HUD secretary calls for increased deregulation after tour of Potrero Hill public housing

Carson calls for greater ‘cooperation’ between local, federal officials but offers no additional funds

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Tuesday echoed calls by a White House committee to deregulate the housing market and increase policing during a visit to a San Francisco public housing project.

“Evidence shows us quite clearly that the places that have the most regulation also have the highest prices and the most homelessness,” said Carson, addressing media after touring rehabilitated units at a public housing development in Potrero Hill. “Therefore it would seem only logical to attack those things that seem to be driving the issues.”

Carson’s visit followed the release this week of a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers calling, among other things, for greater deregulation of the housing market and increased policing of those sleeping on the street as solutions to the homelessness and housing crisis. The report claims that San Francisco could reduce homelessness by 54 percent with deregulation.

The affordable housing development at 1101 Connecticut St. was the first project to be completed under the Potrero Hill master plan, which calls for the rehabilitation of more than 600 public housing units as well as the creation of hundreds of new homes by 2029 as part of HOPE SF — a city program launched with $95 million in local funding. HUD is assisting HOPE SF through “its public-private partnerships” and its Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, among other things.

Carson repeatedly called for cities and states to cooperate with the federal government to solve issues such as increased unaffordability and homelessness, but did not promise additional funding.

On Tuesday, Carson, who spoke with residents at the Potrero Terrace and Annex sites about what it’s like to live in the units and what is driving affordability issues in San Francisco before talking to the media at the scene, repeated calls for deregulation.

He said that his visit to San Francisco was a “fact-finding mission” in which he was “looking at things and really wanting to solve the problems.” Carson’s visit coincided with a fundraising trip by President Donald Trump to the Peninsula.

He called on states and cities to eliminate density, height and environmental requirements that could stand in the way of affordable housing. He specifically cited a requirement that buildings in California have solar panels.

Carson also called for “by-right development,” meaning a project would be approved as long as it conforms with zoning standards.

“In San Francisco,” he said, “a single individual can protest and stop an affordable housing development.”

“One of the things nobody wants to talk about is NIMBYism — People base their NIMBYism on erroneous thinking, they think of the federal government in the 50s and 60s when they built these gigantic facilities that immediately began to deteriorate. News flash, we don’t do that anymore,” added Carson. “Now we’re talking about public and private [partnerships], appropriately placed [projects]. We’re not talking about a multi family [project] in the middle of a single family block.”

The White House report also called for increased policing of the homeless. Carson did not go into detail on the subject, but said local governments should support police in their enforcement efforts.

“If somebody is being violent, if somebody is creating a lot of disturbance, the police should have the ability to deal with that problem and should have backup and not be demonized for what they are doing,” he said. “Fighting with the police is not the answer.”

Around two dozen protesters who gathered at a public housing project in Potrero Hill Tuesday morning said that the report directly contradicted the advice of experts and advocates on how to address the crisis in San Francisco.

Holding signs that read “house keys not handcuffs,” the protesters chanted “Carson, Trump, you’re the reason we sleep outside.”

Sara Shortt, with the nonprofit Community Housing Partnership, said that the Potrero housing projects had been rehabilitated largely “in spite of” the federal government rather than with its help.

“If you look on the other side of the street you’ll see rundown, dilapidated public housing and that’s absolutely the result of the federal government underfunding public housing, underfunding the capital needs of these buildings and ignoring the residents who live there. As a result, many people have become homeless,” she said.

“They tout solutions like deregulation of housing, they tout solutions like the criminalization of the homeless, when these things are the exact opposite of what will help and they will in fact increase homelessness while at the same time they are taking credit for solving the problem,” Shortt said.

Since 2016, HUD has awarded some $172 million to San Franicsco, but the department’s budget has been cut significantly since the 1980s, and Trump’s administration has repeatedly sought to reduce funding for HUD-administered housing programs.

“It’s disingenuous to come here and tout public housing as such a great thing when his very administration has been cutting the funding,” said Shortt. “They are decreasing access for people to Section 8 vouchers…and have been making it harder for people to stay in their housing by saying that undocumented people can’t live here.”

Mayor London Breed issued a statement Tuesday noting that she had invited Carson to meet to discuss cuts to federal housing funding and the need for more federal housing vouchers.

“For too long we have seen a reduction in investments in public housing that has left our residents living in challenging, dilapidated conditions,” Breed said. “The Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of public housing, and in 2013 we had $360 million in deferred maintenance and we were getting just a fraction of that from the federal government each year. That’s not even close to what we need to make our public housing safe and clean for the families living in these homes.”

Carson would not commit to increasing federal housing funding, and argued instead that cities should be working to make better use of the funding and vouchers they had and should be more willing to work cooperatively with the federal government.

He said he would be willing to meet with the mayor, but does not appear to have accepted her invitation to do so on this trip. Regardless, Carson emphasized the importance of cities working with the federal government to address issues such as affordability and homelessness, as well as partnerships with the private sector.

“The federal government is designed to facilitate not to solve all our problems,[but] that’s not what many of us have gotten into the mindset of,” said Carson. “Places that are working are places where [we have been] having public private partnerships and people working together. There’s a lot more money in the [private sector].”

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