Dial 911 HUD

CAN the Department of Housing and Urban Development rescue the Chicago Housing Authority? Beyond that, can enough of HUD survive the budget cutting in Congress to sustain public housing as a feature of the American landscape?

Some people may ask why anybody would want to sustain it. The general perception of public housing is shaped by stories of atrocious conditions at high-rise projects like those in Chicago, where decay - both physical and moral - seems endemic. But public housing's record is not all bad. HUD's assessment of housing authorities in US communities - 3,400 in all - recently found that 3,300 are performing well. Low-rise, walk-up apartments are the most common type of public housing, by the way, and 40 percent are occupied by the elderly.

The extreme conditions found in Chicago and some other cities are more the exception than the rule. But those exceptions demand attention. The head of the Chicago Housing Authority, Vince Lane, tried for seven years to turn the situation around in his city's 40,000 units of public housing. Noting that it would take $1 billion to carry forward his reforms, he resigned as HUD moved in.

HUD may not have that kind of money right now, but Secretary Henry Cisneros has vowed to plunge into the "basics" of repainting, fixing elevators, and restoring playgrounds. Ultimately more important are efforts to attract people of various income ranges, in hopes of breaking the pattern of ghettoizing the very poor.

That pattern was a conscious element in the layout of Chicago's public housing. It largely explains that city's terrible record. Cities with more progressive records on public housing, such as New York, have pushed toward "mixed income" development. New York has tried to adhere to a formula of one-third elderly, one-third working families, and one-third families on welfare.

Housing vouchers are one path toward a better mix in housing. But vouchers, which promise freedom of choice, can never be a cure-all. The problem of providing enough low-cost housing, especially if the federal government leaves the field, looms larger than ever.

Mr. Cisneros has tried to beat Congress to the punch with his own proposals for cutting costs and freeing local housing authorities from HUD red tape and oversight. That's to the good. HUD still has a role to play in working toward housing equity for all Americans, and in helping erase such blights as the housing failure in Chicago.

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