Secretary Ben Carson spoke Monday morning, March 27, at the annual DC conference of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). He focused his remarks on the need to reduce burdensome regulation. He also discussed the idea of a more holistic approach to community development and bridging across traditional subject matter areas in order to address community needs on a comprehensive basis. Is it possible that such an approach could find broader support in the Trump Administration?

Secretary Carson identified reducing regulatory burden within existing housing programs as a key area of focus. He encouraged the audience of housing professionals to consider new and innovative approaches to service delivery. He disparaged the bureaucratic approach as one more concerned about rules than about outcomes, and encouraged his audience to renew their focus on achieving outcomes through outside-the-box thinking. It will be interesting to observe how this perspective will be applied during the Secretary’s tenure, and which regulations take center stage in the Administration’s effort to reduce their impact.

Secretary Carson also encouraged the NAHRO attendees to consider new ways to break down traditional barriers between subject matter areas and to address community development on a more holistic basis. “How do we develop the entire community?” he asked. “How do we ensure there are adequate schools and education?” Beyond education, he also identified the issues of health and working with the Department to Health and Human Services; workforce development and working with the Department of Labor; and the criminal justice system, particularly skills and education for inmates, and working with the Department of Justice.

Could this insight impact the future of HUD programs that have this type of focus? The most prominent such program during the Obama Administration has been the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI), which represents one version of the approach the Secretary described. CNI has funded cross-silo housing and community development efforts tackling not only housing redevelopment in a particular community, but also neighborhood revitalization more broadly, including improvement of schools, provision of social services, enhancement of community amenities, and expansion of commercial activity. CNI has relied on innovation by local agencies and on community input from residents. Secretary Carson did not discuss CNI specifically, and the Trump Administration’s initial so-called “skinny budget” proposed eliminating CNI funding entirely. Many CNI projects also leverage local CDBG funds, with the skinny budget also proposed cutting.

Even so, one wonders – Could Secretary Carson’s insight about the importance of cross-silo, holistic community development lead to a program similar to CNI (presumably under a new Trump Administration brand name)? Could such a program also include elements touching more directly on health, workforce development, and criminal justice reform? Certainly Secretary Carson’s background in health care has many observers thinking about how HUD may expand its work to address health impacts within HUD-funded housing. This remains an open question in an uncertain and changing policy environment, but an interesting insight to hear from the Secretary and potentially something to watch going forward.