Cisneros for the Cities

December 21, 1992

In "Mandate for Change," the post-election manifesto published by the Progressive Policy Institute -- Bill Clinton's favorite think tank -- the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suffers its usual fate. It is trashed. The president-elect's intellectual allies urge that its budget be cut 6 percent a year for four years. They complain that with 14,000 employees and a $25.1 annual budget, the agency is "far too big. . . has enormous overhead expenses. . .and much of what HUD employees spend their time on has no business being administered from Washington."

So once again, there is evidence why HUD's name rhymes with THUD. It is a star-crossed department long plagued by incompetent leadership, dismissal and denigration in top government circles and permanent residence near the bottom of the prestige ratings. In winning the White House, Mr. Clinton avoided the issues the department deals with -- housing for the poor, development of the inner cities -- as a form of political poison.

Given these circumstances, why would Henry G. Cisneros, the Hispanic wonder boy of American politics, agree to take the HUD post rather than run for the Senate from Texas? Three reasons come to mind: (1) There are 100 senators but only one HUD secretary; (2) Mr. Cisneros, having served four successful terms as mayor of San Antonio, has a genuine concern for and knowledge of America's blighted cities; (3) Mr. Clinton has assured him the next administration will focus far more forcefully on urban problems than his campaign tactics would suggest.

With deficit problems piling up on the president-elect, however, there is no likelihood the cities will get the kind of money ($12.9 billion) the nation's mayors have requested for more than 7,200 ready-to-go projects in 506 localities. As Mr. Cisneros himself said before his appointment, the age of lavish federal spending at local levels is over. "We're going to see new ways of doing things and it's not going to take the form of a grant."

While Mr. Cisneros has not specified what "new ways" and other "forms" he has in mind, they probably include major changes in the tax code to promote low-income housing and the kind of massive decentralization of his department advocated in "Mandate for Change."

Urban poverty is the root cause of a multitude of problems -- crime, illiteracy, family breakdown, poor health -- plaguing the nation. So long as the poor are concentrated so disproportionately in urban centers, like Baltimore, that cannot annex more prosperous environs and are outgunned in state legislatures, HUD will have to keep attacking a social disaster of mounting proportions.

If Mr. Cisneros becomes a respected spokesman for the cities, an official who obviously enjoys the president's confidence and has his ear, the only member of the Clinton cabinet who can speak for one of the nation's largest minorities, he could be a major player in the next administration.

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