Ben Carson makes the right move rolling back Obama-era housing policy

At first glance, the news that HUD Secretary Ben Carson is dialing back an Obama-era regulation called “affirmatively furthering fair housing” is apt to be misinterpreted — as a move away from enforcing anti-discrimination laws. In fact, that Obama policy itself had been a radical — and impractical — departure from traditional fair housing enforcement, and Carson is pursuing a policy which one can hope will be more constructive.

“Affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH) had nothing to do with a common sense version of anti-discrimination enforcement, which has, historically, meant ensuring that minority buyers or renters would not be turned away from a home or apartment they could afford — when similar white buyers were approved. Instead, AFFH defined discrimination to mean that any jurisdiction which accepted federal community development funds should take steps to ensure that poor, minority households were included in affluent zip code, through the construction of subsidized housing.

This was ill-conceived on any number of counts. Such an approach would inevitably serve just a tiny handful of low-income households; land costs in affluent areas are high; so is the cost of subsidizing housing construction. What’s more, the social distance between rich and poor — or between the working-class and the poorest, for that matter — is a recipe for tension. Obama’s HUD, moreover, was sending an unhelpful message to poorer households — better to hit the housing lottery and move to Beverly Hills that to make the positive, incremental life choices that allow one to move up the ladder of housing, from lower to higher-income.

HUD historically has been charged with a key element in that process — making sure that poor communities are good communities, through public improvements. Cities have had an even more central role, by ensuring public safety and good schools.

Carson has moved in a sharply different — but thoughtful — direction. In this new era, HUD will look at communities receiving federal aid in the context of the extent to which their housing regulation — from zoning to permitting time, one presumes — impedes new construction, thereby making housing more expensive.

Photo: © Greg Nash