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Besieged Left, Right, Cisneros Revamps HUD

HENRY CISNEROS holds no gauzy illusions about the $28 billion antipoverty bureaucracy he runs.

He and his top aides at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have found it an encrusted bureaucracy protected by turf-conscious interest groups, discredited by past corruption scandals, and actually making some urban problems worse.

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But now Secretary Cisneros - a lanky, polished former mayor of San Antonio - appears truly outraged as he fights a two-front war over the fundamentals of housing for the poor. His battle at HUD is emblematic of the Clinton administration's difficult field position now on the whole range of welfare and education programs.

Mr. Cisneros's own blueprint for restructuring his department had public-housing activists catcalling him in public appearances in Philadelphia last week.

But heckling from the left is mere background noise compared to the onslaught Cisneros faces in the committee rooms of a fast-moving Congress.

``A lot of massive leaps are being undertaken here in casual ways,'' he says.

The House Appropriations Committee has voted to rescind $7.2 billion, more than a quarter of HUD's current budget.

Cuts go way too far and with too little thought for the consequences, says Cisneros, arguing that the rescissions would cause 38,000 families with children and 14,500 of the elderly to become homeless.

``People will get hurt,'' says the housing secretary.

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The Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that crafted the HUD rescissions, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, responds with some outrage of his own. ``I feel very strongly that the secretary is distorting the facts,'' he says.

No one getting money now or to whom HUD money is already obligated will lose it, says Mr. Lewis. But the deep cuts in budget authority for this year simply keep HUD from taking on new obligations before House Republicans can rethink HUD policy, he argues.

Shake-up needed

But Republican doubts about HUD are fundamental. A House Republican task force is reviewing whether the federal government should be involved at all in many of HUD's activities. The co-chairman of the group, Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas, believes HUD should be eliminated as a department.

``There is little doubt that this is an agency that needs to be shaken to the core,'' says Lewis.

Cisneros hardly disagrees on that point. Like other Clinton officials, he is stirring up constituencies usually friendly to Democrats - the poor and their advocates - in order to make his department more effective.

``It confuses people,'' he says. ``But what is under attack is not goals and ideals. What is under attack is the system of delivery.''

One of the signal shifts Cisneros wants to make is to move HUD away from subsidizing public-housing projects themselves and toward giving the money to the residents as rent vouchers.

This move has two goals: One is to force housing authorities to compete for tenants and their vouchers, giving them a market incentive to manage and maintain their buildings better.

The other is to better allow the poor to move out of the isolation of the projects.

The voucher proposal has caused fear in public-housing circles of the poor getting tossed into a rental marketplace they cannot afford.

``The tragedy is that conditions are so bad in America that people believe that if they're not in public housing, there is no other housing,'' says Cisneros.

As mayor of San Antonio, he had little use for HUD, which he saw as an arrogant bureaucracy that was ``hours late and dollars behind.''

Two years ago, he became secretary at HUD, finding what his chief of staff Bruce Katz calls ``a real sense of structural dysfunction.'' For cities, the 240 different HUD programs are an incoherent, difficult-to-use jumble, says Mr. Katz.

And worse, ``public housing has mainly served to trap people.'' The big housing projects that are HUD's trademark, says Katz, ``probably exacerbated urban decline'' by concentrating the poor together in enclaves of social disorder.

Driven by GOP, Gore

And yet, Cisneros acknowledges that it probably took nothing less than the GOP sweep in last November's elections, together with pressure from Vice President Al Gore (pushing to ``reinvent'' federal bureaucracies) and White House frustration with HUD's poor reputation, to give him the leverage to launch deep reforms.

``We're fighting the nature of bureaucracy,'' he says.

But he is also fighting newly empowered Republicans under powerful pressure to find budget savings and who see his reforms as far too timid.

Congressman Lewis found Cisneros's blueprint for restructuring HUD very encouraging, he says. But the Clinton proposal for next year's budget showed few spending cuts and ``business as usual'' at HUD, says Lewis.

``I think people need to make some adult decisions'' about housing policy and its consequences on families, says Cisneros. ``There are no easy shots without doing real damage.''

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