As the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson is arguably one of the most powerful people in the U.S. when it comes to housing policy and regulations.
So it came as an unpleasant shock to some lawmakers and political observers on Tuesday when Carson briefly confused REO, a term meaning “real estate owned,” or bank-owned properties, with Oreo cookies.
“Do you know what an REO is?” Rep. Katie Porter, a freshman California Democrat asked Carson during a hearing in Washington, D.C.
“An Oreo?” Carson responded, his voice hesitant.
“No, not an Oreo,” Porter replied. “An R, E, O. REO.”
Carson then appeared to guess (correctly) that the “R” and “E” stand for “real estate.” But when Porter pushed him on what the “O” stands for, he took a guess that proved incorrect.
“Organization?” Carson asked.
“Owned,” Porter replied, correcting him. She then went on to explain the term.
Porter later tweeted video of the moment.
— Rep. Katie Porter (@RepKatiePorter) May 21, 2019
The back and forth initially began when Porter tried to question Carson about why FHA loans have high foreclosure rates.
The term REO — which again, stands for “real estate owned” — is used to refer to properties that land on a bank’s books after foreclosure.
A foreclosure happens after a homeowner stops paying a mortgage for a time. A bank, in an effort to recoup its investment in the property, can auction that home off.
However, in some cases homes don’t sell at auction and they then get classified as an REO. At that point, the bank owns the property and can work with a broker to sell it.
So look, it is fair to presume many people don’t know what REO means, as it is a more technical and insider term to the real estate and mortgage industries.
However, as HUD Secretary, Carson would presumably have more cause to learn about the term, which is why his gaffe made headlines and appeared as a “Trending” topic on the social network Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.
Carson’s confusion also appeared to extend beyond the now-infamous Oreo moment. Several minutes later, as Porter pushed for additional information, Carson eventually responded that she was “getting way down in the weeds here.”
“If I got down in the weeds on every issue I wouldn’t get very far,” Carson added.
At yet another point during the hearing, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley pressed Carson about public housing. Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, was sharply critical of the conditions lower income Americans face in public housing. She concluded her remarks by asking several times if Carson would allow his grandmother to live in public housing.
Carson ultimately refused to answer the question.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley grills Secretary Carson on public housing, ends on this question – which Carson doesn't answer: "Under your watch and at your helm, would you allow your grandmother to live in public housing, under these conditions?" pic.twitter.com/AnqqcytDoz
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 21, 2019
Carson was a controversial choice to lead HUD from the get go. After Trump named Carson to the position in 2016, critics were quick to point out his lack of experience in housing and real estate issues (Carson as a former brain surgeon and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination).
Last year, reports showed also that political operatives similarly lacking in experience won promotions and raises from HUD as well.
Ultimately a third of HUD’s top appointees were found to lack experience in housing, with some not even having college degrees.
Carson has also come under fire for spending $31,000 on a dining room table set for his office.
Despite the controversy that has swirled around his tenure, following the Oreo incident, Carson attempted to downplay his apparent confusion. In a tweet, he said that he was eating Oreos and would be sending some along to Porter’s office.
— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) May 21, 2019