This story was co-published with New York magazine.

 

In mid-May, Steve Preston, who served as the secretary of housing and urban development in the final two years of the George W. Bush administration, organized a dinner at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., for the new chief of that department, Ben Carson, and five other former secretaries whose joint tenure stretched all the way back to Gerald Ford. It was an event with no recent precedent within the department, and it had the distinct feel of an intervention.

HUD has long been something of an overlooked stepchild within the federal government. Founded in 1965 in a burst of Great Society resolve to confront the “urban crisis,” it has seen its manpower slide by more than half since the Reagan Revolution. (The HUD headquarters is now so eerily underpopulated that it can’t even support a cafeteria; it sits vacant on the first floor.) But HUD still serves a function that millions of low-income Americans depend on — it funds 3,300 public-housing authorities with 1.2 million units and also the Section 8 rental-voucher program, which serves more than 2 million families; it has subsidized tens of millions of mortgages via the Federal Housing Administration; and, through various block grants, it funds an array of community uplift initiatives. It is the Ur-government agency, quietly seeking to address social problems in struggling areas that the private sector can’t or won’t solve, a mission that has become especially pressing amid a growing housing affordability crisis in many major cities.

Despite its Democratic roots, Republican administrations have historically assumed stewardship over HUD with varying degrees of enthusiasm — among the department’s more notable secretaries were Republicans George Romney and Jack Kemp, the idiosyncratic champion of supply-side economics and inner-city renewal.

Now, however, HUD faced an existential crisis. The new president’s then-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had called in February for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It was not hard to guess that, for a White House that swept to power on a wave of racially tinged rural resentment and anti-welfare sentiment, high on the demolition list might be a department with “urban” in its name. The administration’s preliminary budget outline had already signaled deep cuts for HUD. And Donald Trump had chosen to lead the department someone with zero experience in government or social policy — the nominee whose unsuitability most mirrored Trump’s lack of preparation to run the country.

This prospect was causing alarm even among HUD’s former Republican leaders. At the Metropolitan Club, George W. Bush’s second secretary, Alphonso Jackson, warned Carson against cutting further into HUD’s manpower. (Many regional offices have shuttered in recent years.) Carla Hills, who ran the department under President Ford, put in a plug for the Community Development Block Grant program, noting that Ford had created it in 1974 precisely in order to give local governments more leeway over how to spend federal assistance.

The tone was collegial, built on the hopeful assumption that Carson wanted to do right by the department. “We were trying to be supportive,” Henry Cisneros, from the Clinton administration, told me. But it was hard for the ex-secretaries to get a read on Carson’s plans, not least because the whisper-voiced retired pediatric neurosurgeon was being overshadowed by an eighth person at the table: his wife, Candy. An energetic former real-estate agent who is an accomplished violinist and has co-authored four books with her husband, she had been spending far more time inside the department’s headquarters at L’Enfant Plaza than anyone could recall a secretary’s spouse doing in the past, only one of many oddities that HUD employees were encountering in the Trump era. She’d even taken the mic before Carson made his introductory speech to the department. “We’re really excited about working with — ” She broke off, as if detecting the puzzlement of the audience. “Well, he’s really.”

The story of the Trump administration has been dominated by the Russia investigations, the Obamacare repeal morass, and cataclysmic internecine warfare. But there is a whole other side to Trump’s takeover of Washington: What happens to the government itself, and all it is tasked with doing, when it is placed under the command of the Chaos President? HUD has emerged as the perfect distillation of the right’s antipathy to governing. If the great radical conservative dream was, in Grover Norquist’s famous words, to “drown government in a bathtub,” then this was what the final gasps of one department might look like.


The Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Nov. 9 brought open weeping in the halls of HUD headquarters,