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What Would Ben Carson Mean For Washington's Housing Woes?

"Apartment buildings in Cascade" by SounderBruce. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

President-elect Donald Trump has picked retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to lead the federal housing department, a decision that could affect the response to Western Washington's housing woes.

It's unclear to what extent Carson, a Republican, will reshape the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Seattle-area housing experts say it plays an important role as the region grapples with soaring housing costs and rising rates of homelessness. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides insurance that makes home mortgages easier to obtain, helps give out tax incentives for the construction of affordable housing, and funds local programs combating homelessness.

Federal housing officials also set policy that shapes how agencies fight homelessness and how cities plan development and transportation. 

Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who served as the nation's No. 2 housing official from 2009 to 2011, said he doesn't expect major changes in the immediate future. Sims, a Democrat, was county executive for 12 years before going to Washington, D.C., to serve as the deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The federal government can't turn on a dime and it can't make a U-turn," Sims said in an interview. "That's really impossible. And you don't want a federal government that shifts that quickly and that dramatically."

That's because states, counties, and cities across the nation rely on the stability and predictability of federal housing policy and funding as they plan for the future, he said. Many of the department's programs, he added, enjoy broad support from Democrats and Republicans.

But Sims said he will be watching to see if the department continues to aggressively fight racial discrimination in housing. New leadership at the department, he said, could choose to back off legal fights against local governments accused of violating civil rights laws.

Sims said he's also concerned about "careless cuts" to the department by the incoming Congress. And he's worried about potential changes to a tax credit program that provides incentives for the construction of affordable housing. 

"People may say, 'Tax credits to build housing? No,'" he said. "And we're kind of saying, 'Then you've cut off a really significant range of housing being done that's not just for people who are poor.'"

Local governments in Western Washington also depend heavily on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund homelessness programs, said Tess Colby, who oversees homelessness services in Pierce County.

Colby's department, Pierce County Community Connections, gets about a third of its budget, about $3.6 million a year, from the federal housing department, she said. The rest comes from local sources and Washington state.

Pierce County distributes funding to 17 contractors that provide a variety of services for the homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, commonly referred to as HUD, helps determine how local governments help the homeless by tying funding to specific priorities.  

In recent years, federal housing officials have stressed strategies known as "permanent supportive housing" and "rapid rehousing" to fight homelessness, she said.

Several years ago, federal housing officials were "reactive" to priorities set by local governments and service providers, Colby said. Since 2009, they've taken more assertive stances on which sorts of programs federal money should be spent on.

"They really did go from being sort of the bureaucratic overseer to being innovative and a thought partner," Colby said. "And I don't know how many departments in the federal government you can say that about."