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Harvey Recovery Will Take Time, HUD Secretary Ben Carson Says


The immediate emergency response to Hurricane Harvey is over. And now it's about the long-term recovery for communities in Texas and Louisiana. For the White House, it is the first big test of how the administration can run the federal bureaucracy and bring aid where it's needed as fast as it's needed.

A key player in that effort is the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Joining us now is the man in charge there, HUD secretary Ben Carson. Secretary Carson, thanks so much for being with us.

BEN CARSON: My pleasure.

MARTIN: What are the biggest challenges for your agency in the recovery effort for Harvey?

CARSON: Well, there have been a lot of families affected, particularly HUD-supported families in the 39 counties in Texas that have been affected. We have to recognize there are 48,534 families. Many of them have been displaced. In addition with HUD multi-family units, you're talking over 20,000 affected families.

So first thing we're doing is finding out where those families are, looking at all of those properties, determining which ones people can be in immediately, which ones require some degree of rehabilitation - doing that relatively quickly. In terms of the way it's been done before, getting rid of a lot of the red tape so that we can get those families back in.

MARTIN: Will all the families who've been displaced - all those HUD-supported families get some kind of HUD housing?

CARSON: Yes. We will make sure that they're all taken care of. In many cases where things have been destroyed, we'll have to go to some transitional housing first. But yes, we'll be taking care of all of them.

MARTIN: You say your agency is interested in cutting the red tape that's blocked previous response efforts. I mean, what have been the specific lessons from previous storms - Katrina, Rita, Sandy? Besides - when you say cutting red tape, what specifically is your agency trying to do now that's different?

CARSON: Specifically, we sent many agents out into the field with the specific charge of determining how things can be done as opposed to why that can't be done. If you're familiar with bureaucracies, you know that as soon as you come up with a good idea and you're ready to do something, someone says, oh, you can't do that because of this. And, you know, I hate that.

MARTIN: And so you believe that by putting your agents in the field to just come up with solutions - and then you can just green light them? I mean, there are some real obstacles. There are real reasons that...

CARSON: Obviously, you look at those things. But anybody who's familiar with government bureaucracy knows exactly what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: There's been some criticism lately - you're presiding over a department that still has a lot of vacancies and that HUD is simply not staffed for a disaster on this scale.

CARSON: Well, there's no question that it's harmful that we don't have our complete complement of people, you know? Our deputy secretary, you know, was confirmed to the committee a couple of months ago. And still, they won't take the vote. You know, same thing with our general counsel and a number of other important parts. You know, fortunately, we have many people who've stepped up to the plate. And we're working very hard to keep things moving in a positive direction.

MARTIN: You say you want to cut the red tape, get people back into HUD-supported housing as soon as possible. Are you going to have the funds to do that? The president's proposed budget would cut HUD's spending by $6 billion. Are you concerned that that cut will mean that you can't provide all those people with housing?

CARSON: I think there's a lot of focus on, you know, what's being cut. And, you know, I think, perhaps, we should turn the focus to what is actually happening. Are people actually being helped? Is anybody being thrown out onto the streets? In fact, I think you'll find the answer to those things - no.

And, in fact, I think you're going to find that more people will be helped because of the way that we we're changing the focus away from just, you know, putting people into a house and changing that to creating nourishing neighborhoods and places where we can develop talent so people - so that their goal is not simply to stay there, you know, for the rest of their lives.

MARTIN: I'd like to dig into that a little further with you, though. You say too much focus has been put on the proposed budget cuts. Do you have no concerns that your agency will have to function, if this budget is passed, with $6 billion less than you can function now? I mean, where are those cuts going to come?

CARSON: Would I rather have more money than less money? Of course. Would I be able to do more with more? Of course. But we will use everything that we have in a most efficient and effective way. Already, with some of the changes that have been made, particularly in the continuum of care program with permanent housing solutions, you know, we're finding you're able to stretch those dollars much further by getting rid of a lot of the duplicative functions that were in place before.

So, yes, I would love to have, you know, tons and tons of money. But I'm also very cognizant of the fact that we're putting in jeopardy the lives of the next generation by continuing to run up incredible amounts of debt.

MARTIN: So you're willing to take the hit? Although the budget cuts that the president is proposing - how do those jibe with the tax cuts that he wants to make?

CARSON: Well, again, I would say let's focus on what he's done. I always say to people, the proof is in the pudding. And if down the road, you see that nothing is being accomplished or that we're moving backward, I think there can be a legitimate complaint.

But if in fact things are moving forward - we're getting more done; we're getting more people housed; we're getting a much better handle on the homelessness problem - then I think people ought to be willing to say, yes, that's what's happening.

MARTIN: And just lastly, a week after the election when the Trump administration was looking at Cabinet nominees, you let it be known publicly that you weren't interested in a cabinet post. You obviously changed your mind. But how are you feeling about that decision today?

CARSON: Well, there were some - there was some significant persuasion going on there. But, you know, I'm actually glad that I did it. I think, you know, things happen for a reason. And, you know, my whole life as a physician was involved with giving children a second chance at life. But frequently, I was disturbed by the fact that I turn them back into a horrible environment. Now we have the chance to do something about that.

MARTIN: Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Thanks so much for talking with us this morning.

CARSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "HOURGLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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