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HUD's Cisneros to Leave a Legacy of Public Housing Reform

By Judith Evans
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 30, 1996; Page E01

Henry Cisneros slid across the waiting room outside his office and cupped the hand of Prestonia Morgan. The 85-year-old District resident was there to praise the Department of Housing and Urban Development's reverse mortgage loan program. She received a loan after the death of her husband so that she could continue providing for herself and a disabled adult daughter.

Staring into Cisneros's olive-skinned face, Morgan said in a hushed tone, "It's a pleasure to meet you. I've seen you many times on TV."

A broad smile of embarrassment rolled across Cisneros's face. Indeed, while not on television this day, the 49-year-old housing secretary once again was hawking HUD initiatives. This time, Cisneros was announcing a proposal to make permanent the reverse loan program, which lets low-income senior citizens tap the equity in their homes for money to live on. The program is in the pilot stage through 2001.

Cisneros, who recently announced he will resign his Cabinet post, spent countless hours during his four-year tenure pleading the case of the mammoth federal agency while Congressional appropriators cut its budget. He defended HUD against Republican detractors who were intent on abolishing it. He comforted housing advocates who feared his vision for restructuring the agency's familiar programs would reduce assistance to low-income families and depressed urban centers.

He even appeared on the Montel Williams talk show to advocate HUD's plan to raze America's most crime-ridden, dilapidated housing projects and replace them with new town-house-style units.

Cisneros, who will step down in January, has never lacked passion for his job, say both critics and supporters. Because he wasn't bogged down in the notorious scandals that his predecessor Jack Kemp encountered upon taking office, Cisneros was able to make changes at the margin that made HUD a more effective housing provider.

But the nation's leading Latino politician's ability to make sweeping, innovative changes at HUD was hampered by political darts thrown from all quarters -- zealous conservative Republicans demanding deep budget cuts and elimination of some programs, staunch Democrats defending favored programs and a White House at times indifferent to the problems of urban America.

"I do believe his resignation has come at a critical juncture in HUD's future," said Deborah Austin, director of legislation and policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "For all we may not have liked about Cisneros, he was largely responsible for beating back pressure to eliminate and substantially reduce the department."

Cisneros, reflecting upon his impending de\parture in a recent interview, agreed the department under his watch "has had some successes and a couple areas of disappointments." He said the job has been fulfilling because he "believes race, class and poverty is the unresolved agenda for America."

He is "at peace with the decision" to leave, which he said was largely brought on by the mounting legal costs to defend an investigation by a special prosecutor into allegations he lied to the FBI about the size of payments he gave his former mistress, Linda Medlar. Cisneros, who made $148,000 annually as HUD secretary, also has tuition bills for a daughter in her third year of law school at New York University and another one who is a fourth-year student at Stanford University.

Cisneros is most proud of his effort to reform public housing, changing the way local officials provide shelter to the country's poor. He long contended the decline of public housing projects resulted from massive concentrations of the nation's poorest of poor. Federal laws punished people for working, significantly raising rents as their wages rose.

He advocated demolishing 100,000 mostly vacant units by the year 2000 in major urban cities including Chicago, Baltimore and Newark. So far, the agency has authorized demolition of 43,000 units.

Despite criticism from housing advocates, Cisneros also supported legislation giving local public housing authorities the flexibility to adjust rents to encourage more working families to stay in public housing and evict drug dealers and other criminals from housing projects.

"If the new team at HUD stays the course, a lot of public housing is going to be remade," Cisneros said. "Developments once thought of as focal points of negative energy will become positive places to live. There is no turning back."

Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee on housing and community opportunity, credits Cisneros with achieving a level of public housing reform while "fighting an uphill battle with [the Clinton] administration that was disinterested in urban problems and the health of the nation's cities."

This year, Lazio plans to reintroduce House legislation to make permanent changes to overhaul the nation's public housing system; the measure failed when Cisneros argued that some provisions attached to the bill would have jeopardized assistance to the neediest residents.

"Henry is no patsy for Republicans," Lazio said. He displayed "the correct balance of advocacy on behalf of the president and a willingness to think creatively and outside the box in terms of solutions."

Ron Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, counters that Cisneros retreated to his current public housing reform measure only after the Republican House struck down an initial plan by the secretary to give all public housing residents vouchers that could be used to pay for housing anywhere they wanted to live -- a measure Republicans once supported.

"The politicians who have a legacy are the ones who keep plugging away, plugging away like [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich," Utt said. "He [Cisneros] did the obligatory testimony and found that it wasn't going anywhere. Next budget, new program."

Housing groups, such as the District-based Low Income Housing Coalition, criticized the demolition program, saying people on the public housing waiting lists "may not be able to take advantage of the new units," the coalition's Austin said. HUD will replace only 40,000 of the demolished units and will offer 61,000 vouchers to allow some of the displaced residents to rent housing in the private market.

Austin said, "We don't believe that every person who holds a voucher is going to find better housing than the one they left."

Not only did HUD under Cisneros focus on the plight of the poor in public housing, but also on widening homeownership opportunities. Cisneros said his administration moved a long way in expanding homeownership among the country's most under-represented groups -- young adults, minorities and low- to moderate-income families. Since taking office, the homeownership rate has climbed to 65.6 percent, its highest level since 1981.

Cisneros acknowledges that lower interest rates and a strong economy were primary factors for the increase. However, the agency's ability to convince lenders, builders and real estate agents that there was money to be made in selling housing to low- and moderate-income individuals played a significant role, he said. "We've had good economies during the 1980s and never reached these levels," he said.

Cisneros also believes that his agency made it clear to lenders that HUD would no longer tolerate unfairly denying minorities access to home loans. The agency's decisions in favor of victims of housing discrimination resulted in the awarding of a total of $80 million in damages in the last four years, compared with $13 million in the previous four years.

The department made it easier for alleged victims to file complaints and aggressively penalized lenders who broke fair lending laws. Cisneros gave Roberta Achtenberg, HUD's former assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, strong support to make fair housing reforms.

"The train started to run on time," with complaints being heard much faster, said John Relman of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. "It's hard to find somebody in that position who could be more supportive of fair housing than Henry Cisneros."

Despite his accomplishments, Cisneros said he leaves unfinished business behind at HUD. He was unable to get Congress to increase funding that would subsidize rent for low-income working families, although since 1994 he has requested an additional 70,000 subsidy certificates. Housing studies show that over the last four years a growing percentage of low-income households -- those who earn 80 percent of median income or less -- are paying more than half of their income for rent or doubling up with other families in cramped quarters.

"I accept responsibility," Cisneros said. "I didn't win that fight. We have an impending housing crisis of affordability."

Efforts by six urban and three rural areas to develop comprehensive plans to revitalize their run-down and impoverished communities have also gotten off to a slow start. Many of them have been unable to move along with their plans as community groups bicker over which programs should get the money, Cisneros said.

Cisneros believes he wasn't able to complete restructuring of the HUD bureaucracy, where the staff has been cut to 10,000 from 13,500 since he took over. He consolidated offices, moved staff from headquarters to field offices and increased management training. He reduced the number of agency programs from 240 to 20. But most difficult was changing the attitudes of employees, who were often resistant to improving service to their communities.

"Many of them had been beat up so long, you could sense their reluctance to engage and be a positive force in their communities," he said. "There's a remake underway, but it's not a finished product."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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