Ben Carson claimed ‘people here illegally’ are keeping Houstonians from public housing. Here’s what he got wrong.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testifies at a House Financial Services Committee oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

After a Capitol Hill hearing with more than a few minutes devoted to a back-and-forth about whether a California congresswoman was asking about foreclosed properties or Oreo cookies, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson lobbed a tweet at a Houston congresswoman and claimed undocumented immigrants were keeping Houstonians from public housing.

But the Houston waitlist has nothing to do with undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for housing subsidies. But if one member of the household is eligible — including U.S.-born children, permanent refugees and asylum-seekers — they could qualify.

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Mixed-status families account for just 42 families of the 22,500 who live in Houston’s public housing or receive vouchers for housing, said Houston Housing Authority President Tory Gunsolley.

In other words: Families that include an undocumented immigrant make up less than 1 percent of families in Houston’s public housing system.

Moreover, housing subsidies are prorated for families with mixed immigration status — so undocumented immigrants do not receive any government money.

Instead, the reasons behind the 100,000-person waitlist in Houston dates back to the World War II era.

While public housing in cities like New York grew thanks to government subsidies from the 1930s to 1960s, Houston relied instead on the market to provide housing. The consequences of that decision show: One in 17 Harris County households gets some form of housing assistance, compared to one of every six in New York City.

As Houston grew and became more expensive, people needed more affordable housing. The government didn’t build any. Some private landlords receive government subsidies, but those properties too come with waitlists.

Fewer and fewer homes in Houston fall in the category of what’s called “naturally occurring affordable housing”— that is, private housing that is affordable to people with low incomes. As of 2017, 335,000 of the affordable multifamily housing units in Harris County were at risk of becoming unaffordable, according to a study by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium.

When Hurricane Harvey hit, the crisis only got worse. Some public housing properties became so unlivable that the Houston Housing Authority decided it had no choice but to rescind vouchers from residents in what it deemed unsafe conditions. A legal aid group sued the owner of a privately owned, government-subsidized housing complex over allegations that repairs were never done post-Harvey.

A study put together by the flood mitigation consortium warned that construction restrictions after Harvey would leave low-income residents with even fewer options when the next storm hits.

Carson was on the Hill to discuss a proposed regulation that would evict any undocumented immigrant. An internal analysis found the plan would put 55,000 children who are legal U.S. residents at risk for eviction because a parent would be evicted.

“HUD’s new proposed regulation would force housing authorities across the nation to serve as an extension of immigration enforcement instead of focusing on our real purpose— to provide safe, quality and affordable housing to low-income families, seniors, veterans and those with disabilities,” Gunsolley said.

sarah.smith@chron.com

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