The Cruel Price of Government by Clever Men


George Bush's presidency continues to be marked and marred byseemingly callous disregard for the fate of distressed cities and counties. That disregard is coupled with the lack of a coherent federalist philosophy to raise his administration's actions above the level of rank opportunism.

The most recent glaring example was the decision of Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher not to adjust the 1990 census count to add an estimated 5.3 million people who were missed -- among them a high proportion of blacks, Hispanics, the homeless and new immigrants.

The proposed readjustment was praised as statistically sound by the census director, Barbara E. Bryant. Among its biggest winners would have been big cities which harbor a massive share of the nation's minorities and poor. Close to $40 billion in federal funds are distributed yearly based on population.

Mr. Mosbacher said he refused to approve the adjusted count because the method might invite future political tampering. One might suspect the political tampering is already under way. It's no mystery that President Bush's core constituency -- middle-class suburban and rural -- will get an unfair advantage out of the decision. Secretary Mosbacher was Mr. Bush's political finance chairman in 1988 and is widely expected to resign soon to do the same for the 1992 race.

This decision says quite literally to emerging multi-racial, multi-ethnic America, to groups that make up a constantly enlarging chunk of our demographic destiny: "You don't count." Someday, as a nation, we'll pay collectively for such prejudice and hard-heartedness.

Yet the Bush camp's assaults aren't exclusively on minorities and the poor. On July 8, a White House ceremony was staged to unveil the report of a commission Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp had set up on local housing costs.

Mr. Kemp's theory had been that "the patchwork quilt" of state-local rules and regulations are barriers to new housing development. It was hardly surprising that his commission -- headed by ex-New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and ex-U.S. Rep. Thomas Ashley and packed with builders, developers and prominent conservative theoreticians -- agreed.

Its report was entitled "Not In My Back Yard: Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing," and alleged that "a maze of federal, state and local codes, processes and controls" are driving up the price of housing by as much as 20 to 35 percent and permitting affluent communities to shut out lower-income housing.

The political dynamite is in the proposed cure. Washington, said the commission, should withhold housing aid from states and cities that don't rid themselves of "regulatory barriers" to affordable housing.

That would mean, prospectively, tens of thousands of changes in state and local laws, regulations and ordinances. And how would Secretary Kemp's HUD enforce compliance? By an Office of Regulatory Reform (which Mr. Kemp has already announced) to give a green light before any housing aid could flow anywhere.

Congress would have to approve such action and that's quite doubtful. If it did, the operation could quickly and easily become one of Washington's biggest, most intrusive bureaucracies -- the kind of intrusion for which Republicans used to rail against Democrat administrations.

It also might do little to change the ways of affluent suburbs which truly use zoning and building codes to exclude lower-income people. They'd likely just thumb their noses at HUD.

Mr. Kemp's commission did produce a lot of excellent, common-sense recommendations. Examples: It said suburbs should get rid of big-lot, exclusionary zoning and make way for duplex, two-family and triplex housing. It said states should set time limits on local zoning and permitting processes. It urged cities to repeal zoning that bar new "single-room occupancy" hotels that might house thousands of the homeless.

But the Kemp crew couldn't be satisfied with that. It suggested (using isolated "horror stories" but no systemic evidence) that wetlands and endangered-species protections are a major barrier to affordable housing.

You have to ask yourself: How many low-income housing projects are being stopped because someone wants them constructed in a swamp?

Indeed, one can suspect a Trojan Horse here -- suggesting low-income housing is barred by practices the real-estate industry has been lusting for some time to deep-six -- from environmental protections to requirements that developers help pay for the streets, sewers, schools and firehouses in new subdivisions they throw up.

Again, one smells a political rat: pandering to a Bush constituency.

And also a measure of deception. Regulations may be 10 percent of the housing affordability problems. The other 90 percent is simple lack of money and scarcity of the government subsidies that other advanced countries put into lower-cost housing. Every county executive, every mayor in America knows that.

If this administration listened to and consulted with its state and local federal-system partners more, it might be less clever politically -- but more effective in governing the nation.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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