Reinventing HUD

SOMETHING needs to be done about the too-often-inefficient and ineffectual United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Clinton administration is proposing to do it.

Much of the administration's still-vague proposal to scale back and reorganize HUD sounds promising. But even administration officials concede the cuts won't save large amounts of money and will make up only a small part of the president's tax cut.

At this early stage, we should listen carefully to what critics of the administration plan have to say. After all, this proposal affects society's most vulnerable citizens.

Under the new plan, which HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros presented last week, the department's $30 billion budget would be cut by $800 million over five years. It would consolidate 60 existing public housing programs into three performance-based block grants (lump sums of money given to individual communities) by 1998; give vouchers to tenants in public housing projects, which would allow them to move elsewhere; and restructure the Federal Housing Administration - which provides loans for low- and moderate-income Americans trying to buy homes - into a government-owned corporation that would function as a private financial institution.

The US Conference of Mayors said last week that it would support block grants to cities as long as overall benefits were not cut. The mayors said that they were concerned the grants might simply be funneled through another level of bureaucracy. HUD programs were created in the first place because the states were not able to administer programs efficiently.

Public housing officials are most concerned. They worry that less federal regulation will mean less money. The plan could place a huge burden on local and state governments and increase rents for low-income tenants if housing authorities have no other way to maintain properties.

It would be an understatement to say many HUD programs are wasteful. Mr. Cisneros himself said the agency's bureaucracy has resulted in ``wasted lives and federal dollars.''

But in its haste to ``reinvent government,'' let us hope the administration does not rush to the chopping block just to get there before the Republicans. If it is done without listening to the people who are most affected, even more lives could be wasted and few federal dollars saved.

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