When HUD Secretary Ben Carson came to town at the end of last week, all of the players in the Dallas affordable housing issue were on pins and needles. Nobody knows yet how real the Trump thing is in terms of changing housing programs. Carson’s agency, HUD, is the mother of all housing money.
Still nobody knows. According to people in meetings with him who spoke to me later on a not-for-attribution basis, Carson was well informed on the city’s legal problems with HUD. In group meetings he may have been a little too prone to repeat Trumpian clichés, but on legal questions he was not merely disciplined but sphinx-like.
The only public peek came after he toured a South Dallas neighborhood near Fair Park. Channel 5 NBC News got a microphone in his face and asked him if he was aware of the city’s HUD money audit problems.
“Very aware,” Carson said.
The people I talked to thought Carson was smart not to get sucked into any local tricky business. Not that people weren’t trying.
At the same tour, when the reporter turned his microphone to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Rawlings said, “Look, the key is all the rules and regulations we have, making sure that we dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s correctly, and is it too much bureaucracy?”
Oh, sure! You have to pause here and recognize that Rawlings is a Democrat who went to Washington and cut a deal with a democratic HUD secretary, Julian Castro, to get HUD to eat, kill, trash and deep-six its own four-year investigation showing that Dallas was sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of HUD, lying about what it was doing with the money and then spending it in ways that violated federal law.
More recently and separate from all of that, the city’s own auditor last year found huge new sums of HUD money spent by the city without even basic bookkeeping to show how and why it was spent. Gumshoes from HUD’s Office of the Inspector General have been crawling over City Hall for months trying to help Dallas come up with the missing paperwork, and so far it’s still missing.
Plus, that was just a sample audit. The auditor stopped counting the unaccounted HUD money when he got to $54 million, but he said in his audit if he had kept looking he probably would have found more.
So Rawlings, obviously aware of the Trumpian anti-government mantra, tells Carson the only reason Dallas is in trouble with HUD is all those bureaucrats. Too many civil service pencil-pushers sticking their noses in where they don’t belong. That’s why Dallas can’t come up with the paperwork for the missing $54 million that the city’s own auditor came up with in his sample.
Too much bureaucracy! You know what that Dallas city auditor is? He’s a bureaucrat! And those inspectors from the inspector general? Bureaucrats, every last one of them!
The mayor had a perfectly good deal with Secretary Castro. Castro shipped the money out here by rail in bales. City Hall did as it pleased with it. End of story.
People here in Dallas who are on the ground to see that money when it hits the street — if it ever hits the street — are watching with jaundiced eyes while national news media struggle to cover the Trump budget proposals on housing. Almost all of the coverage is premised on an utterly false assumption that the tens of billions of dollars HUD sluices out every year get spent on poor people. Anybody paying attention in Dallas in the last five years has good reason to doubt that’s even vaguely true.
Yesterday The New York Times ran a nicely written story, “In Ohio County That Backed Trump, Word of Housing Cuts Stirs Fear,” about a HUD program called HOME that is supposed to pay for home repairs for poor people. People I talk to who are street-level familiar with that program in Dallas tell me they think at least a third of the HOME money that Dallas City Hall takes in never makes it out of Dallas City Hall.
When questioned recently by Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, the head of the Dallas Housing Department conceded that all of the federal money City Hall does disburse under the HOME program gets spent in the first few months of each year. But she also told Kleinman in response to a question that she has 15 full-time career city employees working on HOME.
Fifteen full-time year-round employees to do something that takes only a few months to accomplish? Stories like that one reinforce an impression many observers already have that the main function of HUD money here, even before it gets dished out to the fancy condo developers downtown, is to feed and clothe an army of city employees. What else would explain their culture of never even counting the money properly as it flows through their hands?
Council member Mark Clayton has suggested that maybe City Hall needs to start measuring its housing programs in terms of outcomes versus simple compliance. You know. How many homes did we get repaired, and how well were they repaired, in what period of time for how much money, as opposed to, “Did we make all the HUD money go away?”
And here’s the real tragedy. All of those programmatic and accounting questions are almost microscopically small potatoes next to the only national story anybody should be doing right now, the obvious one, the story about Clayton’s thing, metrics, but on a national scale.
The federal government is spending at a level of $63 billion a year on housing and community programs, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget — half again as much as it spends on either foreign aid or the environment, more than twice what the government spends on transportation and highways. And it has been spending at the level for decades.
By law, that spending is supposed to be used to eliminate or at least significantly ameliorate poverty, crime and racial segregation. So where is it? Where is the outcome? It shouldn’t be hard to find. That’s a huge sum, an enormous, specifically targeted allocation of the national wealth. Where are the results?
In Dallas the federal investigation that Mayor Rawlings persuaded the previous HUD secretary to deep-six had found that Dallas was spending its HUD money in ways that actually increased racial segregation. The money didn’t simply fail to reduce segregation. It made it worse.
Compare Dallas suburbs today with what the suburbs looked like 20 years ago, and the outlying areas today are wonderfully more diverse. The suburbs are a story of upward mobility and success. But I would defy anyone to show me how federal housing money played any role at all in that saga of success.
The Times story I referred to above ends with a heart-rending depiction of a young mother struggling with booze. She has only $1.50 to her name. She begins to cry, telling a reporter that she is trying to save for a tooth fairy present for her daughter.
Oh my God. I can cry reading a story like that. It’s hard not to cry. But you know what? She’s not the story. I’m sorry. I know it’s an absolute maxim of modern journalism that you always tell the story by showing the heartache. I don’t disagree. But for $63 billion a year, I want a much bigger heartache.
I spoke to a knowledgeable private sector housing expert yesterday, who asked not to be named, who said something to me that could make me cry and shout with anger at the same time. He thinks HUD is an absurdly bloated, sloppily run patronage gravy train whose primary mission is its own survival. This guy’s a liberal and definitely was not a Trump voter.
But he said if Trump blew up HUD tomorrow and eliminated every penny in its budget, he didn’t think it would have a significant impact on the lives of the poor. That is an unpardonable sin. We’re talking 42 billion tooth fairy presents a year, down the drain.
Is that the same thing the mayor was saying when he talked about there being too many bureaucrats? No, it’s the opposite. The mayor was talking about only one kind of bureaucrat, the kind who slows down the gravy train by doing audits.
If Carson and Trump were to make a real difference, they would start by doing on a national level what Mark Clayton suggests we do here. Get a definition of the mission. Measure the mission.
Fixing the kitchen for the struggling mother with $1.50 in her hand is not good enough, even if you manage to get it done the day before The New York Times shows up. Believe me. I’ve been on that beat. You just go find another alcoholic broke mother with a bad kitchen.
What has HUD accomplished to reduce poverty and end racial segregation, compared with the amount that HUD spends? For that, Carson needs more and better auditors, not fewer.