Dr. Ben Carson
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Philadelphia Union League 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Union League, November 22, 2019

 

As prepared for delivery. The speaker may add or subtract comments during his presentation.

Introduction

Thank you, Jim [Schultz], for that warm introduction, and I would also like to acknowledge Mike Roman, Bob Cavalier, and Greg Melinson for their hard work and kind welcome. It’s a pleasure to be with you all this morning here at this historic institution, the Union League.

In an 1863 letter, President Lincoln wrote, “My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty with which I am charged: maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country.”

Perhaps no single sentence better captures the mission statement of HUD and my personal vision as Secretary. My goal is simple: to uphold free principles and maintain unity through a constitutional and practical approach.

While HUD’s focus has traditionally been providing public housing assistance, I have long said that our measure of success is not how many people we can get into our programs, but how many people we can graduate out of them.

That means we must recognize government doesn’t always have the answers – in fact, when it comes to providing economic opportunity, the private sector is a whole lot better at the job. It is HUD’s role to make sure our free enterprise system and American ingenuity, are aligned with the right incentives to go out and produce opportunity within each community.

There’s a reason both of those words—community and opportunity—end with the same five letters: u-n-i-t-y. Without unity, we have no Union. Without our Union, we have no nation. Without our nation, all of our prosperity and freedoms would be lost.

The Union League understood this fact from its founding in 1862, when it was an instrumental force in fighting to keeping this great nation together. As patriots, we know that to love liberty is not enough – we must defend it. As President Reagan said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

So, the federal government must never interfere with bedrock American freedoms. Indeed, our government is at its best when it elevates opportunity and collaboration on the state and local level, rather than dictating policy from above.

We put this principle into action through a groundbreaking nationwide initiative called Opportunity Zones. And this morning, I am delighted to share not just HUD’s vision for the future of Opportunity Zones, but also to announce a new package of incentives we are unveiling today to further increase the impact.

Opportunity Zones

Opportunity Zones were created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to spur greater private sector investment into economically distressed communities through powerful tax incentives. These are communities where nearly one in three people live in poverty and unemployment is roughly twice the national average.

The Opportunity Zone tax incentive lets investors defer and lower their capital gains tax liability by investing in new businesses and developments in these neglected neighborhoods. If an investor keeps his or her capital in that community for ten years, the capital gains tax can be cut all the way down to zero.

This long-term lens means we can prevent the kind of fly-by-night developments that are “here today, gone tomorrow” and make sure new growth – and new jobs – are “here today, and here to stay.”

Taxes are a lot like gravity: it’s always there, it’s always weighing you down, and all you can do is accept it as a fact of life. My brother Curtis is a rocket scientist, but you don’t need to be in order to know that the less gravity there is, the easier it is for a rocket to take off. Well, Opportunity Zones are like relieving some of the gravity so we can launch a rocket of economic activity in places that have long been weighed down.

In less than two years, Opportunity Zones have already become home to nearly 35 million Americans in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. That’s roughly 10 percent of the country, deliberately targeted for revitalization.

In this way, Opportunity Zones reflect the conservative policies of this Administration, which catalyze economic growth by cutting barriers to business. Indeed, the American people are witnessing historic highs in the national economy and record low unemployment. Millions of Americans have been lifted off of food stamps, there are more job openings than jobless people for the first time on record, and, according to a recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Americans expect to be better off this time next year than they are today.

Opportunity Zones have a powerful role to play in helping all Americans participate in this rising tide of prosperity.

For example:

  • In Charleston, South Carolina, a $54 million-dollar tech corridor is finally becoming a reality, with Senator Scott crediting Opportunity Zones for making it happen. As he said in a recent op-ed, “For the first time, countless communities are being shown that they can compete.”
  • In Erie, Pennsylvania, a $50 million-dollar Qualified Opportunity Fund was created to anchor the development of a new culinary arts district;
  • Newark, New Jersey has seen the start of a $40 million-dollar fund to provide housing for schoolteachers;
  • Chicago is in the process of updating thousands of new affordable housing units; and
  • Los Angeles is leveraging the initiative to build new hubs of business and innovation.

To ensure Opportunity Zones reach their full potential, last December President Trump created the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council. I have the privilege to chair this Council, and to date, we have taken more than 170 actions to increase the benefits of investing in Opportunity Zones. These actions include new grant preference points, updated loan qualifications, reduced insurance application fees, and much more.

Among those actions, I am delighted to announce that today the Federal Housing Administration – or “FHA” – is unveiling a new incentive for Americans to buy or repair single-family homes in Opportunity Zones.

Specifically, this incentive will allow homebuyers to use the FHA’s Limited Rehabilitation Mortgage Insurance program to finance rehabilitation costs that are up to $50,000 dollars into the total mortgage amount. That’s an increase of $15,000 dollars – or more than 40 percent – over the current allowable maximum amount on single family homes outside of Opportunity Zones.

This means more families seeking affordable homes in distressed neighborhoods – where home repairs are needed the most – have a path to financing that makes it realistic to complete home repairs and improvements. These home improvements not only benefit an individual family but also an entire city block.

At the end of the day, housing is so much more than just a roof over someone’s head. It is the beating hearts, the brilliant minds, and the life stories of the men, women and children who live inside. But it’s also about the other members of the community, bound to each other by a love of country, who live next door.

That is our ultimate goal with Opportunity Zones – to revitalize distressed communities and so millions of Americans have access to better housing, a better education, and better jobs.

Conclusion

The League’s motto, “Love of Country Leads,” is a mission the Trump Administration shares, and one I am proud to carry on at HUD. One lesson I’ve taken from medicine is that doctors don’t treat conditions in isolation; we are silent partners with each of the friends and family members who are invested in a subject’s health. At HUD, our patient is the American people, those friends and family are our fellow citizens, and the highest measure of health is how many people are free to pursue the American Dream.

I am grateful to the Union League for your leadership and support, and I look forward to continuing to fight for those freedoms together.

Thank you.

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