Ben Carson on Opportunity Zones, unity and red and black ants: TRD Miami Showcase & Forum

Carson also countered criticisms that the program is just a tax break for wealthy developers

From left: Amir Korangy and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson
From left: Amir Korangy and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson (Photos by Daniel Lateulade)

UPDATED, Oct. 21, 1:03 p.m.: When talking about federal Opportunity Zones, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said, the goal is to work together.

The one-time Republican presidential candidate spoke at The Real Deal’s annual Showcase & Forum in Miami’s Mana Wynwood. He used his time to talk primarily about his agency’s work involving Opportunity Zones, the federal program that provides tax benefits to developers who invest in thousands of distressed areas across the country.

The initiative, he said, has been a success.

“Through Opportunity Zones, the federal government is helping foster partnerships between people who may have never sat at the same table before,” he said. “Community leaders, public housing advocates, investors, builders, state officials and federal officials.”

Carson, a former neurosurgeon, also used the analogy of red and black ants to discuss the current state of the country.

On the whole, ants work well together and are “sophisticated” and “industrious,” he said. But, he added, they don’t always get along.

“There are black ants and there are red ants,” Carson said. “What do they do when they see each other? They fight. Now, if you are going to look in an ant’s brain, you are going to be looking a long time. That’s their excuse, what’s ours?”

Dr. Ben Carson

Ben Carson

When it comes to the Opportunity Zones program, Carson said he has not seen that kind of divisiveness. Carson has also said that HUD will give preference to developers and investors who build affordable housing in federalOpportunity Zones when it comes to certain grants.

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And while the Opportunity Zones project has led to massive interest from developers, the program has also drawn scrutiny among some who see it as a tax break for the rich. There are also concerns about whether the program will actually incentivize investment in low-income areas.

Carson also countered criticisms about , and during his remarks repeated a line he has used before.

“People complained that Opportunity Zones are just a way for rich people to get richer,” he told the audience. “The fact of the matter is that the rich are going to get richer anyway.”

He mentioned the work of Community Capital Management in Fort Lauderdale, which is planning to raise and deploy more than $800 million in capital within Opportunity Zones. Numerous other firms have launched Opportunity Zone funds, hoping to plow money into projects across the country.

During a discussion with The Real Deal publisher Amir Korangy that followed his prepared remarks, Carson touched on a new rule that will look to increase the availability of Federal Housing Administration-backed loans to first-time condo buyers.

The initiative was designed to increase the availability of low interest rate loans with minimal down payments. It comes amid a nationwide slowdown in the housing market.

Carson also took a dig at the media, where he is often criticized for his limited background on housing issues and his occasional gaffes. He instructed the audience to visit HUD’s website and view his list of accomplishments.

“People don’t want to hear about it on the news because it’s good news,” he said.