HUD's `Silent Sam' Pierce. He walks tightrope, seeking to implement his ideas yet remain a cog in the conservative cabinet team
Washington — The American city will be the ideal hometown of the 21st century, says Samuel R. Pierce Jr., the man who oversees federal planning for the urban areas of the United States. ``My kind of city, the urban community I'd like to build, will be a desirable place to live, one that entices white people to escape from suburbia, one that doesn't succumb to gentrification but welcomes blacks and other minority people,'' says Mr. Pierce, the US secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the lone black member of President Reagan's Cabinet.
Mr. Pierce's keys to the ideal city, such as afford-able, fair housing and urban grants, are costly -- goals hardly acceptable to an administration committed to budget cutting.
So Pierce, dubbed ``Silent Sam'' by journalists in his early HUD days, walks a tightrope in office, seeking to implement his ideas yet remain a cog in the conservative team. That task became tougher last Friday as the administration announced steep cuts in HUD programs to conform to Gramm-Rudman budget limits.
A native of suburban Glen Cove, N.Y., he was voted ``most likely to succeed'' in high school. But as HUD secretary he has an image problem. He fails to impress blacks and poor people when he describes his department's mission: ``HUD isn't limited to maintaining housing for the poor. We are interested in seeing that all Americans get the best housing that can be provided.''
Delegates to conventions of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, the nation's most influential civil rights groups, have offered only lukewarm applause to Pierce's messages to them. Black audiences say they want him to speak ``loud and strong for us.''
If speaking out means running in front of television cameras at every opportunity, Pierce admits, ``I'm not the one with the militant statement or the quick quip. I'm loyal to President Reagan.
``But I'm not a yes man. A president who has a bunch of yes men has nothing. I sometimes disagree with Mr. Reagan. However, when he makes his final decision, I accept it. When I can't support him, I'll tell him so, turn my back, and leave the Cabinet.''
Detractors protest Reagan cutbacks -- in new public housing, in housing subsidies, in revitalizing urban areas.
In seeking to comply with balanced-budget requirements of the Gramm-Rudman Act, the Reagan administration suggested Friday deferrals of congressional allocations that could endanger three HUD programs. It suggested a 70.7 percent cut in Urban Development Action Grant funds (down to $79 million from $331 million); a 71 percent bite in housing subsidy funds (down to $2.8 billion from $9.8 billion), and a 16 percent cut of Community Development Block Grant funds (down to $2.6 billion from $3.1 billion). Pierce is said to have restored $2.1 billion of the cut in housing subsidies.
``Under different circumstances I would like to see increased funding for many of our programs,'' Pierce said about the latest cuts. ``In 1981 we provided subsidized housing assistance to 3.2 million families. By the end of fiscal 1986 we will be assisting 4.1 million families, and that number will grow. We've done this by finding new and better ways of administering our programs. And we're going to redouble these efforts so we can stretch our help to even more people.''
The secretary gets little backing from poor and black people when he defines himself as a committed Reagan man who runs HUD like a business. ``HUD produces more for the taxpayer's buck,'' he says.
Pierce speaks of his accomplishments at HUD -- housing vouchers for low- and moderate-income people, the continued Section 8 (subsidized rental) program, tenant management for public housing, and home ownership for low- and moderate-income people.
In college Pierce was the first black to play varsity football against the US Naval Academy in segregated Annapolis, Md., and also Phi Beta Kappa and law school graduate at Cornell University. ``I can't forget I'm black,'' he said.
Secretary Pierce notes progress toward HUD's goal of ``fair housing'' for 1986:
More fair housing cases have been ``reconciled and conciliated under my [five-year] administration than any other.''
HUD has pulled more state and local governments into its Fair Housing Assistance Program than past administrations.
HUD has achieved a private-sector breakthrough in Boston. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board has initiated its own fair housing program, including tests of racial policies of its own members. This project is modeled after a HUD pilot program in Grand Rapids, Mich.
``But we want to do more,'' Pierce says. ``The Fair Housing Act needs punch -- teeth that make enforcement more effective.'' (The act is designed to halt discrimination in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.)
Pierce speaks of HUD ventures:
``Let's start with assisted housing. We've had an increase of 1 million units [since 1981].'' Federal debt for assisted housing is down from $244 billion to less than $200 billion, he says. Public housing has been improved by modernization and good management, he adds.
The secretary supports a federal enterprise-zone program to attract private-sector investment in depressed areas and create jobs for people living there.