Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek sat down with Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to talk about the importance of empowering people to be self-sufficient.
We talked about how Opportunity Zones are changing the way investments are made in America’s most vulnerable communities. We also talk about the rent increases that have been in the news recently, and the real story behind them.
After losing in the 2016 Republican primaries to Donald Trump, Carson went on to support Trump in his campaign. In this interview, Carson talks about his desire to help others and the offer President Donald Trump gave him after winning the election.
Jan Jekielek: The last time we spoke, you said something which I thought was very interesting. We were talking about how President Trump didn’t need—let’s call it all the challenges that his presidency faces right now, and that he went into it because he felt the country was going off the rails, so to speak. And as you were saying that, I was thinking there’s someone else that, perhaps, I’m speaking to right now that maybe is in the same boat. I wanted you to tell me a bit about your motivation for, perhaps, running for the presidency—but more importantly, your current work.
Ben Carson: Well, you know, I had no intention of running for the presidency. But after my speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, every place I went, there were people with placards: “Run, Ben, Run.” I had over 500,000 petitions in my office. And I kept thinking, “If I ignore all this, it will go away.” But it didn’t. It just kept building. So, finally, I just said, “Lord, I don’t have all the things that people need to run for president like a Rolodex with all the names and organizations and a ton of money.” So, I said, “If you give me all those things, I’ll run.” And, overnight, all those things appeared. And I was really concerned about what was going to happen to the next generations. As a pediatric neurosurgeon, I’ve always been focused on young people and what happens to them. And as we see the national debt accumulating, as we see our values and principles being eroded and thrown away, as we see the level of dissension and hatred increasing, I begin to realize that these were all the formulas for destruction and that maybe there was an obligation to get in there and try to do something about it. And that was my motivation.
Mr. Jekielek: And so how is it that you came to your current role as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development?
Dr. Carson: Well, you know, the president and I developed a strong relationship, and he pretty much said, “You can have whatever you want.” I was really quite resistant to doing anything. I wanted to stay in the private sector, because I really thought with the work that I was doing on various corporate boards—I was very frequently commentating on television, I was writing books, doing a lot of public speaking—and I said that really probably is something that will really help to turn the tide in our country. But then the president and the vice president and the chief of staff at that time and several others just convinced me that I really did need to do this in an official way.
Mr. Jekielek: And, so, you picked Housing and Urban Development, specifically? Why?
Dr. Carson: Because as a pediatric neurosurgeon, I spent so much time working on little kids, operating hour after hour, sometimes all day and all night—trying to give them a second chance at life, and then a few days later, being in a horrible dilemma of having to send them home. In many cases, we’re talking about places that were infested by rodents, roaches, and bedbugs; there was mold and lead and all kinds of hazards. And I just felt horrible. I really didn’t want to send them home, and this provides an opportunity to actually do something about those environments.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about that. The president signed an executive order last year creating the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, and he named you as the chairman of it. I understand there are 13 agencies that are actually being coordinated. So, can you tell me a little bit more about what the goals of this council are?
Dr. Carson: You want to be able to coordinate the efforts of all of these agencies because in the past, they kind of worked at cross-purposes—frequently, actually getting in each other’s way. And you know by being able to amalgamate all the self-sufficiency programs that we have and the other tools for economic revitalization, and to be able to respond quickly, because we’re all in communication with each other, helps this kind of effort to be able to move along quickly—and also recognizing that there will be bumps in the road. Having this kind of a council to quickly be able to hear what the issue is and be able to come up with a solution, rather than having to send it here and there and all over the place, and wait for a year before you get an answer. I think those are the kinds of things that really will help something to move along very quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: So, this council is basically focused on the Opportunity Zones programs, as I understand?
Dr. Carson: That’s correct.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s about 8,700?
Dr. Carson: Eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty-one.
Mr. Jekielek: These zones around the country … I was reading that it’s about 35 million people that live in these places.
Dr. Carson: That’s correct.
Mr. Jekielek: Apparently, there’s been about 150 different actions that have already been identified by the various agencies. Can you outline, perhaps, the ones that pertain to HUD or others some of what can be done?
Dr. Carson: Well, one of the things that we’re doing at HUD, for instance, is increasing the scope of LIHTC (Low-Income Housing Tax Credit). We have the LIHTC pilot programs working very well. So, now, moving it to the point where it will also be used for new construction and substantial rehabilitations, and streamlining the process for the whole application procedure and the processing—really cutting it in half. And that’s very important, with rising interest rates and other things going on, to be able to move quickly while you still have the enthusiasm of the people who wanted the investing.
Mr. Jekielek: So, in LIHTC … can you flesh that out a little bit for the audience?
