JACK KEMP'S appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in December 1988 was greeted with cheers by those who hoped to see some activism in what had become a moribund and scandal-ridden department. Mr. Kemp was known as a man of ideas and energy, a conservative who cared about the problems of the cities.
But the secretary's ideas have been given little chance to take root. Homeownership for the poor is a favorite Kemp theme. It's been given some funding by Congress, but not enough to truly test its effectiveness. Urban enterprise zones, which would target city neighborhoods with tax incentives to encourage job creation, have had broad support, but so far they have failed to be signed into law.
The fault doesn't lie only with Democratic lawmakers, as the administration would have us believe. Many Democrats support Kemp. President Bush and his top aides have been less than enthusiastic about Kemp's proposals. The president vetoed a bill containing enterprise zones because it also contained tax hikes for the wealthy. A bill cutting funding for Kemp's homeownership program was signed, on the other hand, because it included space-station money the administration wanted.
Clearly, the White House has not rushed to put urban problems atop its list of concerns - not until the conflagration in Los Angeles, anyway. The president now voices complete support for Kemp's ideas.
Full administration backing and bipartisan support in Congress could lead to a thorough test of such concepts as enterprise zones and homeownership for the poor. But these Kempsian approaches, in themselves, are only a start.
Consider homeownership. First, it's expensive. The purchases have to be heavily subsidized with public money. Beyond that, successful homeowners need a stable income and the financial skills to devise budgets and anticipate unexpected costs. These things can be taught, of course, but initially such programs are likely to reach a fairly small slice of the urban poor.
Enterprise zones have their limitations, too. Even impressive tax benefits may not overcome the drawbacks of placing a plant in an area like South-Central Los Angeles. Security and insurance can cost many times what they do in more settled locales. Still, the zones open the possibility of rejuvenation, and they can initiate vital dialogue among political leaders, neighborhood business people, and bankers.
To help round out an urban policy, Kemp's ideas may have to be complemented with programs to increase the supply of affordable rental units and provide direct grants to companies locating in central cities to further offset risks.
One promising avenue of change has been opened by community development corporations (CDCs), locally organized private agencies that upgrade housing, attract commercial development, set up job-training programs, or zero in on needs like child care. These neighborhood-based agencies have multiplied over the last decade as federal urban programs faded. The grass-roots corporations are bolstered by national funding coordinators like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, based in New York. CDCs are part icularly active in large Eastern cities, but have spread westward. Los Angeles, for example, has 10 of them.
The CDCs rest on the same values of self-help and community involvement that Secretary Kemp so prizes. They may provide a framework for a greatly increased partnership between federal and state officials and local people trying to rebuild their neighborhoods.
More thought should be given, also, to ways of increasing the social mobility of inner-city residents by expanding their transportation options so they can reach more plentiful jobs in the suburbs. Outlying communities should be encouraged to open up low-cost housing opportunities.
Better schools and health-care services are, of course, crucial urban needs too.
The immediate necessity is to get an urban policy under way, and Jack Kemp should at long last be given the rein to do that.