Housing Secretary Ben Carson defends hot-button policies, laments 'gotcha' politics

PHOTO: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Feb. 28, 2019 in National Harbor, Md.PlayAlex Wong/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH HUD Secretary Ben Carson defends policies, laments 'gotcha' politics

Housing Secretary Ben Carson is shrugging off tough criticism from House Democrats in recent weeks in an interview Wednesday with ABC News, lamenting what he calls a “gotcha” culture in politics and offering to sit down with his detractors and talk.

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The cabinet secretary came under sharp questioning at the hearing last month and was called out on Twitter for mishearing the housing term “REO” as an OREO cookie.

Housing advocates also have blamed Carson for what they say is an ineffective approach to address the lack of affordable housing in the country and unfairly going after the nation’s most vulnerable residents, namely immigrant families and the transgender community.

PHOTO: Housing Secretary Ben Carson speaks with ABC News, June 5, 2019. ABC News
Housing Secretary Ben Carson speaks with ABC News, June 5, 2019.

“It's silly, you know when we engage in ‘Ha! Gotcha!’ stuff when we have such big policy issues to deal with, and that’s what I want to talk about,” Carson said when asked about his May hearing.

Too often, he said, the opposing side in a debate embraces a mindset of “you’re evil, you're incompetent, you can't do this, your momma sucks.”

“And I think, 'Give me a break,’” Carson said.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., responded on Twitter saying she'd be happy to talk with him about housing policy and chided the cabinet secretary for making light of their exchange by sending her a package of OREO cookies.

Carson spoke with ABC News' Senior Washington Reporter Devin Dwyer at a housing exposition on the National Mall in Washington that featured several "tiny homes." Carson said he was interested in looking at possibly updating regulations surrounding the industry to address what he said was a crisis in affordable housing in the U.S.

Carson in recent weeks has faced blowback against his plan to bar undocumented migrants from living with someone who accepts federal assistance.

The policy, which isn’t expected to take place for several months, is expected to displace as many as 55,000 children who are in the country legally and qualify for federal assistance. The children and teens would lose assistance because they live with adults whose immigration status does not meet the legal requirements.

PHOTO: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Feb. 28, 2019 in National Harbor, Md. Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson attends the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Feb. 28, 2019 in National Harbor, Md.

Administration officials have said the plan by the Department of Housing and Urban Development originated from the White House, not Carson. Still, aides say the housing secretary quickly jumped on board and didn’t push back because he believed it made sense.

On Wednesday, the HUD secretary defended the move, insisting it’s putting people in the country legally “at the front of the line.”

“It's the law and you know we're a nation of laws," he said. "And if the lawmakers don't like it they need to change it."

That’s not entirely the case, however. While the law states undocumented migrants can’t receive assistance, for some two decades the government has allowed people who qualify to receive assistance on a prorated basis. The new rule would disqualify that person if they live with someone whose immigration status does not qualify.

Administration officials argue the old approach is still unfair because of the limited number of public housing units and landlords willing to take federal housing vouchers. Housing advocates say the approach will free up relatively few units – about 25,000 homes compared to the millions of Americans on wait lists – and hurt U.S. citizens because they come from immigrant families.

Carson also defended a revised rule that would give homeless shelters more power to decide how to accommodate transgender individuals. A 2016 HUD rule was aimed at preventing a transgender female, for example, from being forced to share sleeping quarters with men at a shelter.

Carson tells ABC News he would support shelters that provide individual rooms and bathrooms.

“All we're asking people to do to be fair,” he said. “And we've reached a point in our society where people can't understand fairness anymore. They just pick their group and they say everything has to work for my group.”

When asked about his tenure as housing secretary, Carson said he would classify it as a duty he had to fulfill.

“Would it be a lot easier to be in the private sector enjoying life, not having all these rules you have to follow, making tons of money? Yes, that would be much easier,” he said.

“But this is something I feel we're called to do. And if all the people throughout our history had taken the easy pathway, Where we'd be now?” Carson added.