Dr. Carson: This is a program that came about in the ’70s and it was specifically aimed at being able to create incentives for the building of affordable housing. [It] has been responsible for the largest, the bulk share, of affordable housing that’s been built in the country since that time. And it provides tax credits that are actually very enticing. You can get 4 percent tax credits or a 9 percent tax credits, and it really facilitates public–private partnerships, also.
Mr. Jekielek: So, jumping back to the council for a second. I’ll actually read something that President Trump said when he signed the executive order. “With the creation of today’s council, the resources of the whole federal government will be leveraged to rebuild low income and impoverished neighborhoods that have been ignored by Washington in years past.” Which areas are these that have been ignored by Washington, and how have they been ignored?
Dr. Carson: Well, each of the governors was given the opportunity—working with their various councils in their state—to select 25 percent of the economically distressed areas in their country. So, these are decisions that are not made by the federal government. They’re made by each of the states, by Washington D.C., and by five territories. And they, obviously, are going to be the ones who know which of the areas that are most in need of revitalization.
Mr. Jekielek: So, this Opportunity Zones program is kind of unusual in some respects. The one that jumped out at me, in particular, was that it doesn’t actually have any job creation requirements. And, correct me if I’m wrong, it only has investment requirements. Can you explain a little bit why that this is the case and what the idea is behind it working?
Dr. Carson: Well, if, in fact, you have economic investment in an area, that means that there’s going to be building going on there. And if there is building going on, somebody has to do it, and somebody has to support it. So, the jobs come automatically. And that’s particularly the case, now that we’re revamping Section 3 of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which says that if you’re receiving HUD federal funding, you have an obligation to hire, train, or give contracts to the low-income people in the area. Now, that’s been on the books for 50-plus years but has hardly been used, because it’s encumbered with so many regulatory and bureaucratic barriers. And that’s why we have recently embarked on rewriting it. The new rules should be out within the next month or so, which really severely trim all those negatives and make it much easier for employers to utilize.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically to get the employers to actually be able to hire the people it’s intended to hire? Is that the idea?
Dr. Carson: That, combined with some of our rent reform proposals—you don’t have to report your income every year, you can do it every third year. So, people who get involved in these training programs acquire these skills and start making some real money. They can start putting that money away and getting ready to have a down payment for a real home of their own.
Mr. Jekielek: I understand that people that need affordable housing—it’s something like if they have to spend more than 30 percent of their income or something like that? Can you tell me a little more how this rent reform work is going to work?
Dr. Carson: Basically, right now, if you make money—it doesn’t matter if it’s 30 percent or 40 percent, it doesn’t matter what you make. If you make more, your rent is raised accordingly. And one of the things we would do is, instead of your rent being raised immediately, you get a three-year window to assess what your income is, and then it will be changed accordingly. That, hopefully, will give people an opportunity to really see what it feels like to be in the same kind of environment as most Americans, where you actually want to climb the ladder of success, you actually want to make more money, and you actually want to be promoted.
Right now, you have people constantly who are in supported housing who get a promotion, and they turn it down. They don’t want the promotion because that affects their rent. So, you know, [it’s about] removing those kinds of perverse incentives. A lot of people have heard it said that Carson wants to triple the rate of rent on the most vulnerable people, and that’s blasted out all over the place and in the echo chamber. It’s not true at all. There are people who paid the minimum rent of $25 to $50, who are work-able, who are not elderly, who could be out there doing things. On those, we’re raising the requirement to $150. And if you know anything about the rent market, $150 per month is not very much—it’s very reasonable. But we want to encourage those people to go out there because there’s actually more jobs right now than there are people to take them. This is a wonderful time to get out there and start doing some training and start empowering yourself. So we’re not talking about tripling rents on elderly people—they’re exempt from that. And disabled people—they’re exempted from that. We are asking people who are work-able to get a job, work requirements.
Some people might think that that’s cruel, but that actually is not cruel at all, when you look at the fact that in 30 states, you can gain more money from accepting entitlements than you can from working a minimum wage job.
Mr. Jekielek: In 30 states?
Dr. Carson: A lot of people would say, well, does it make any sense to work under those circumstances? It’s not true, because if you work, you take that minimum-wage job, you gain skills, you gain relationships, you gain opportunities, and you climb the ladder much faster than you would by being sessile. That’s something that people in our country used to know that has sort of been forgotten, because we’ve been sort of in this funk for such a long time. And it’s changed people’s mentality. And we need to help bring that mentality back to the American can-do spirit.
Mr. Jekielek: Would you say that most of the new HUD public policies or the reforms are kind of geared in this direction?
Dr. Carson: It’s geared in the direction of self-sufficiency, keeping in mind that there’s a population of elderly and disabled people who simply cannot take care of themselves. And any compassionate society, I think, has a responsibility to take care of those individuals.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m sure everyone would agree with that.
Dr. Carson: I hope so.
