Dr. Ben Carson
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA)
Washington, DC
September 10, 2018

Thank you, John for the introduction. I especially appreciate that you have selected me as your opening speaker.

HUD and PHADA are strong partners, and we especially rely on your expertise and experience when it comes to formulating our policies and actions.  This summer, as I traveled around the country, I often meet with the local PHA’s to hear their views – like the Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment officials. So, I’m in constant contact with PHADA’s membership.  

In D.C., we know fall is coming when the stores start stocking Halloween candy, local newspapers start advertising for a Christmas Carol, and various trade associations come to town for their legislative summits.

This is actually a perfect time for PHADA to be in Washington, given the large number of legislative issues that are being discussed just blocks from here, including GSE and rent reform.

That’s why the HUD team is here today and appearing on several of your panels -- to give you an update on issues ranging from our expansion of Moving to work, to our new web-based reporting tool.  Today, I want to center my remarks on two key agenda items: fair housing and the housing choice voucher program.

During the Q&A session, we will explore a wider range of issues.

You may have read in the news recently, that a federal judge, in a 77-page ruling, dismissed a lawsuit which challenged our approach to amending the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, Rule. In particular, the judge upheld our decision to suspend the use of a computer tool to meet community fair housing obligations.  

Besides being a tongue twister – try saying Affirmatively Furthering quickly five times – the rule as it stands implies that we need to be even more interventionist, by adding additional regulations and complexities to gage whether a community is abiding by the Fair Housing Act.

The reliance on models and computer technology to make these assessments and decisions, which is at the heart of the previous administration’s legislation, takes the human element right out of the equation -- and, as some would say, common sense as well.

What we want to do in pursuing new rulemaking -- and why we’re asking for public comment from all parties concerned -- is to enhance fair housing. More specifically, we’re looking to lessen regulatory burdens, while at the same time, help local officials meet their legal obligations.

At the end of the day, we need to create a process where we move from computer analysis to finding real world workable solutions – and look to policies and programs which help families across America find quality housing.

What we ultimately hope to do is bring fairness to fair housing by increasing the supply of affordable multifamily housing. After all, the experts agree that there is an affordability crisis in the U.S. – that millions of working poor Americas are locked out of finding affordable rents.

While the prior rule focuses on analytics to discover discrimination, I want to take a closer look at the archaic local and state regulatory barriers – such as zoning and land use restrictions – that are preventing the construction of new mixed-income multifamily developments, whether in poor or wealthier neighborhoods.

Over 30% of the cost of a multifamily development nationwide, is the direct result of these type of regulations, which discriminate against everyone. And in some places the percent is way higher as a result of stringent zoning ordinances.

While the federal government cannot control local zoning, we can have influence by “incentivizing” local officials -- who would like a big juicy government grant -- to take another look at their zoning codes. We can’t do much with the stoke of our pen. But we can do a whole lot by requiring things be done by those receiving funding. In short, by going beyond tax credits to offering cash incentives.

Cities by definition, don’t have to be so prohibitively expensive for housing. The trick, according to one analyst from Bloomberg Business Week, is to get on board a wide coalition of “yes in my backyard” (also known by YIMBY) industry and community leaders to agree that the benefits of new housing will be shared by all.

The underlying logic is that by opening land for multifamily housing, builders will benefit from the right to develop more units, and so will low- and moderate-income families, whose rents will now come down as the housing supply goes up.

It’s all about the laws of supply and demand.

I should also mention that we are exploring new ways to drive fairness and choice for our tenants, by working to expand landlord acceptance of our housing voucher program – as it’s often a difficult sell to get landlords to participate in the program. And let me just add, that we recently made $99 million available, through our voucher program, to nearly 300 local PHA’s to provide housing to low-income disabled residents.

Now, to get to the center of the matter, we recently sponsored the first large-scale studies on how and why landlords treat people with vouchers differently from other renters. I’m sure you can guess the answers.  (And if this was a multi-choice question on an exam or quiz show, I’m sure you’d all pass or win a toaster.)

Landlords are frustrated about the program’s paperwork, inspections, and other bureaucratic processes, along with how local housing authorities handle and resolve tenant disputes. Some even point to the perceived lack of competitive rents. What landlords do like – and no surprise here -- is the program’s reliable rent deposits. To which, we should also add, is their honest desire to help others and “to do good.”

Overall, the decision to accept vouchers is a delicate balancing act which can tip either way -- depending on the landlord, tenant, local ordinances, and tight rental market.

So, the question is: how can we further the opportunities for our two million voucher families who seek affordable and quality housing?

In our recently released report on landlords and vouchers -- which centered on a five-city survey – the report noted how some local jurisdictions are undertaking a number of innovative solutions: which range from new insurance programs which cover unit damages and early lease cancellations, to providing landlord access to low or interest-free loans to rehabilitate their properties.

Of course, each incentive should be tailored to the local community’s needs and ability to fund such proposals -- there is no national clear-cut solution.

I’m not making any recommendations at this point, as I’m in a “studying mode” to get a better handle on the challenges. After all, we first need to understand why landlords say no to voucher holders, before we can persuade them to the point of saying yes.

My goal is to turn landlords from adversaries to advocates for the voucher program.

As with all our initiatives, we’re inclined for local and voluntary, rather than federally mandated and compulsory, solutions. It’s the best way to get a buy-in from all the parties involved -- thereby making it a “win-win” for both tenants and landlords.  

To further the conversation, I have formed an agency-wide taskforce, whose first step, is to take a landlord engagement listening tour. We’ll be starting right here in Washington, D.C. on September 20th at HUD, and then we’ll take to the road in the coming weeks -- with listening forums planned for Philly, Atlanta, Dallas, L.A., Salt Lake City, and Salem, Oregon.  

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us, in finding new ways to streamline the overall voucher process and discover even more creative ways to entice landlords. Only by listening to our landlord’s concerns and observations, will we be able to take the right steps forward.  

Working together, I believe we can successfully expand the scope and reach of our voucher program -- and at the same time, move closer to the spirit and the letter of the law of the Fair Housing Act. This is a noble goal we can all rally around.

Let me end with this thought. For generations, the idea of the government providing housing assistance meant only one thing—helping to pay the rent so families can have a roof over their heads. But we must also think about how we can help families access financial, educational, health and other opportunities, so they can move beyond federal aid and graduate into a life of self-sufficiency.

That’s why we recently launched our EnVision Centers, to help connect low-income households with a variety of resources and tools that will offer real pathways to economic opportunity and self-reliance.

As George Washington Carver -- the great American inventor and botanist of the prior century --- said, “where there is no vision, there is no hope.” We need to envision a new path forward, one that focuses on the whole family and not just housing assistance. And that’s what I want to bring to all our vulnerable families, a new vision: one of hope, self-respect, self -sufficiency, and the opportunity to exercise their God-given talents.

Thank you again for the invitation.

Have a great conference and I look forward to your questions.