Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Visits Aurora
Only African-American in Trump's Cabinet
by Annette Walker
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was recently in Aurora to focus upon a public housing development and the new Opportunity Zones.
Carson, the only African-American member of President Trump's Cabinet, was accompanied by Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare and Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman whose district includes Aurora. They toured the Village at Westerly Creek, which is considered an innovative example of public housing development.
Located on an 11-acre site bounded by the waterway, E. Kentucky Place and Ironton, Westerly Creek is a public-private partnership funded with HUD money, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), some private and other funding sources.
Established in 2012, Westerly Creek has developed in three stages, and the last phase will be completed by the end of October. The $51 million project features 144 residential units for senior citizens and 50 units for families.
Westerly Creek differs from the minimalist nature of most low-income public housing. It boasts ultra-modern structural design and amenities such as community rooms for large events, exercise rooms, hair salons and attractive landscapes including community gardens.
"Rents for seniors in the new section being completed now range from $462 to $968, said Craig Maraschky, Executive Director of the Aurora Housing Authority. "A two bedroom unit ranges from $547 to $1155."
Maraschky said that that residents in the new section are 28% white, 33% African-American, 28% Asian, 7% Hispanic and 7% others.
Carson was impressed with Westerly Creek. "It really goes to show what can be done when you plan it out well and when you spend time learning from other things that did not work well," he said, "and more importantly, when you have public-private partnerships."
Westerly Creek, however, is a bright spot in the midst of the affordable housing crisis that has beset not only Aurora, but metropolitan Denver and Colorado in general. Maraschky said that the waiting list for senior housing is five years long.
Furthermore, in a statement released following Dr. Carson's visit, Representative Mike Coffman noted that "Undoubtedly access to affordable housing is a serious and growing problem in the Denver metro area."
The Aurora Sentinel publication analyzed a wide range of real estate, housing and economic studies and released the following information about Aurora. The Sentinel noted that for years Aurora was considered affordable in relation to other parts of the Front Range. However, the situation has changed considerably.
a) The average home price in the metropolitan Denver area is now beyond $500,000.
In Aurora, the average price is about $350,000.
b) The average one-bedroom apartment in Aurora is $1,125.
Studies show that housing costs average about one-third of a person's gross monthly income. Therefore, in Aurora in order to afford a one-bedroom apartment plus utilities, a person needs an annual salary of $44,000.
c) A person earning Colorado's minimum wage of $10.20 will have a hard time affording an apartment in Aurora and other parts of metropolitan Denver.
d) Many professional persons, such as school teachers, nurses and other medical practitioners are having a hard time making-ends-meet.
During his visit Carson visited Aurora's newly designated Opportunity Zone. Created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress in December 2017, Opportunity Zones provide federal tax incentives for ire-investment in low-income communities.
State governors were asked to identify potential zones. Colorado has designated about 20 areas, mostly in small town and rural locations, as Opportunity Zones. Aurora's zone is located just east of the Westerly Creek development. Planning is just getting underway.
Carson's New Endeavor
Carson has stated repeatedly that he believes people should become self-sufficient.
"Real compassion is not patting people on the head and saying, 'there, there, you poor little thing'. Real compassion is giving them an opportunity to realize the American Dream," he told reporters after the Wesley Creek tour in Aurora.
He has created EnVision Centers to offer HUD-assisted families access to support services that can help them achieve self-sufficiency. This, in turn, will make scarce federal resources more readily available to a greater number of households currently waiting to receive HUD assistance.
"Housing assistance should be more than just putting a roof over someone's head," he has explained. "These EnVision Centers offer a more holistic housing approach by connecting HUD-assisted families with the tools they need to become self-sufficient and to flourish."
In June, along with Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan, Carson inaugurated the EnVision concept in Detroit, his hometown. There are currently 17 communities nationwide establishing the centers. There are none yet in Colorado.
EnVision Centers will be financed and operated as public-private partnerships, a concept that Carson favors. HUD and other federal agencies, state and local governments, non-profits, faith-based organizations, corporations, public housing authorities, and housing finance agencies are examples of potential partnerships.
There are four key pillars of the self-sufficiency to be nurtured by the EnVision Centers: 1) Economic Empowerment, 2) Educational Advancement, 3) Health and Wellness, and 4) Character and Leadership.
From Health to Housing
As soon as President Donald Trump nominated Carson for the HUD Secretary's position, there were criticisms about his lack of housing policy experience.
"Working directly with patients and their families for many years taught me that there is a deep relationship between health and housing," said Carson in a statement released by HUD after he was sworn-in to his position. "I learned that it's difficult for a child to realize their dreams if he or she doesn't have a proper place to live, and I've seen firsthand how poor housing conditions can rob a person of their potential."
His parents separated when he was five years old and he and his older brother primarily lived with their mother who married as a teenager and allegedly only finished primary school. He often refers to his mother's demands that he and his brother perform well in school.
A graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School, he became a distinguished neurosurgeon. From age 33 to 61 he served as Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore.
In 2008 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is the recipient of numerous honors. He has written nine books (several with his wife who he met at Yale University). Together they co-founded the Carson Scholars Fund, which has awarded more than $7 million dollars in youth scholarships.
His memoir, "Gifted Hands" was the basis of a 2009 TV documentary of the same name and starring Cuba Gooding Jr.
(This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Denver Urban Spectrum)