On TV during his failed presidential campaign, Dr. Ben Carson came off to me as some kind of pill addict. Slow and dopey and prone to gaffes, he seemed the kind of doctor who got into medicine so he could write his own prescriptions. His dim demeanor screamed Oxycontin or something, to me. Clumsy grifter TV clown Donald Drumpf said it himself while campaigning against Carson in 2005: “Ben Carson is a very low energy person…even lower energy than Jeb [Bush], if you want to know the truth.”
Drumpf mentions the truth and honesty every time he’s lying. But meeting Carson made it even harder for me not to agree with Drumpf’s assessment.
Dr. Carson was no longer a brain surgeon (?!), or a Republican presidential candidate when we met, but rather, the chairman of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees the nation’s public housing projects. Like most everyone else appointed by Drumpf, Carson had no experience in his new, very important job.
I’d been assigned to follow Dr. Carson around as he toured several public housing developments in post-Katrina New Orleans. I mention Katrina because, prior to that governmental disaster, New Orleans had a robust public housing situation — I wouldn’t call it a “healthy” situation per se, but at least a lot of poverty-stricken people were taken care of, shelter-wise. After Katrina, New Orleans closed pretty much all of its public housing, and built new public-private partnership style “public housing” (scare quotes mine). The new housing is pretty damned nice — nicer than the former brick project buildings which gave the aura of prisons — but the new structures were clearly designed to lower the number of tenants (exact numbers below).
Carson and a small gaggle of reporters toured several of New Orleans’s revamped housing project developments alongside Governor John Bel Edwards and representatives from HUD. During the tour, we learned that the baseline market price for a one bedroom in Bienville Basin (formerly Iberville Projects) was $1,200. I don’t remember any apartments costing that much prior to Katrina, much less one-bedrooms.
“That’s the market rate now,” Governor Edwards told me. Of the Bienville Basin’s total 496 units — down from over 800 units at Iberville Projects— 155 are now reserved for public housing, 173 remain at market value, and 168 are reserved as affordable units for those utilizing tax credits and/or vouchers to reduce their rent.
We then all proceeded to a second, larger Bienville Basin unit meant for families. “We are pleased to currently be helping one-in-four people in need of residence,” sleepy-eyed Carson explained to all those gathered. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers at the time contained over 30,000 people.
As we walked on to a third destination, I heard Dr. Carson ask aloud, “What are the schools like around here?”
“We have several schools near here,” replied Gov. Edwards, “all charter schools.”
“Oh, really?” said Dr. Carson, pleased.
“After Katrina, almost all of New Orleans’s schools became charters,” replied Gov. Edwards, referencing one of the biggest controversies in Katrina’s wake. I felt Carson’s unfamiliarity with that much-publicized situation represented a HUGE red flag.
“Oh. Well, that was very proactive of them,” Carson smiled.
“It’s been a huge improvement,” claimed Edwards, despite that not being true.
I managed not to puke, and at Columbia Parc (formerly St. Bernard Projects), I made a point to ask Jereon Brown of HUD just how important knowledge of education systems is to running HUD.
“Oh very important,” he replied.
Of Columbia Parc’s 683 total units — down from 1,400 before Katrina — 229 are public housing, 182 rent at market rate, and 272 are eligible for rent-lowering tax credits and vouchers. Columbia Parc is also unique (and unlike Iberville Projects) in that there is a work requirement to live there.
The whole scene was deeply depressing. If Carson is an addict, then I feel for him. But if he’s simply a dimwit, then…just, wow.
Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.