Cisneros says HUD actions stemming slide of cities Secretary urges support for empowerment zones

April 26, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- While all is not well in America's cities, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is working successfully with urban communities to stem their downhill slide, HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said yesterday.

Empowerment zones designed to revive inner-city economies, the move to tear down dilapidated public housing projects and programs to encourage homeownership in urban areas should be expanded, he said. His election-year speech was billed as the first "State of America's Communities" address.

"America's cities are at a point of rebirth and renewal," Mr. Cisneros told an audience at the National Press Club here. "We have been to the bottom of the well, and now America's cities are demonstrating that they're capable of climbing back."

Mr. Cisneros pointed to revitalization efforts in dozens of cities -- but offered no statistics -- to show that many urban areas are on an upswing.

"The cynicism, the doubt about our cities is so great, that only when we see these things can we believe them," he said, as color slides flashed behind him. They showed new neighborhoods of affordable housing in the Bronx and South Central Los Angeles, beautification and job training projects in a Detroit empowerment zone, and a public housing high-rise at the moment of its destruction.

Sounding themes of personal responsibility, family, employment and "community values," the HUD secretary called on Congress to support his department's initiatives.

But some House Republicans are calling for a repeal of empowerment zone legislation and public housing laws that have been in effect since the 1930s.

Urban communities "need jobs. They need private-sector capital [investment] in these areas," Rep. James Talent of Missouri said at a news conference held before Mr. Cisneros' speech.

He and other Republican congressmen also referred to a 1995 HUD inspector general audit that was critical of the selection process for the empowerment zone cities. Baltimore was one of six cities to receive the designation, which comes with $100 million in federal block grants and tax breaks for business investment in needy communities.

The audit found that HUD's selection process did not follow original guidelines and failed to adequately document assessments and ratings of applications. Therefore, the audit said, HUD did not ensure that the best applicants were selected for empowerment zones. But Mr. Cisneros defended the selection process as thorough and extensively documented.

The empowerment zones, homeownership efforts and public housing reform programs need more congressional support, not partisan bickering, Mr. Cisneros said. Congressional efforts to reform and reduce government have hit poor and low-income families hard, he said, by cutting jobs programs, education and housing.

For Diane Bell, president and chief executive officer of EMPOWER BALTIMORE! Management Corp., which administers the city's empowerment zone, the speech threw a welcome spotlight on the need for more such zones.

"We certainly would support and are hopeful for additional congressional support of further empowerment zones," Ms. Bell said. Baltimore's zone is not another set of social programs, she said, but a comprehensive strategy for reviving communities with a focus on job creation.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican representing eastern Baltimore County and Harford County, supports empowerment zones but is critical of HUD in other areas. The destruction of high-rise public housing projects may not solve the problems in those communities, he said.

A counterproposal pushed by House Republicans yesterday would take back empowerment zone designations, like the one Baltimore received in 1994, and the millions in federal dollars that came with them. The legislation, co-sponsored by Mr. Talent, would give businesses tax breaks for investing in "renewal communities," relax federal regulations for communities looking to increase homeownership and offer urban residents school vouchers.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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