Help for the Cities

President Clinton recently posed a question to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): What is the state of the country's cities and what can the administration do to prepare them to meet their economic and social challenges? Part of HUD's response was decidedly upbeat. In effect, it said cities are doing better than they were in the '70s and '80s. The fiscal health of cities is stronger, crime is down, and some have experienced a downtown renaissance.

But there are challenges galore. Consider: For every middle- or high-income person that moves into a major city, three to four move out. In 1970, suburbs housed 25 percent more families than cities; today, suburbs house 75 percent more families than cities. From 1990-93, 97 percent of new businesses were created in the suburbs. In that same time period, 87 percent of all new lower-paying jobs were created in the suburbs (so cities aren't creating the jobs they need as residents move from welfare to work).

While Clinton's response to these challenges won't result in major changes (he announced a seven-step plan to the Conference of Mayors), they point out an important truth: that cities do matter. And, as though to underscore this commitment to helping inner-city communities, Andrew Cuomo, secretary of HUD, announced an ambitious management reform plan to transform HUD from "the poster child for inept government" into a department that works.

One way to improve the performance of cities is to focus on making housing affordable. Clinton's "Urban Homestead" initiative is modest, but it begins, at least, to address the problem of urban flight, with the aim of encouraging people to move to or remain in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The program would give first-time home-buyers a $200 break on closing costs for living in the most-populous cities and also would provide working families who rent homes a chance to become owners with the help of federal vouchers.

The initiative's centerpiece, the "officer next door" program, offers police officers 50 percent discounts on 2,000 government-owned homes. The idea - a good one - is to increase the visibility of police in troubled areas and make residents feel more safe. The problem is there are only a limited number of HUD-owned homes in all but the largest cities.

"Cities are back," Clinton told the gathering of mayors. Given the limitations of his proposals and the seriousness of the problems cities still face, that's an overstatement. Some members of Congress, too, are challenging proposed spending on empowerment zones, "brown fields" cleanup efforts, and HUD. Instead, the president should have said: "We've made progress, we have more to do, but I'm committed to making cities work." That's a message we'd welcome and one Congress should heed.

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