson said.
Carson, 65, opened his statement with an account of his own poverty-marred childhood living in “dilapidated” housing in Detroit, where his mother worked long hours as a domestic worker and he said he didn’t expect to live past 25.
Instead, he rose to become a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, heading the department by age 33. He said he found questions about his lack of experience in housing “humorous” because of what he knew about the capabilities of the human brain.
“A good CEO doesn’t necessarily know everything about the business … but he knows how to pick those people, and use them,” he said.
Carson had housing advocates nervous. In 2015, in one of his few statements on housing policy, Carson criticized a new fair housing rule pushed by the Obama administration. But during his hearing, he praised the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination.
“The Fair Housing Act is one of the best pieces of legislation we’ve had,” Carson said. “LBJ said no one could possibly question this, and I agree with it.” Carson didn’t say whether he supported the rule that he had criticized, saying he would be working to make sure that “fairness is carried out.”
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, a coalition of groups that work to prevent housing discrimination. “He said some things today during the hearing that gave me heart.”
Rice said she was also encouraged by Carson’s intent to overhaul HUD’s inadequate computer systems, saying the agency already has a three-year backlog of fair housing complaints. “People feel they have lots of things to hold him accountable for, and that’s the best we could have hoped for.”
During a mostly friendly hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of Trump’s biggest antagonists in Congress, noted that the Department of Housing steers billions of dollars to housing projects and grilled Carson on whether Trump might secretly benefit without Carson knowing because the president-elect has refused to sell his businesses or release his tax returns.
“Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?” Warren said. She said she was trying to “highlight the absurdity” of Trump continuing to hold business interests.
Carson struggled to find an answer, saying that he was “driven by a sense of morals and values.” When Warren bore in, he stumbled slightly, saying, “It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American.” He quickly followed up by saying he wanted to help “the American people.”
In taking over the agency, Carson will also be tasked with managing an agency with a long history of corruption scandals and sweetheart deals – some of them in Republican administrations.
“It’s a real risk,” said Mark A. Calabria, an economist at the Cato Institute. “It’s one of those things that if he doesn’t keep an eye on, he’s going to have some scandals blow up in his face. That’s always a potential with HUD.”
Before Thursday’s hearing, the transition team for Trump released an endorsement for Carson from four former housing secretaries: Henry Cisneros, Mel Martinez, Alphonso Jackson and Steven Preston. Cisneros served under President Clinton, and the others under George W. Bush.
“Some of us came in with deep housing experience while others had to learn it,” they wrote. “The singular, common piece of advice every HUD secretary is given is to listen.”
Carson indicated he was already taking the advice. He said he planned to go on a listening tour to hear from local housing officials and residents.
Calabria, a former Housing and Urban Development official and a former staffer on the Senate banking committee, said that Carson, like all Housing secretaries, will face entrenched interests: thousands of public housing agencies, advocates and big-city mayors who depend on community development block grant funds.
“If I were a betting man, I would bet that Ben Carson will hand over HUD that looks much the same as it does now,” he said.
2:30 p.m.: This story was updated with more comments from the hearing.
8:25 a.m.: This story was updated with comment from Carson.
This story was originally published at 3 a.m.