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Carson Talks Fiscal Restraint, Not Reverse Mortgages, in House and Senate Hearings

Ben Carson traveled to Capitol Hill on consecutive days this week to defend the Trump administration’s austere Department of Housing and Urban Development budget, hammering home his vision for the department as a lean agency that promotes personal responsibility and home ownership. But aside from a discussion of the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund, Carson didn’t touch on the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program in his prepared remarks.

The HUD secretary addressed the Senate and House appropriations committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, delivering identical opening statements that touched on some of his most common refrains: promoting the value of hard work, fiscal restraint, a preference for the local and state over the federal, and the benefits of public-private partnerships.

In a discussion about the importance of home ownership — another of the secretary’s favored talking points — Carson pointed out that President Trump’s budget calls for nearly $1 trillion in loan guarantee authority for MMI and Ginnie Mae, praising their role in helping Americans purchase homes.

“Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance premiums, along with the mortgage-backed security guarantee of Ginnie Mae, will continue as a path for responsible homebuyers to have access to credit so they can build wealth through home ownership,” Carson said to both the House and Senate.

He also lauded the Trump administration’s decision to halt an Obama-era plan to reduce mortgage insurance premiums for FHA loans, citing a shared desire to ensure the stability of the program.

“There is over $1.1 trillion in outstanding loan guarantees, which are subject to economic risk and uncertainty,” Carson said. “I take the responsibility for financial stewardship seriously.”

He hinted at further potential changes to the MMI Fund once the president nominates an FHA commissioner — a post that remains vacant despite rumors that Trump was set to tap former FHA head Brian Montgomery.

“I look forward to bringing on an FHA Commissioner to get their perspective on the state of the Fund,” Carson said. “Additional actions may be warranted so that we can put households in a path to success and provide upward mobility for borrowers.”

The secretary faced skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans about the Trump administration’s HUD budget, which would slash $6.2 billion from the department’s war chest — primarily through the reduction or elimination of rental assistance programs and community-building block grants. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, implored Carson to ensure that Americans with disabilities are not ignored under his HUD leadership, while Sen. Susan Collins — a Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation and HUD — opened with remarks that questioned the HUD budget’s impact on more vulnerable populations.

“While we need to pursue program reforms and find ways to reduce the share of HUD’s budget that is consumed by rental assistance, merely shifting the costs onto the low-income elderly and disabled households that comprise 57 percent of the participants in these programs cannot be the answer,” Collins said.

Carson’s comments, however, remained doggedly on message as he emphasized his commitment to reducing bureaucracy and allowing public housing authorities to forge partnerships with private enterprise and local government authorities, and he repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring that low-income citizens and those with disabilities are not left behind.

“So often there is too much bureaucracy, too many unhelpful hands, and too much unnecessary regulation, which drains our fiscal resources,” Carson said in his opening statement.

The secretary did emphasize the importance of housing counseling — but of the home-purchase variety — in response to a question from Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a fellow Republican, about how funding for counseling programs would remain steady under Trump’s proposed budget.

Carson decried what he described as a gradual decline in housing knowledge among average Americans; back when he was growing up, Carson said, “everybody” knew that you didn’t spend more than two and a half times your annual salary on a home.

“That kind of information has been lost, and that makes counseling ever more important at this time, so we have concentrated a great deal of effort on all of those housing counseling centers,” Carson said, adding that his HUD will look into online counseling tutorials geared toward people with different levels of housing knowledge.

Written by Alex Spanko