On Wednesday morning, in a scenario the writers for America: The Show would likely have rejected as being a little too on-the-nose, Ben Carson got stuck in an elevator in an affordable housing project in Miami, Florida.
The celebrated neurosurgeon-turned-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development is on a listening tour to supplement his knowledge of HUD’s assets and responsibilities. He was visiting Courtside Family Apartments, an affordable housing project developed by the former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning in Overtown, a poor neighborhood near downtown Miami, when the incident occurred. Joining a long list of conservatives who have gotten stuck in elevators, Carson waited about 15 minutes before being rescued by Miami firefighters.
The development in question, which opened in September and contains 84 units rented to locals making less than 60 percent the area median income, isn’t a housing project managed by a public housing authority. It’s an example of the kind of private affordable housing development, made possible by both a local community redevelopment agency and the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, that the Republican Party once championed as an alternative to government-built public housing. Still, as Mourning probably told Carson, developing Courtside Family Apartments was a struggle that took nearly 10 years.
In traditional public housing developments, which have all but disappeared from many American cities, elevators were both a maintenance problem and a crime magnet. In projects like the notorious Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis development designed by Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki whose 1972 demolition marked the end of the public housing era, skip-stop elevators were implemented to save money and ensure (as the real estate lobby insisted) that public housing never competed with the private market. In New York, unique among U.S. cities in the scale of its continued reliance on public housing, elevators are the subject of new legislation after an 84-year-old man died in an elevator accident in 2015. Virtually everyone in public housing in New York has an elevator story.
In March, HUD was singled out by Trump budget chair Mick Mulvaney as a department ripe with “wasteful and duplicative programs,” a charge that former HUD officials say is ridiculous. The HUD secretary’s most important responsibility to the millions who rely on the department’s grants and rental assistance is to stand up to charges like that.
So in that sense, even an incident that might obliquely draw Carson’s attention to the funding and maintenance crisis in subsidized housing is welcome, whether the building is maintained by Alonzo Mourning or the New York City Housing Authority. And for it to happen in an elevator, a literal device for upward mobility? It’s a good start to the listening tour.