Cisneros promises new flexibility

February 04, 1993

Henry Cisneros, President Clinton's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, came to Baltimore yesterday, bursting with energy, enthusiasm and ambition. On his first foray out of Washington in his new capacity, the former San Antonio mayor declared that bad though America's urban crisis may be, it can be overcome.

One of the benefits of changing administrations in Washington is that a new crew usually is convinced it can triumph in everything the previous bunch failed to accomplish. With the electricity of a gospel preacher, Mr. Cisneros declared that the renewal of America's communities is at hand. Details are expected to follow tomorrow, when President Clinton unveils some of his community development strategy at a meeting with 40 mayors, including Baltimore's Kurt L. Schmoke.

It is no secret that the new administration has at its disposal billions of dollars previously appropriated -- but never spent -- for community projects. Ever since the November election, cities and counties have been flooding the Clinton offices with wish lists that could be fulfilled with that money. The White House will now want to know which projects are ready to provide America's urban centers an immediate -- and long-awaited -- economic stimulus.

Baltimore has its wish list. At the top is the city's request to spend $60 million on demolishing five troubled high-rises at the Lafayette Courts project, near the Main Post Office, and replacing them with more than 500 garden apartments. This project is ready to go and would be handled by an engineering group known for its solid past performance. The proposal merits support locally and in Washington.

Without specifically addressing the Lafayette Courts proposal, Mr. Cisneros yesterday strongly supported giving local housing authorities the option of replacing badly deteriorated and unworkable high rise buildings. "We have to give communities more flexibility," he said at a meeting at The Baltimore Sun. At the same time, he insisted that cities like Baltimore will have to maintain their public housing stock at current levels. They will not be allowed to use Section 8 rent subsidy certificates as a large-scale alternative to public housing, he said.

These remarks underscore how urgent it is for the Schmoke administration to restructure the problem-plagued Housing Authority and the separate Department of Housing and Community Development. Both bureaucracies must be in top-notch working order so that Baltimore will not squander the opportunities expected to come from the new administration in Washington.

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