LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary came back to the capital city Friday to tour a public housing complex in what’s known as an opportunity zone.
There are 85 designated areas across the state that offer capital gains tax relief to those who invest in them.
“It looks very 50s,” Dr. Ben Carson said as he stepped into one of the apartments under construction.
Secretary Carson got a rare before and after look at how his department’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program has transformed Cumberland Towers in downtown Little Rock.
“Oh my goodness, look at this! This is nice!,” he said as entered one of the finished apartments. “This is the kind of thing we can do all across the nation.”
Carson called the complex a “good model” of what the program’s public-private partnerships can do.
“This is the way you can leverage the federal dollars,” he said. “In most of these cases, it’s leveraged at a high level: eight to one, 10 to one, 12, 15 to one. Where as if you don’t have that initial seed, it never happens… I think it’s going to be possibe to really get rid of pretty much all of the public housing units and create these kinds of situations for people.”
While Cumberland Towers welcomed Carson, protesters wanted him to go back to Washington to rethink proposed cuts to the 2020 HUD budget.
“Don’t cut housing for the poor! Stop Ben Carson at the door!,” they chanted in front of the Marriott Hotel and Statehouse Convention Center where the secretary was set to give the keynote address at the 2019 Fair Housing/Fair Lending Conference.
The group argued the current plan to cut the budget by 18 percent would increase rent for people in public housing, reduce funding for tenant-based rental assistance and cut 38 percent of public housing operating funds, among other things.
“If they keep cutting the budget, I won’t be able to take care of my family,” said Valencia White, a Little Rock renter.
When asked about their concerns, Carson replied, “First of all, the budget’s probably not going to change, ok? There’s always arguments about the budget back and forth. The more important thing is that we look at the homelessness situation and how we are going to deal with that.”
During his address, Carson explained to the crowd how HUD is addressing discrimination, cracking down on inspections and fixing perverse incentives.
Protesters outside also worried cuts to HUD would make renters’ lives worse in Arkansas since it’s the only state without an “implied warranty of habitability” law. A Republican filed the bill during the 92nd General Assembly, but it couldn’t get enough votes to pass.
“Obviously, there are standards for HUD properties, and we’re concentrating on those,” Carson said. “We’re updating our REAC system, which is more than 20 years old, to make sure that any properties HUD is supporting are up to speed. We’ve shortened the notice time to only 14 days… I would hope that we would continually raise the standard for the non-HUD properties because everybody deserves a safe, secure and affordable place where they can live in dignity.”