Kemp: ideas, energy for HUD

JACK KEMP at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is a heartening prospect for American cities. Local leaders might disagree with the conservative Mr. Kemp on some issues, but they know he's on their side when it comes to putting urban problems back on the nation's agenda. Doubtless, Kemp's fervent espousal of supply-side economics puts him under a shadow at a time when doctrinaire supply-siders are a vanishing breed in Washington. Many may wonder what he means when he talks about a ``progressive conservative war on poverty.''

But through multiple terms representing the urban environs of Buffalo, N.Y., in Congress, he has shown himself to be a supporter of initiatives to help the cities. Within the Republican Party, he has been a champion of the little guy.

Through eight years when HUD seemed an executive-branch backwater, mayors and other local officials have longed for some hint that Washington still cares about their problems. Some may differ on the details of Kemp ideas like ``urban enterprise zones.'' Few would argue about the need to draw investment into cities and stimulate employment. The call for public-private partnerships, a theme of Kemp's, is echoed by mayors across the United States.

Or another Kemp favorite: tenant ownership of public housing units. Skeptics point out, correctly, that this does little to overcome the growing shortage of rental units for the poor. But in the places where it has been tried, such as Jersey City, N.J., and Washington, D.C., tenant ownership has helped turn violence-ridden housing projects into livable urban neighborhoods. Pride of ownership works, and as housing secretary, Kemp is committed to help spread it around.

In fact, Kemp comes in just as a number of issues come banging at his door. The Housing and Community Development Act is scheduled to expire next fall. It will take an activist housing secretary to inject some energy into efforts to renew and strengthen the legislation. Mayors are eager to see more federal dollars come their way in the form of block grants that allow for local choice. Kemp will be an ally in nudging lawmakers in that direction.

He will face a major task in heading off disaster as the contracts between the federal government and developers of low-cost housing run out over the next few years. As a result, hundreds of thousands of moderate- and low-rent apartments could be raised to market rents, exacerbating the problems of homelessness and substandard housing.

Tax policy, as it affects future investment in low-cost shelter, is a related issue that Kemp will have to tackle.

And how about crumbling infrastructure, inadequate city schools, and drug-infested neighborhoods? All will demand the secretary's attention and his skills in working with other departments and branches of government.

The bright side of all this is that Kemp is fit for the challenge. He knows Congress and the Washington bureaucracy; he knows the intricacies of tax law; he knows how crucial healthy cities are to the well-being of the nation. And he has ideas.

At a time of budgetary stringency, the premium will be on conserving and directing what resources HUD has and on coordinating and marshaling ideas that promise ways of breaking through problems without major federal funding.

George Bush, who might have been inclined to shy away from the ambitious conservative from New York, is to be commended for appointing someone who should prove equal to the task.

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