WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said Saturday that the Clinton Administration plans to establish a major new urban-aid program that would marshal the forces of several agencies to fight crime and improve education, job training and housing in the nation's inner cities.
The centerpiece of such a program, he said, is likely to be South-Central Los Angeles, which was devastated by riots last spring.
While other distressed areas could make good candidates for the initial focus by the Clinton Administration, Cisneros said: "It would be hard to top the level of needs in Los Angeles. . . . I am going to work on South-Central Los Angeles and be out there sooner (rather) than later."
Details of the plan are still being developed, but an important element is expected to be an "enhanced" enterprise-zone package that would offer tax credits for investment in the riot-torn area--similar to legislation vetoed last year by President Bush, Cisneros said. "That's a high Clinton priority," he added.
The interagency strategy is expected to be discussed next weekend when Cabinet officers meet at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.
Should the plan take effect, it would fulfill some of President Clinton's campaign promises to the nation's cities, which included the creation of urban enterprise zones and block grants to improve infrastructure.
And by focusing on Los Angeles, Clinton would accomplish two goals: giving a much-needed boost to a local economy that remains mired in recession and proving that he has not forgotten a state whose support was crucial to his election.
Although the Administration will have to begin squeezing federal budgets if it plans to curb the rising deficit, Cisneros said the new urban program would draw on funds from existing programs. But he also was hopeful that additional funds "might be forthcoming."
He offered as an example his own department, in which public housing funds from the previous Administration totaling $6 billion are "in the pipeline" and lying dormant. He said he is exploring whether the money could be freed to meet the needs of cities on the critical list.
"Whatever short-lists we put together, South-Central ought to be on it," he said. "At the Department of Justice, on street crime and youth gangs; at the Department of Education, on central city schools and Head Start (program); at the Department of Health and Human Services, on child care and alternative approaches to welfare, and at the Department of Labor, on workplace training. Same with the Department of Transportation."
The problems in the decaying cities stem from "social morbidities or social pathologies" that HUD cannot begin to fix alone, Cisneros said. "If we just deal with HUD, then we are not dealing with people's problems as they really exist."
The HUD secretary also said he favors loosening restrictions on Community Development Block Grants--most often used for streets, drainage and other community improvements in poorer neighborhoods. But he is considering linking those grants to programs that include job training.
Cisneros said that unless the programs are working at the local level, "in physically identifiable areas," results will not be realized.
"I am going to be pushing for that kind of (effort) because I know the President wants that."
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Cisneros described himself as "a believer in experimentation, federalism and the need to provide people with hope." And he suggested that HUD "must be the locus of President Clinton's urban strategy."
After the hearing, Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), along with 12 other members, wrote a letter to Clinton asking that Cisneros be named coordinator of urban policy.
"Currently, no mechanism exists to facilitate the sharing of information among the more than 10 agencies responsible for programs with urban impact, and to ensure their effective coordination," the committee's letter stated.
Cisneros said Saturday that he hoped work in South-Central Los Angeles could be a model for other cities.
"Let's show it can be done and then let's take that model and improve it and modify it and adapt it to other areas."
Since his appointment last month, Cisneros repeatedly has pointed to South-Central Los Angeles to demonstrate the need for quick action by the federal government.
Following the riots, George Bush expanded the "Weed and Seed" program--an anti-crime, anti-gang effort administered by the Justice Department--that initially was targeted in smaller urban areas.
While the program's future is uncertain, Cisneros said it is "important and can be integrated into what we are discussing."
Even though South-Central Los Angeles is the likely starting point of the proposed urban aid program, Cisneros has begun inviting city leaders to prepare their proposals for projects in their areas.
During a session last week sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Cisneros told the group that he planned to meet weekly with delegations from different cities to hear their funding requests, and hoped to include representatives of other federal agencies.
"As a former mayor, he knows the kinds of problems they would have," said Eugene Lowe, the group's assistant executive director.