WASHINGTON — SIGNALING a shift in direction, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros has identified reducing homelessness as his top priority.
``I think that for a department whose name begins with housing there can be no higher priority than housing people who are unhoused,'' the Secretary said at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.
In unveiling the agenda for his tenure at HUD, Mr. Cisneros ranked these other priorities in order of importance:
* Rehabilitating the worst of ``distressed'' public housing, and giving residents incentives to lift themselves out of poverty.
* Boosting home ownership for low- and moderate-income families. On Monday, HUD set performance goals for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - the two largest investors in home mortgages - requiring a boost in the purchase of mortgages in low-income areas.
* More vigorous enforcement of fair-housing laws. ``We'll virtually double the budget for enforcement and innovative efforts there,'' he said.
* Reinvigorating economic development programs in poor neighborhoods and cleaning up HUD management.
Since taking over in January, Cisneros has appeared most aggressive in battling discrimination in housing and mortgages, taking high-profile initiatives to ensure integration of public housing in his home state of Texas.
At the meeting with reporters, he denied suggestions that he had encountered some dissent in the White House for his focus on racism. Some administration officials reportedly prefer to treat the problem as economic, not racial.
He added that HUD's takeover of the housing authority in Vidor, Texas, which took effect Monday, was the first time HUD has ever taken action against a housing authority for civil-rights reasons.
HUD took over the Vidor housing authority after all the town's blacks were harassed into leaving. HUD is now looking for 10 black families to move to Vidor, a ``critical mass that can live together and protect themselves,'' he said.
To battle homelessness, HUD is implementing a ``continuum-of-care'' approach in which the homeless will be brought into a ``unified system'' to help them not only put roofs over their heads, but also get other services needed to lead independent lives. A pilot program has been launched in Washington, D.C.
Cisneros has taken over an agency that is still recovering from an era of dismal management. When Jack Kemp became HUD secretary under President Bush, Cisneros said, he ``inherited an absolute cesspool of problems.... I think Jack brought it back from the brink.''
Cisneros praises Mr. Kemp for having been strong on ideas, but he says the focus on converting public housing to ownership did not help enough people.
But in some ways, he adds, he and Kemp are building on the same philosophical base, ``giving people a sense of economic lift so that instead of just providing a static service, we're actually improving their lives and moving them along to self-sufficiency.''