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HUD: 50 years of straying from its mission

Describing the need to establish the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said "our cities and our new urban age must not be symbols of a sordid society."

As September marks the 50-year anniversary of the federal government's 11th cabinet department, few will be celebrating in Baltimore or elsewhere. HUD's original purpose was to prevent the back-sliding of urban America into the very abyss where Charm City now teeters. That is never going to happen as long as the department mission-creeps into politically driven talking points and avoids risk-taking and bold initiatives.

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Did anyone see Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro take action in the wake of the Baltimore riots this spring? A visit to the city following the riots, a press conference or public statement, a new initiative, a new way of looking at old problems? No to all the above.

Instead, what the secretary offers is "helpful tools" three months after Freddie Gray's death sparked riots which damaged an estimated 380 businesses and caused an economic impact projected to cost over $30 million.

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The helpful tool is found in a 377 page "final rule" called "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing," which inserts the federal government into local planning and zoning decisions. The program sets up a data collection regime to monitor what the department deems as racial disparities regarding site selection for affordable housing and access to services. The complicated final rule will withhold grant funding when bureaucrats determine a local jurisdiction is out of compliance.

"I see this as a helpful tool to address the kind of challenges we've seen in Baltimore, in Ferguson and other cities," Mr. Castro said in announcing the rule.

As the secretary distributes helpful tools after the fires are extinguished and looters go home, heroin, lead paint, poverty, murder, broken jails, mass arrests and a lack of economic opportunity and investment plague Maryland's largest city. Those are the sordid details Lyndon Johnson warned the country about. And these problems are only going to grow more acute as Baltimore's financial position erodes. The latest IRS tax migration statistics show Baltimore lost another $315 million in taxable incomes between 2012 and 2013, more than a 3 percent decline in the individual income tax base. That is a systemic problem affecting almost every major American city, and HUD has nothing to say about it.

But the department has a lot to say about other issues. To make the department relevant for the next 50 years HUD is focused on climate change: "Climate change is real and poses a growing threat to local communities." Whatever one thinks of climate change, it should be asked whether HUD has any meaningful role to play here. Among other goals, the department will "strengthen rural, tribal, suburban and urban communities across the nation." Apart from not knowing what "strengthen" means, this goal pits the HUD against an alphabet soup of other departments and agencies which have geographic and functional jurisdiction over these areas.

After one year on the job as housing secretary, Mr. Castro told employees in Washington this summer, "So HUD is more than just housing. It's education and transportation. It's economic development and the environment." If it is more, then it's too much more.

The General Accountability Office released a report in August that finds 82 federal programs targeting low-income individuals. Administered by 13 federal departments and agencies, the programs cost over $700 billion annually and range from food stamps to HUD's $18 billion in Section 8 housing voucher assistance. For years, the GAO has been documenting the need to streamline and consolidate these programs to better serve low-income individuals.

According to GAO, "In a 2011 testimony, we summarized our work that found the array of human services programs was too fragmented and overly complex — for clients to navigate, for program operators to administer efficiently, and for program managers and policymakers to assess program performance."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should be leading an effort to focus resources on concentrations of poverty, measuring outcomes and improving service delivery. With a $42.4 billion budget and 8,000 employees it should be making more of an impact.

Former Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp understood the importance of urban renewal: "American society as a whole can never achieve the outer-reaches of potential, so long as it tolerates the inner cities of despair." Maryland will not achieve its potential as it tolerates the despair of Baltimore. Mr. Castro needs to borrow a line from Apple's famous ad campaign from the '80s and "think different."

E.J. McNulty is a Baltimore resident and GOP political strategist. She can be reached at emcnulty@comcast.net.

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