When Albert M. Cole became Housing and Home Finance administrator in 1953, ranking Democrats in Congress noisily protested. President Eisenhower "let the fox into the chicken coop," Sen. Hubert Humphrey charged.
Cole, it turned out, rebuilt the coop, won the support of most of the chickens and has now been invited into the Housing Hall of Fame of the National Association of Home Builders.
His story should be of comfort to those who fear that some of President Reagan's appointments will raise havoc in those coops. t
The Housing and Home Finance Agency, or HHFA, was the forerunner of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. It was created by Congress in 1949 and charged with the job of providing "a decent, safe and sanitary home in a suitable living environment for every American family," including public housing.
A Republican congressman from Kansas before his appointment, Cole had consistently opposed public housing. He had said on the floor of the House that the public housing program "tends to destroy our government.
"I am not saying that this bill is socialistic or that it is communistic. But a very interesting thing is that in 1928, before either the Democratic or Republican parties thought about it, the Communist Party of America included public housing in its platform."
In an interview last week, Cole just smiled about this quotation which loomed large in his Senate confirmation hearing 28 years ago. Almost 80 years old now, he is as alert, fit and busy as any other member of his posh law firm, McKenna, Conner & Cuneo. A consultant on mortgage matters and adviser to corporations that have ventured into housing and urban development, he is widely respected as one of the country's leading experts in his field.
As HHFA administrator he "went to bat for housing," as he put it, reorganized government mortgage loan guarantee procedures, introduced concern for good design into the federal housing program, helped shape the urban renewal program and worked hard to get big industry to invest in the big cities.
The homebuilders voted him into their hall of fame for "encouraging the private sector to play an active part in housing for the poor."
Cole is now equally popular with "liberals" and "conservatives." His thorough knowledge and his engaging, matter-of-fact concern for people rather than administrative abstractions, transcends simplistic labels.
Cole fought hard within the Eisenhower administration to rescue the public housing program. "No, I was not exactly a convert," he explained. "But we needed the program until we had found some other way to house low-income people. Some of the projects I visited at the time were very livable. Some still are.
"But I forecast that in the long run public housing would not work. I felt that it separates one class of people from the others, that it creates ghettos for second-class citizens and that it would invite corruption. Do you know why Southern congressmen liked public housing? They saw that it could help blacks and still keep them segregated, that's why," Cole said.
Cole became chairman of President Eisenhower's advisory committee and recommended a comprehensive, well-coordinated attack on the slums. This "workable program" was written into the 1954 Housing Act.
It failed to be workable because it failed to be comprehensive and well-coordinated. Cole, for instance, was the first government official to ask city planners and highway builders at least to talk to one another, even if they did not see fit to cooperate. Planless urban highway construction, Cole predicted correctly, is "hell-bent for Slobbovia, lower as well as upper."
He was one of the first government officials who urged bankers to make mortgage loans to blacks on the same terms as for whites. That was a decade before "red-lining" was declared illegal.
At the end of the Eisenhower administration and his government service, Cole came to two basic conclusions about the urban mess. He told a meeting of realtors in May 1959:
"The blunt truth is that without effective planning most human enterprises go bankrupt. A few years ago I warned the cities would go bankrupt if they didn't set about gearing themselves to the 20th century. That observation made sense.
"The time has now come to extend the warning on a large scale for the simple reason that cities have now become area or regions."
That is still the blunt truth.
Cole also said" "I am still a conservative, but I am positively evangelistic about getting business involved in the challenge of saving our cities and making it the master rather than the victim of our environment."
Business is still the victim -- but not for lack of trying on Cole's part.
His evangelism worked on David Reynolds, the aluminum manufacturer. Cole was put in charge of the Reynolds Metals Development Corp., which launched urban renewal projects in 14 cities. One of them is River Park in Washington's Southwest.
After Reynolds had gained some experience with urban development ventures, Cole and David Reynolds toured other board rooms with their positive evangelism. As a result, U.S. Plywood tried a few homes in Cleveland's tough Hough area. U.S. Gypsum fixed up a few tenements in Harlem. Westinghouse got briefly involved in Chicago. Connecticut General Life Insurance, Gulf Oil and a few others got more than their feet wet.
At one time, early in the 1960s, business magazines claimed that 30 large corporations were planning to invest in new towns. It was wishful thinking. U.S. corporations have shown little enthusiasm for making urban America a better place to live -- much as they might scream about letting free enterprise do it and deplore government intervention.
Cole is thoughtful but not discouraged about the subject.
"For one thing," he said, "big business is wary of the complications of urban development -- long-term financing, citizen participation, government approvals, zoning and building code restrictions, all the complexities of dealing with people rather than machines that turn raw material into finished products."
Business lacks urban experts, trained urban development managers, he explained. There are at best a handful good ones in the entire country.
"The urban problem conferences I attend are vague and uncertain, full of emotion, wishful thinking and vested interest rather than practical, down-to-earth talk," Cole added.
The Reynolds investment in urban development, including moderate-income housing, is slowly beginning to pay off, he said, although some projects, like Philadelphia's Eastwick community, are not yet completed. "The cash is beginning to flow."
But that is it. Stockholders want to see quick results. You can get rich with a large-scale comprehensive investment in America's cities, Cole insists. But you get rich more slowly with investments in toothpaste or pocket computers.
"One problem is CPA's, certified public accountants," he said. "If only they could find a way to show that money invested in the human environment is sure to yield good returns -- in the long run."