Mr. Jekielek: How many people benefit from HUD-related programs right now in America?
Dr. Carson: There are about 4.7 million families, households.
Mr. Jekielek: And is that number shifting now with these … are you seeing the impact of some of these new policies yet, or are we just getting started?
Dr. Carson: Well, I don’t know that we can do much of analysis this quickly. You know, we can see some improvements in some areas, such as veteran homelessness, [which] year over year, is down 5.4 percent. Families with children homelessness [is] down 2.7 percent, year over year. So, we are seeing progress in certain areas. But we just have to keep moving in the right direction. There’s a lot of inertia there.
Mr. Jekielek: Once again, jumping back to the Opportunities Council. My understanding is that a big part of the idea behind it is for people to be investing in small businesses in these communities. Would you say that’s accurate?
Dr. Carson: Yes. [The goal is] to give small businesses an opportunity to get the kind of funding that they never have been able to get before. There are a lot of people who have very good ideas, but they just don’t have anybody who’s been interested in backing them or who even comes into contact with them and would know to invest in them. So, in a sense, you’re bringing the need, in juxtaposition with the resources, and that will automatically germinate and create something good.
Mr. Jekielek: I was reading that a lot of the investment that’s been intended thus far—the interest has been more investing in real estate in these areas and so forth. I’m wondering if you noticed that and how you plan to shift it toward business.
Dr. Carson: There’s been a lot of interest in housing, in multifamily housing. That’s actually a good thing, because we have quite a shortage of affordable housing right now—particularly in economically depressed areas. And the supply of housing, obviously, has a lot to do with the pricing.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Dr. Carson: So, supply-and-demand issues are going to be helped enormously. And one of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve traveled around the country—and I’ve done a lot of traveling around the country—is when you create these beautiful multifamily dwellings, other things tend to pop up around them to support them.
Mr. Jekielek: Communities.
Dr. Carson: You might even know this already, but because of what was going to be done with Amazon in New York, several things had already started popping up in that area. And, of course, they were a little bit disgruntled when they had announced that they weren’t coming.
Mr. Jekielek: When it comes to the rules around the Opportunity Zones, now, I understand that there’s some clarification that’s in process. And I know a lot of the people that have been talking to us have been asking, when are we going to find out the final version? Do you have a sense of that?
Dr. Carson: The first tranche of rules have already come out. And the second tranche [Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin says will be out within the next month. And then the third and final tranche should be out early this fall.
Mr. Jekielek: OK. So, now, how about in your travels—are there any particular moments in your travels around America that strike you?
Dr. Carson: I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a couple of months ago, and there was a sawmill down there that was closing and it was in an Opportunity Zone. I had a chance to talk to the people who acquired it; they discovered that it was going to be an Opportunity Zone and invested in it, revamped it, and now, we’re hiring a lot of people. And what’s really cool is a bunch of new housing is now being constructed in the area to accommodate the people who are coming in to work there.
Mr. Jekielek: Now I’m seeing how these different agencies are working together. That’s great. I think you made an agreement with the New York City Housing recently. I think you have someone there understanding it better. Can you tell me a little bit more about that agreement? It’s a pretty big deal.
Dr. Carson: It’s the largest public housing complex in the country, by a long shot. And it had fallen into disrepair, to say the least. And there had been some dishonesty in terms of what was going on with lead, and the lead abatement program there. Investigating that led to the discovery that there were multitudinous problems there, with the heating systems, the elevators, vermin. I mean, it was just—it was atrocious.
Mr. Jekielek: Like the places you were describing at the beginning that you don’t want to send people back to?
Dr. Carson: Exactly. In a situation like that, one of our options is to say that these people simply do not have the ability to administer a public housing program and for the federal government to take it over. I’ve not taken over any places since I’ve been the secretary; I have released some. If we had to do that, we would. But the preference is to go and work with the mayor and his staff, and to actually come up with a way that they could remediate all of these problems in a reasonable amount of time.
We decided that we needed to put in a federal monitor, someone who was very experienced with making sure that people got things done. And we’ve done that, and things seem to be progressing according to schedule, so far.
Mr. Jekielek: So, what’s the time frame on this? This is, as you mentioned, a giant operation.
Dr. Carson: The initial time frame is five years. And if they can get their act completely together in that amount of time, we’ll leave them to their own devices. You may have heard in the news that they’ve been given 20 years to remove the lead and that that’s too much time. That’s actually a misunderstanding. They have to make all of the units lead-safe within that five-year period. The 20-year period is for the complete removal of lead, which is different. Because you can have a unit that’s safe, and then you can go in and you can do what is needed to be done to actually remove all possibilities of lead in the future.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, that’s excellent. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience in a wrap-up?
Dr. Carson: I would just tell people to do your own research. Do your own reading. And not necessarily listen to people who have agendas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.