Did Ben Carson just mistake an REO for an Oreo?

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson appeared to be unaware of a basic housing term during a hearing Tuesday, confusing "real estate owned," or REO, with an Oreo cookie.

In a House Financial Services Committee hearing intended to conduct oversight of Carson’s department, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., asked the HUD secretary to explain the disparity in REO rates between the Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But she paused when Carson appeared unfamiliar with an REO, asking him if he knew what it was.

“An Oreo?” Carson responded.

“No, not an Oreo,” said Porter. “An R-E-O.”

Carson then tried to explain an REO, responding, “Real estate.” When Porter asked him what the ‘O’ in the term stood for, he replied, “Organization?”

“Owned, real estate owned,” Porter said. “That’s what happens when a property goes into foreclosure. We call it an REO, and FHA loans have much higher REOs — that is, they go to foreclosure rather than to loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales than comparable loans at the GSEs. So I’d like to know why we’re having more foreclosures that end in people losing their homes with stains to their credit and disruption to their communities and their neighborhoods at FHA than we are at the GSEs.”

Video of the exchange, which can be watched above, quickly went viral on social media, with Porter herself tweeting the conversation with the text: “I asked Secretary Carson about REOs — a basic term related to foreclosure — at a hearing today. He thought I was referring to a chocolate sandwich cookie. No, really.”

Carson later poked fun at himself, posting a photo on Twitter of himself holding a package of Oreos and promising to send some to Porter.

Still, some Carson defenders insisted Carson didn't make a mistake, but was referring to the term "other real estate owned," which the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency defines as real estate that is acquired to either fully or partially satisfy previously contracted debt. Often, the term is synonymous with “REO.”

Other Democrats took time at the hearing to press Carson on his decisions as the leader of the agency, including the decision to suspend the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and a plan that would evict families with mixed immigration status from public housing.

“Secretary Carson, across the board, these actions are inconsistent with HUD’s mission,” said House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, D-Calif., in her opening statement. “Instead of helping the hardworking Americans and vulnerable families the agency is in place to serve, the Trump Administration is actively causing harm, striving to make housing less available, affordable and fair.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the ranking member of the committee, thanked Carson for his work with Opportunity Zones, which were established in the 2017 tax reform law in an attempt to revitalize certain communities, as well as his efforts to scrutinize digital ads that may have defied the Fair Housing Act.

“I applaud Secretary Carson for his efforts to bring much needed reform to the agency including modernizing old programs, updating regulation [and] knocking down barriers to individual and local investment as well,” said McHenry.

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REO Foreclosures Law and regulation Ben Carson Maxine Waters Patrick McHenry HUD House Financial Services Committee