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Clinton faces long legacy of substandard housing.

WASHINGTON -- One of the toughest jobs facing President Clinton and Congress is dealing with a long legacy of insufficient and substandard housing in America.

Clinton's State of the Union speech last month was thin on housing, except for mentions of community development banks and urban enterprise zones. However, it appears that urban redevelopment is an important element in the administration's economic plan, based on an accompanying report and comments by Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development.

Cisneros says there's from $9 billion to $11 billion intended to help communities and the homeless, now tied up in government bureaucracy, that will be released immediately to stimulate the economy. Furthermore, the president's pledges of full funding for early childhood education and immunization and health-care reform will ease the financial burdens on poorly housed people. Now it's up to Congress.

The growing gap between low-income renters and low-rent housing and the increasing number of families paying more for shelter than they can afford is a crisis of staggering human dimensions.

Four million families cannot find affordable housing according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Five million are spending more than half of their incomes on shelter or live in seriously inadequate dwellings. To keep a roof over their heads, many families are forced to give up other necessities, like health care, food and clothing. An alternative: Live in housing that is unsafe or unhealthy. For some, the roof is almost literally falling in.

Real incomes are falling, costs are rising and there aren't enough subsidies to fill the gap. For many, homelessness is one missed rent check away. At least 1.7 million people, the government says, are now on the streets or in temporary shelters.

Catholic church officials have called the nation's housing situation a national disgrace. The conclusion stems from the belief that housing is not just a commodity but a basic human right and that society must protect the life and dignity of everyone. In fact, this is the law of the land, or at least the law's intent Congress in the preamble to the Housing Act of 1949 stated as the nation's goal "the realization as soon as feasible of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family."

For Clinton to get even close more than four decades later is a formidable challenge. But housing advocates are hopeful that he and Cisneros are sounding the right themes. Both have declared that real economic growth for the country is impossible without the revitalization of America's cities.

It's a questions of resources: how to cut the staggering budget deficit and at the same time invest more in people. Why keep high-priced science projects like the space station flying when thousands on earth could be housed instead? If the "principles of housing justice" -- as the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts it -- are to be realized, these are musts:

* Rental assistance. Only one-third of those who qualify -- those paying more than 30 percent of their adjusted gross incomes for rent -- we being helped. It would cost from $17 billion to $19 billion to fund this fully.

* Housing production. This includes buying, rehabilitating or building affordable homes and providing a chance to buy them.

* Preservation. This means rehabilitating, repairing and maintaining existing structures that are now rapidly falling into disrepair. The cost: about $2 billion annually over 10 years.

* Fair housing. Vigorously enforced existing laws against housing discrimination would give many now-at-risk families -- including blacks, those headed by single women or those with minor children or people with disabilities -- a better chance at a decent place to live.

Is a reasonably good home in a reasonably safe neighborhood for most American families too much to expect? No, coalition director Barry Zigas told NCR. "This administration has a political mandate to do something about these problems. The question is who's going to pay the tab?"

Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, decided last year to return to public life after witnessing firsthand the riots in Los Angeles. He will arguably be the most forceful and articulate advocate for the cities in many years.

"It breaks my heart to hear talk of writing off neighborhoods or entire cities or -- worst of all -- a generation of our youth," he said the day of his appointment.

At confirmation hearings last month, the nominee afforded glimpses of the Clinton administration's plans. He said he would quickly release billions in federal funds for local housing assistance that had been tied in budgeting red tape. He also would accelerate spending for community development and public housing modernization.

Two other key moves: Sell Congress on the president's proposed network of 100 community development banks and toughen the requirement that traditional banks invest in neighborhoods where they have branches.

JoAnn Kane, executive director of the McAuley Institute, an organization that helps communities find funds for housing, said she saw "signs of hope and caution" in Clinton's program. The only major initiative the president has made, she said, is his pledge to create the community banks. "But I'm concerned that there is not the existing capacity today to create those development banks overnight," she said. "There's a real limit to what can be done without access to credit."

Certainly one of Cisneros' biggest challenges will be to make the formerly troubled Department of Housing and Urban Development work again. "If Cisneros can do anything to make HUD work better, all of America will be better off," said Tom Shellabarger, policy adviser on urban issues for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Not only has it been a bureaucracy out of control, but a corrupt bureaucracy out of control."

Cisneros thinks he must act quickly. If things don't improve within two years, he has said, he will not have done his job. As President-elect Clinton looked on last December, Cisneros said, "I sense that we have limited time for America."
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Author:Clancy, Paul
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 5, 1993
Words:985
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