Cisneros urges demolition of high-rise projects

May 03, 1994|By San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON -- In a major rethinking of public housing that is sure to reignite passions over integration, U.S. housing secretary Henry Cisneros yesterday released a plan to demolish urban high-rise projects and disperse their tenants to middle-class neighborhoods.

Outlined in a scathing report called "The Transformation of HUD" that Mr. Cisneros sent to Congress, the public-housing plan is a key element of a broad streamlining effort. Congress would have to approve significant changes from current policy, but early reaction was positive.

Mr. Cisneros said that 1950's-style high-rise housing projects in large U.S. cities isolate and concentrate the poorest of the poor, creating an "interplay of urban pathologies" of gangs, drugs, unemployment and family disintegration whose "violence spreads to the whole city."

It may be the most frank admission yet by such a high-ranking public official of the failure of housing projects, lending the Clinton administration's imprimatur to what Mr. Cisneros called "common sense" observation, as well as the more studied conclusions of analysts.

"What exists in America today is unacceptable," Mr. Cisneros said. He called the notorious Chicago housing projects that he recently visited "as close to the approaches to hell as I have seen in America."

Calling integration "the best hope," he said project tenants should be relocated to new communities to "live with others who work and who share the values of work and expose their children to the ambitions" of middle-class residents.

The issue, he insisted, is "not about race. It's about ambition and hope and upward mobility and sheer capacity."

Acknowledging potential hostility from neighborhoods where project tenants would be located, Mr. Cisneros called on the metropolitan regions to "share responsibility" for the poor. He urged local politicians not to "incite the intense passions that are yet unresolved in our country over the questions of race and integration."

He also promised that moving project families into middle-class neighborhoods "can be done at no great cost to the suburbs or other areas of a central city," citing a 10-year program in Chicago, called "Move to Opportunity." That program, he said, has had "virtually no effect on neighborhoods but massively important effects" for the poor families.

Officials said that HUD development could be affected, depending on decisions by local housing authorities. The idea is to give local agencies more flexibility to tear down nonfunctioning buildings and replace them with alternatives that disperse people into the larger community.

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