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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Urban-Metropolitan Coordinator

When President Roosevelt launched the New Deal in the 1930s nearly half of the U. S. population still lived in rural areas. By the last census in 2000, almost 80 percent of citizens were living in urban communities.

Between 1950 and 1990, the U. S metropolitan population–located in central cities and close-in suburban areas–skyrocketed by 103.4 million, reaching a total of 192.7 million. During the same period, the non-metropolitan population declined by six million.

In the wake of these dramatic shifts in population, metropolitan areas have split into two separate, but interdependent, worlds-one suburban, predominately white, middle and upper income with a tax base with which to finance public services and the other an inner city with large African American and Latino populations, often with a disproportionate share of poverty, the unemployed, decaying infrastructure, poor schools, inadequate transportation and a declining tax base.

Despite the disparities between the inner cities and the suburbs, the two jurisdictions have a common stake in their shared economies.

Research by the National League of Cities finds that growing disparities between these jurisdictions erode and eventually undermine the vitality of the regional economy-the welfare of both cities and suburbs and eventually that of the national economy. Yet federal policy has virtually ignored the importance of these urban-suburban economies.

In a report titled “City Distress, Metropolitan Disparities and Economic Growth” the National League of Cities warned:

“The United States cannot move to a new path of economic growth unless driven there by the growth of the urban regions…The need for along-term strategy for investing in the growth and productivity of urban economies is urgent.”

President Jimmy Carter made a valiant effort during his one term in the 1970s to mobilize the federal bureaucracy and public interest and civil rights organizations behind a true urban policy. In the end, the effort faded under bureaucratic infighting and concerns about whose budget would be tapped to finance the effort.

The election of President Clinton in 1992 once again brought urban issues to the forefront in economic policy discussions. Despite the aggressive efforts of Clinton’s two Secretaries of HUD-Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo–the development of a broad urban policy agenda became more rhetoric than action.

A fatal flaw in all the urban policy efforts may be the reliance on the Department of Housing and Urban Development as the focal point of all the approaches to revitalizing cities and metropolitan areas.

HUD has been looked on as the “urban department,” but the ills and the needs of urban communities cut across a wide swath-health, transportation, education, business development, the environment. HUD remains essentially a housing agency and even this responsibility has been scattered across the federal government. Similarly, on Capitol Hill urban policies land under the jurisdiction of multiple standing committees, not just the Senate and House Banking Committees with jurisdiction over HUD.

The giants of housing finance -Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac-and the financial regulators like the Federal Reserve, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of Thrift Supervision-exercise immense power over housing and urban policy-probably more so than HUD. The Community Reinvestment Act, for example, requires banks and thrifts to help meet the credit needs of their communities. Itsrequirements are enforced by financial regulators interested in safety and soundness of federally insured institutions, not urban policy. As a result, only a handful of institutions fail to get passing and outstanding grades on their efforts to help finance housing. And HUD has no role despite the myth that it holds all the keys to urban policy.

HUD was created as a cabinet-level office out of the old Housing and Home Finance Agency in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. Robert C. Weaver, the first Secretary of HUD did a good job of pulling the office together and reorganizing the federal government’s housing programs.

But for all of the efforts of Secretary Weaver and his successors, HUD remains a huge unwieldy bureaucracy. Even under Democratic Administrations, HUD has rarely been front and center at the White House. Its budget is an annual headache for the Office of Management and Budget whether under Democratic or Republican Administrations.

HUD has 11,000 employees in Washington and 10 regional offices scattered across the nation. It has a bevy of assistant secretaries for everything from community planning and development to fair housing to policy development and research.

HUD has to be an important cog in any new efforts to establish a workable urban-metropolitan policy, but it is folly to look on the department as the centerpiece. Urban needs extend beyond affordable housing. Jimmy Carter was wise in broadening the scope to include other Cabinet offices in the urban policy mix, but he left HUD as the key decision maker. In the end the other Cabinet offices began to worry that their funds, staff and power would be eroded. And in such situations, the officeholders always decide to scuttle the ship.

This bureaucratic hurdle has to be removed if we truly are interested in developing and managing an urban policy which stretches across the interconnected problems of housing, health, transportation, education, jobs and livable wages.

With nearly 80 percent of the nation’s citizens living in urban-metropolitan areas, it is time to establish a new office that recognizes the real world in the 21st Century-an office with the authority to coordinate the disparate facets of federal programs which affect the overwhelming number of our citizens.

An Urban-Metropolitan Coordinator should be established under the President in a manner similar to that of the Council of Economic Advisors and the Office of Management and Budget with the authority to recommend, review and coordinate programs and budgets with a direct impact on urban-metropolitan areas. Only with such a structure can we place the full force of the federal bureaucracy behind an urban policy worthy of the name.