When HUD Sec. Ben Carson testified before the House Financial Services Committee last week, an issue we had hoped was dead and buried reemerged in the public debate: Whether to raise rents on the poorest residents living in HUD-assisted households. Earlier in the month, he suggested the Trump administration was backing away from the controversial plan, which has served as a distraction from the hard work of developing sensible, bipartisan public housing reforms. But at the hearing, Sec. Carson said as many as 400,000 people would likely be impacted by the increases.
Let’s break down what we are talking about. For many people, a rent increase from $50 a month to $150 can sound like it’s still quite a bargain. And it would be, if you earned $25,000 per year. But the people who pay $50 don’t live on $25,000 a year; they live on $2,500 – which is a little more than $200 per month. Increasing their rent to $150 means reducing the money they have to eat, or buy medicine, or ride the bus, from $5 a day to less than $2. Think about that for a moment. In America today, there are 400,000 people who live in public housing and only have $5 a day to pay all of their bills.
What happens if these 400,000 people choose food over rent? They would nearly double the homeless population. So in addition to the tragedy of putting them and their children on the street, the government ends up spending much more than the $100 per month they saved on a wide range of costs that are also paid by the taxpayer. It’s not just bad policy and bad politics, it’s also bad math. When Sec. Carson says that “obviously, we have to be concerned with fiscal responsibility as well as compassion and we have to do what we need to do to make the budget fit,” he makes a compelling argument against the rent increases.
The current system has real problems that need to be solved; recommending raising rents on the poorest people among us detracts from the work that needs to take place. If Sec. Carson is serious about solving them, and I believe that he is, he needs to repudiate this counterproductive approach that will serve only to hurt hundreds of thousands of people and help no one.