by Sharon Maeda
In the larger scheme of things, a $31,000 custom dining room set for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s private dining room is peanuts, especially in light of the current administration’s slashing of social programs.
But, this one is personal. I know that dining room and the new furniture are a small sign of the arrogance of federal cabinet secretaries who cut billions of dollars of much-needed education, health, housing, and human services funding and have no regard for the hard-working people who pay taxes in this country.
Carson—apparently in response to public outcry—has tried to cancel the order, but the vendor is a small business that has already spent $14,000 on the wood and work (and the federal government can be sued for cancelling an order in midstream), so the secretary is likely to have a great new dining set—at our expense.
I worked at HUD at a very different time. One of my first HUD memories is of Secretary Henry Cisneros’ comments on that dining room. He expressed surprise that cabinet secretaries had private dining rooms and in-house cooks. He would have none of it, though. He found another HUD job for the cook and designated the dining room was to be used for meetings or as a quiet space when staffers needed to practice speeches or review important documents. The major “dining” in there was brown bag lunches for teams working on major projects. And, once a year, the former cook would fire up the kitchen, bring out the china with the HUD logo on it, and prepare lunch for the housing press corps’ open-ended Q&A with Cisneros.
Yes, the dining room was a bit dreary with its dark wood paneled walls, but it never occurred to Cisneros to redecorate. We were there, as he often said, “to do God’s work.” There were problems with deteriorating and drug-infested large public housing “warehouses” that felt more like prisons than home, increasing homelessness, and increasingly expensive economic development projects pricing themselves out of communities that needed them most.
We had work to do and had little time to think about the décor. And, we worked hard, following our inspiring leader. On Sunday mornings, Cisneros would bring his family to HUD after Mass. His wife, Mary Alice, would sit on the sofa and read the Washington Post and the New York Times while his young son, John Paul, played on the floor. If the secretary could do his administrative paperwork on Sundays, we political appointees could put in long hours too, sometimes up to 80 hours per week. We all worked as hard and smart as we could to make a difference.
The Rainier Valley is home to many of HUD’s best projects. Nowadays, every time I go to a meeting at the New Holly Community Center or drive by Rainier Vista, I am reminded why we worked so hard. Today, I work every day in a building that provides affordable housing to many families who would otherwise be priced out of Seattle.
Last week, DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center) opened The Estelle on Rainier, providing housing for formerly homeless people with medical and behavioral health conditions. The Estelle contains beautiful studios, a community dining area, and a space for Harborview medical and behavioral health staff to assist residents. With Carson’s dining room set in mind, I asked DESC executive director Daniel Malone what $31,000 could do for the residents who no longer have to live in tents and doorways. He told me, it could pay for:
- The purchase and installation of toilets in all 91 units. Having one’s own bathroom is extremely important for people who have lived on the streets.
- The purchase of stoves with ovens for all 91 units. Cooking their own meals is another major exciting change for residents.
- One entire year’s operations and intensive service expenses for two residents.
The money now allocated for Carson’s dining room set could also buy many Section 8 vouchers or three tiny houses.
President Lyndon Johnson recognized the need for such programs and public-sector assistance and created HUD in 1965 as part of his Great Society program to meet these kinds of needs. Today, the current proposed budget cuts HUD by $8.6 Billion dollars. So, what’s a mere $31,000? It’s the principle, stupid.
Sharon Maeda was appointed HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs by President Clinton in 1993. She currently is station manager of KVRU 105.7 FM, housed in the Dakota Apartment Building, a HUD subsidized affordable housing complex constructed and owned by KVRU’s parent organization, SouthEast Effective Development (SEED).