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By Miriam Raftery

Photo by Gage Skidmore

December 11, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – Continuing his string of maverick cabinet appointments, President-Elect Donald Trump has announced he will appoint retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, also a former presidential candidate, to serve as Director of Housing and Urban Development. 

The appointment has drawn criticism due to Carson’s lack of experience and statements opposing affirmative action.  But others have voiced cautious optimism that the doctor, who was raised in poverty in Detroit, could bring a physician’s expertise and compassion to issues such as improving public health by cleaning up public housing.

Carson would be heading up an agency with a $48 billion budget. But he has no experience in housing issues, nor any governmental work.  Contrary to some “fake news” reports, he also never lived in public housing, though he did grow up in a poor family in an urban area.  Carson later said poverty is a “choice” that he chose to escape from, rising to become a neurosurgeon who gained fame for his success in separating conjoined twins.

He has openly criticized HUD’s fair housing rule requiring local communities to examine patterns of discrimination in housing, calling the rule a “mandated social engineering scheme” that he likened to government infiltration of private lives seen in communist countries. In a 2015 editorial, Carson wrote, “These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse.”

Critics have noted that Donald Trump and his father both have a history of racial discrimination in housing that they owned.  In 1973, President Nixon’s Justice Department sued Donald Trump and his father, Fred Trump, for discriminating against African-Americans in New York.  The case settled in 1975 with a consent decree that the Trumps were later accused of breaking.

New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams chairs the city’s Housing and Buildings Committee. He says Carson’s appointment is “ill-advised, irresponsible and hovers on absurdity.”   He fears funds for Section 8 vouchers could be cut. Moreover, in an interview on Democracy Now, he stated, “You have a president who believes in discrimination, I think, particularly when it comes to housing—he has an experience dong that.“ He suggests Trump’s appointment of Carson, who doesn’t believe in the Fair Housing Act or recent actions by the Obama administration to strengthen fair housing protections, could lead to a dismantling of those provisions.

But South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who is African-American, thinks Carson could bring a “fresh perspective” and that as someone who “actually lived in poverty” he could help others to escape poverty.    Scott says funds for inspecting public housing have languished for years unused. He wants to see more inspections done and also hopes Carson will work to create a path to transition people out of subsidized housing into the free market.

Some public health officials hope Carson will apply his medical knowledge for the public good. Mariana Arcaya, an assistant professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, observes, “Not having access to safe, affordable housing is one of the least healthy situations you can find yourself in.

Studies have shown that unstable housing conditions are related to health problems ranging from depression to drug use to lead poisoning in children. HUD actions that have positively impacted public health include banning smoking in public housing and setting acceptable blood levels for lead in children who live in federally subsidized homes.  Where housing is located can also affect residents’ access to fresh foods, medical services, parks and the ability to get exercise and fresh air.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says he has “no idea” how Dr. Carson’s medical training will influence his actions at HUD, if Carson is approved by the Senate. But he notes that neurosurgeons work as teams and must make detailed plans. 

Dr. Benjamin has offered up one healthy suggestion for Carson.  He hopes to se HUD release an annual report on the health of people living in public housing, so that successes in improving the health of public housing residents can be assessed each year.

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