Cambridge, Mass. — Many of the nation's cities suffer from fading downtowns, impoverished ghettos, and abandoned neighborhoods, and critics are crying that the Reagan administration is doing little to improve conditions.
Samuel R. Pierce Jr., Reagan's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, takes another view as he defends the administration's policies.
''Cities can work,'' he says. ''But it takes people to make them function properly. When partnerships - public and private, black and white - work, we shall no longer talk about industry flight, white flight, or black flight from cities. We shall see a return of people.''
He espouses two basic actions to revive the nation's cities - a strong fair-housing law and ''partnerships between industry and the public sector.'' The federal government no longer ''relishes the role as Big Brother, regulator, and benevolent money dispenser'' to cure what ails urban America, he says.
Mr. Pierce, the only black member of President Reagan's Cabinet, displays a low profile, one that has branded him with the name ''Silent Sam.''
He was in Cambridge recently to address the opening of a new Center for Real Estate Development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pierce called it a ''potentially valuable resource for promoting urban improvement.''
He travels to colleges, chambers of commerce, and urban areas to outline the Reagan design for cities:
Establish urban-enterprise zones. Modeled after the British program and geared to use federal urban development action grants, the zones will be designed to encourage private developers to invest more funds and move into depressed areas and hire local people. There will be special tax exemptions to lure business, also. Legislation has passed in the Senate several times, but has never gone beyond the committee level in the House. Pierce predicts Congress will approve enterprise zones ''soon.''
Revitalize low-income housing. HUD will develop no new public housing, but will modernize and rehabilitate existing units. Many public-housing units are boarded up, although the backlog of people seeking this housing is growing, Pierce says. HUD has granted funds for modernization, rehabilitation, and improved management to make this housing ''livable,'' he says.
Seek rent vouchers as the basic HUD subsidy. Vouchers for people who cannot pay market prices will go directly to renters, not to landlords or governmental agencies. The administration now limits its Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) program, the ''backbone of assisted housing,'' to existing units, Pierce says. No new units will be built. The Section 8 program will be phased out once a voucher program is created. The voucher system will not permit entitlement (unlimited ongoing use of vouchers), he adds.
Create new urban partnerships. Such alliances are working in Baltimore with its Harborplace, in Boston with its Quincy Market, in Lowell, Mass., with its downtown historic park district, and in other cities, Pierce says. In each community, he claims, industry has returned to a depressed area, bringing new jobs and a revitalized atmosphere to the city.
Try experimental programs. HUD's latest is Operation Build Youth, which seeks to reduce vandalism and crime, a major problem in most public-housing projects where youth unemployment is often more than 50 percent. Two programs are operating: one headed by -Archie Moore, former light-heavyweight boxing champion , in Los Angeles; and another cosponsored by the Pittsburgh Steelers pro football team in the Steel City. ''Teen-agers are disciplining their minds and bodies,'' says Pierce. ''And there are fewer broken windows and less graffiti.''
Secretary Pierce carries on a personal mission, the passage of a fair-housing law ''with clout.'' Under current fair-housing laws, ''if conciliation doesn't work, the complainant must take the case to court,'' he said. ''Most of these people have neither the money nor the time to go through this process to get fair housing.''
He proposes putting ''teeth into fair housing'' - authorize the US Justice Department to initiate legal action against accused violators. He advocates stiff punishment - fines as high as $50,000 for a first offense and $100,000 for a second. Pierce says legislation will be passed by early 1984.
Critics say administration policies tend to reduce the housing aid budget, a policy that may not help cities in the long run. The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, said in a recent report:
''The Reagan administration has assigned a lower social priority to housing. . . . At midterm, the administration cannot point to a single budgetary victory that has furthered its aims in the housing finance area.''