Like many housing advocates, Guillermo Mayer, president and CEO of the San Francisco nonprofit and legal advocacy group Public Advocates, wasn't happy with the nomination of neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In fact, the unexpected choice for HUD's leader was part of a wave of cabinet nominations he felt set a disquieting precedent.
"Many are wholly unprepared to spearhead the agencies they've been chosen to lead, or have views in opposition to those agencies," he says. "Ben Carson is a perfect example."
In response, Mayer and his colleagues decided vigilance was the answer. CarsonWatch, a collaboration between Public Advocates, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and PolicyLink, seeks to keep an eye on Carson and the administration, tracking his moves in person and online, to make sure vital housing and civil rights issues aren't ignored.
"This is the time for somebody to be leading HUD who understands the agency and can advocate for its beneficiaries," he says. "More than five million families are directly impacted by HUD. To have someone in charge who, from what we observed, didn't realize the proposed Trump budget was going to cut the budget of the programs that he was promoting on his listening tour, is troubling."
Documenting the secretary's public statements and appearances is more than trolling, say the site's founders. It's about holding Carson and the administration accountable, and keeping any changes to HUD policy and programs in the public eye. Many of Carson's previous statements on HUD, such as calling the Obama administration's anti-segregation Affirmatively Further Fair Housing rule a tool of "social engineering," have worried housing advocates. Mayer also expressed concern about potential corruption in housing spending, since the administration is heavily involved in the real estate industry, and Carson refused to promise that he wouldn't direct HUD money to the Trump empire.
The founders of CarsonWatch hope to broaden to coalition to include housing advocates in cities across the country, to both increase on-the-ground coverage of Carson and widen the discussion on housing policy. They also hope to engage lawyers, to see when and if legal actions may be warranted.
After launching in mid-March, CarsonWatch and its allies have attended Carson's poorly promoted listening tour, and plan to continue to report on his statements and public events. The upcoming budget deliberations offer an important opportunity to track how different HUD programs fare and keep the agency's leaders, as well as the administration and Congress, accountable.
While CarsonWatch may seem like a simple adversarial watchdog, Mayer has a deeper vision for the site. At a time when Anti-Trump sentiment is galvanizing progressive politics and protests, this is a moment where many Americans are thinking about their values and becoming more involved in local politics. This isn't just an opportunity for housing advocates to talk about what they oppose, but a chance to push progressive policies at the state and local level. If Carson comes to California, Mayer plans to be there.
"As we see the Trump administration demolish the safety net, we have a chance to redefine ourselves," he says.
If Mayer wants to bring housing policy to the forefront, one way to do that is to put more attention on a leader who's in the spotlight, yet hasn't given many interviews.
"We have not reached out to him and don't expect to hear from him anytime soon, although we would welcome it," he says. "He needs to look HUD beneficiaries in the face and explain what he's proposing to do."