With protesters dogging their steps at every stop, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, spent Tuesday in central Arkansas touring public housing units, meeting with local HUD officials, touring Goodwill Industries of Arkansas and Our House Shelter for the Working Homeless.


A spokesperson for Carson noted this was his first trip to Arkansas as HUD secretary, and was there to look over two public housing complexes, Silver City Courts in North Little Rock, and Parris Towers in Little Rock, that are being renovated as part of the Rental Assistance Demonstration program


The program converts public housing units to Section 8 housing, which gives public housing authorities the ability to tap private funding sources to meet maintenance and renovation needs, but critics fear it could reduce the already inadequate number of low income housing units available nationally, a problem the cash-strapped federal agency has found difficult to address in the face of tighter and tighter budget constraints as President Donald Trump calls for further cuts of nearly $9 billion in Fiscal 2019.


At a brief press conference held at Our House, a local family shelter that assists homeless families in breaking free of poverty, the only press opportunity on the day’s itinerary, Carson talked about a proposal he has entered to get people out of public housing; raise the rent.


Carson’s proposal, which is currently awaiting Congressional review, would raise rents on those who receive public housing assistance by increasing the current family rent contribution of 30 percent of adjusted income to 35 percent of gross income. Analysts say this could raise rent contribution requirements on the nation’s poorest from $50 per month to just over $150 per month.


“The goal is to empower people economically,” said Carson. “In terms of rent reform, we’re looking at ways to sustain the program. If you look at the program, you’ll see it’s not sustainable into the future.”


Carson said rent increases would be restricted to “work able” people, and he said elderly and disabled people would be exempt from the increases.


“We’re making absolutely sure that people are not being thrown out who are being supported at this time,” Carson added, but did not elaborate on how the cash-strapped agency would afford the financial burden of covering the cost of those exemptions.


Both Hill and Carson said one way of providing more stability for tenants while removing what Carson termed “perverse incentives” in the form of income limits that result in immediate disqualification should a beneficiary see an increase in his or her income that places them above the upper income threshold for receiving assistance.


Part of the proposal, Carson said, would change income verification from an annual requirement to a tri-annual requirement (every three years), which he said would provide a buffer for people to prepare for an increase in their housing costs.


“This way, people are incentivized to get a better job, or to get a partner or a spouse, because these disincentives will have been removed,” Carson said.


Asked about the concerns of demonstrators who were just outside the fence waving signs and shouting slogans protesting these very proposals, Carson dismissed them.


“I expect people to protest because people generally don’t like change,” the HUD secretary responded. “We’re trying to move from a system where people have been, in a very paternalistic way, told you’re are a victim and you can’t do anything and there, there, you poor little thing, to a system where we empower people to exit the system in a powerful economic status. And of course, some people don’t like that.”


Asked about the skills gap that has left over 6.5 skilled industry positions empty for a lack of people with the proper skills to fill those positions, Carson said Title 3 job training assistance money could help fill that need.


“It’s not something you can snap your fingers and fix overnight but you have to begin to put the process into place,” Carson said, using Goodwill Industries as an example of a successful training platform that teaches people the skills they can use to move up to the next level.


“Because the job market is much better than it has been for several years, this is the time to start those programs, but nothing will ever happen if we don’t start the process,” said Carson.


Hill added that skilled occupational training is critical for people who are coming out of prison, or who have lost a job, or those who are undereducated or who wish to change their career. He said Congress has tried to provide enough flexibility in how those funds are used to allow each state to direct funds based upon the individual needs and conditions that may exist.


“The skills are the most important thing we can do to in each of those areas,” Hill said. “That’s the nature of what we’ve done in Congress is to try and get all that job training money back out to the states with the flexibility to meet the kind of in-demand jobs that are unique to that area.”


Asked his view of Carson’s proposal to increase the cost sharing burden imposed on poor families, Hill said the proposal, which is still subject to Congressional review, is intended to promote self-sufficiency, to provide a buffer prevent the abrupt loss of benefits if a recipient’s circumstances improve, which has often ended up turning financial milestones into stumbling blocks.


“That kind of flexibility is important because I hear that from residents in many of our poverty support type programs,” Hill said. “Don’t make it a cliff. Make it where I can maintain some kind of benefit relationship and move up slowly. Don’t toss me out of a benefit program because I cross a line.”


With the proposed changes to low income housing support awaiting review, Carson was asked if any discussions have been held on possibly updating the department’s homeless definitions, which have not been updated in a number of years, although social patterns in education, career, family, and migration have undergone significant changes over time.


“I probably don’t want to get into a definition of words at this point,” Carson said, adding with a chuckle, “I would say, if you don’t have a home, you’re homeless.”


When pressed further, and asked about the increasingly common practice of households combining with additional adults and even families, called “doubling up” and “couch surfing,” the practice of staying with multiple friends or relatives for a succession of short term stays on the rise in recent years, the housing secretary repeated himself, flatly and without elaboration.


“If you don’t have a home, you’re homeless.”


Despite Carson’s claims the policy changes would have nominal negative impact, the Washington D.C. – based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute founded in 1981 to analyze federal budget priorities claims much the opposite.


In a report just released, the Center contends that the proposal would ultimately raise rents by an average of 44 percent on more than 4 million low-income households with rental assistance. Working families, the elderly, and people with disabilities would pay more than three-fourths of the total $3.2 billion increase, forcing them to divert money from other basic needs and putting some of them at risk of eviction and homelessness.


In Arkansas, the report says more than 45 thousand households would be affected, with the average rental increase to total almost $700 annually. Also, said the Center, the plan would give HUD unlimited authority to impose additional rent increases, allowing it to drastically cut rent subsidies for low-income Americans without congressional approval.