WASHINGTON (WTVD) -- U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson vowed on Wednesday to implement stronger carbon monoxide testing protocols in public housing, citing the recent evacuation of McDougald Terrace in Durham.
Carson, appearing before the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, faced a series of questions about the Durham housing crisis from the subcommittee's chair, Rep. David Price, D-NC.
"This subcommittee knows that the unmet needs in our communities are immense," Price, whose constituents include residents of Wake, Durham and Orange counties, said in his opening remarks. "The challenges facing HUD and its dedicated employees are vast, and absent a major infusion of new resources and policy interventions, we will not be able to effectively address our national housing crisis."
The Department is proposing a $48 billion budget in the next fiscal year - roughly $8 million less (15 percent) than its current funding.
"It has become painfully obvious that our public housing stock has deteriorated to the point of mortal danger for residents," Price said of McDougald Terrace's carbon monoxide leaks. "We're talking about very serious matters here. I think it's fair to characterize it as an emergency."
Price grilled Carson on new rules for inspections that would include mandatory checks on working carbon monoxide detectors; the congressman noted that the Democratic-led House has passed a bill that would make that testing mandatory.
According to Price, that bill has stalled in the GOP-led Senate, but Carson noted that Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, is working with him on legislation.
"You know we have communicated with all of the public housing and assisted housing projects. I made it clear to them that we expect carbon monoxide detectors to be in place and expect them to be working. We've made it part of the inspection process," Carson said.
Carson spoke to ABC11 during an exclusive interview in February about McDougald Terrace and the public housing crisis.
REP. DAVID PRICE: I want to start with something that's very close to home for me, and I'm sure you know about it already. The Durham Housing Authority has had well publicized problems involving carbon monoxide exposure, lack of heat, and numerous other issues. The development we're talking about is called McDougald Terrace. It received failing inspection scores for years and that wasn't because of carbon monoxide; carbon monoxide testing wasn't a part of that process, but they still failed. Hundreds of residents, including families with small children, had to be evacuated due to high levels of carbon monoxide, and the housing authority is currently conducting emergency repairs and moving people in as fast as they can. It has become painfully obvious that our public housing stock has deteriorated to the point of mortal danger for residents. I want to thank your field office -- the Greensboro HUD field office, the people who have assisted our housing authority. I understand that Durham is requesting funding from the Public Housing Emergency Capital Fund to reimburse some of these repair expenses. So first of all I want to ask for your commitment that HUD will continue to work collaboratively with Durham during this crisis and that you'll ensure the delivery of any and all emergency capital funds that Durham is eligible to receive.
SECRETARY DR. BEN CARSON: We've been working very closely with. We want to make sure they are taken care of.
Price: So you're giving me that commitment today?
Price: All right, thank you. I appreciate that. I want to now broaden this a bit to recollect that deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning were reported in South Carolina last year, and in that context, you indicated that you planned to move forward with the rule to require (Public Housing Authorities) to install carbon monoxide detectors in certain units. You've referred earlier today to grants that you've released to purchase and install carbon monoxide detectors, but no rule has been issued yet as far as I know. Let me ask you a few related questions in regard to that: first of all, can you update us on the progress you're making in terms of releasing a proposed rule, and then the inspection process, if you can also respond to that. Last year you had said you had just included in the inspection process a requirement that inspections check for working detectors. Is that still being done? What results are you getting from it? And when you talk about inspecting and checking, are you not just checking if detectors are there but what the carbon monoxide level in the units might be?
Carson: Well, obviously, like everyone else we were devastated by the news of the people who died. Obviously, that sparked a lot of activity. That's why we went back and looked at the rules that were in place and enhanced those rules, but, you know, we want an actual law to be put in place, so we're working with legislators to actually put a law in place because actually that can be done a lot faster than the rule-making process.
Price: Mr. Secretary let me just interject that we passed such a bill in the House. The sponsor was Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-IL, it passed in September, sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's, R-KY, desk.
Carson: Well, the Senate as you know, is working on the bill as well, right?
Price: You tell me. I hope you've been pushing them to do just that, which had limited success.
Carson: Sen. (Tim) Scott, RSC, -- one of the Democrats is working with him on that.
Price: That's good to know, but we, as you know, passed the law here because we agree with you that a law would be helpful. But I wouldn't be quick to assume that you don't have the authority you need already. We're talking about very serious matters here. I think it's fair to characterize it as an emergency. You have a statutory mission to ensure housing is safe, decent and sanitary.
Carson: I agree.
Price: And my own view, as you said yourself a year ago, that you planned to proceed with a rule.
Carson: And we're doing everything we can but we want to get an actual law on the books regarding it. You know we have communicated with all of the public housing and assisted housing projects. I made it clear to them that we expect carbon monoxide detectors to be in place and expect them to be working. We've made it part of the inspection process. As you know, we're revamping the entire inspection process with the NSPIRE system -- National Standards for the Physical Inspection of Real Estate. We've tightened that up, we've gotten rid of inappropriate inspectors, we've retrained inspectors to bring consistency to the process. This is a matter that's very, very important, and it's been going on for decades and it's unacceptable.
Price: It has and you are of course right that it's urgent, and I'm trying to get as specific as I possibly can in getting your answer on this. Is there a rule in process, as you suggested a year ago, that we could expect you to be promulgating about this?
Carson: We're working on the rule simultaneously as the Senate is working on the law.
Price: All right, and then your inspections, I understood you just now to say your inspections as of this moment include -
Carson: That's correct.
Price: Inspections for the presence of detectors -
Carson: Not just the presence but they have to be functional.
Price: That's what I mean, and carbon monoxide levels -- that would be the way you test whether the detectors are functional, right?
Carson: I don't know that the inspectors go in with some type of monitor is to find out what the carbon monoxide levels are.
Price: Wouldn't that be desirable?
Carson: I'm not sure that that's practical because -
Price: I believe it's quite practical because in Durham just now we've been doing it in every single unit and the results have not been happy ones. So it's a question, of course, of whether the detectors are functioning.
Carson: Well the inspectors themselves, maybe the public housing authorities, might be able to do that. The inspectors themselves would be tremendously slowed down if they're going to go in and do a carbon monoxide evaluation on each unit.
Price: All right, there are sampling techniques and other ways that one might approach some aspect of this, although every single apartment should be inspected of the presence of detectors.
Carson: I agree, and it should be functional.
Price: All right, we're going to pursue this and we want to be kept apprised of the progress toward a rule being promulgated. We of course will work jointly on legislation and the inspection protocols, of course. If you want to furnish any information for the record to clarify that, that would be helpful as well.
Carson: I appreciate your interest in that. We are every bit as interested.
Price: Thank you, sir.