Public Housing Riddles

HERCULES had nothing on Henry Cisneros. The mythical Greek hero only had to clean out the Augean stables in one day.

The former mayor of San Antonio is taking on the cleanup of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). If he lasts four years on the job, or even eight, Mr. Cisneros may be able to make reasonable progress toward reforming the nation's public-housing system. But none of his predecessors of the last few decades have been able to solve the housing riddle.

Earlier, Cisneros said that HUD's hapless management of the apartment complexes it owns has furthered the decline of living quality in urban America.

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Unless drastic reforms are effected, the HUD secretary says, current policies could contribute to the rise of a permanent underclass in the large cities that could swell to 20 million people in coming decades.

For want of greater resources with which to launch a new housing initiative, the new HUD secretary apparently has gotten a green light from the White House and congressional leaders for a limited approach toward a new system of tenant ownership. It would require congressional approval and involve three or four existing public housing facilities.

Cisneros also plans to do away with the inexplicable policy of requiring tenants to pay 30 percent of their adjusted incomes on rent. Many have been forced by this policy to quit their jobs and go on welfare - or on the streets.

One of the projects involved is in Atlanta's Summerhill area. The 60-unit Martin Street Plaza project will be turned over to a private manager, making it the first in Georgia not managed by a housing authority.

The goal is to have the tenants take control of the project, which is located next to the site where a new stadium is being built to host the 1996 Olympic games.

The national HUD office has approved a $4.3 million grant for renovations in the area. The Atlanta Housing Authority has agreed to give a nonprofit organization called Charis, which specializes in affordable housing, up to $130,000 of what it collects in rent to operate and maintain the project.

At the end of a one-year contract, tenants hope to be able to buy, manage, and renovate Martin Street. They are banking on getting at least $2 million from a federal grant and more from nongovernmental sources.

There have been many failed attempts at reforming public housing. Cisneros appears to have impressed his HUD clients. We wish him - and them - success.

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