Urban Renewal

President-elect Kennedy owes his national victory November 8 largely to the electoral votes of the major industrial states, and these states in turn went Democratic by virtue of sizable Kennedy majorities in the big cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Thus, while Kennedy can without undue cynicism scrap the farm program the Midwest rejected, he cannot in good conscience go back on his promises of housing and urban renewal for the cities. His debt to them is too great.

And this debt is one well worth paying, for urban blight--in the form of rapidly growing slums and deteriorating transportation systems--is one of the nation's most persistent and depressing problems. In New York, for example, the impressive office buildings going up along Park Avenue and in the mid-town area stand in radical contrast to the slum conditions spreading in what not too long ago were fine residential neighborhoods. The cities are so much the center of modern cultural, social and economic life that their decay must be a cause for great national concern.

Despite the wealth concentrated in them, the cities are normally in a weak financial position and are poorly equipped to handle their own renewal problems. The states have difficulty raising adequate tax revenues because their intermediate position in the Federal structure commands little loyalty (and hence little willingness to pay). The cities, on the other hand, do not have much trouble with taxpayer devotion: the services rendered by a municipal government are immediate and easily perceived. The financial problem of the cities is that, while there are such things as states' rights independent of the Federal government, municipal corporations exist by grace of the state legislatures and are completely dependent upon the states for what they can and cannot do.

In addition, state legislatures are traditionally gerry-mandered in favor of the rural interests, with the result that the cities are under-represented and fight an eternal battle to secure even their fair share of state tax revenues. Most cities must get state approval for any new tax they wish to impose: "home rule" is largely a fiction. Many cities, therefore, must still rely chiefly on the old property tax, outmoded in a time when income rather than real property, is a more reliable gauge of the wealth of a corporation that maintains only its sales and executive offices in the city.

Nor is private investment for urban renewal a likely possibility. Real estate men are not practicing philanthropy, at least not on business hours, and slum properties are very profitable investments because of the high population concentration. To participate in urban renewal projects would mean not only giving up lucrative tenement properties, but also paying exorbitant prices for slum land in order to construct (at high cost) less profitable housing. So a lot of government money is needed to set up a meaningful urban renewal program. With the state unwilling and the city unable to contribute a great deal, the bulk of the money will have to come from the Federal government.

But large injections of Federal money do not guarantee the success of a given project, for urban renewal is a tricky and complex business. It can create as many new problems as it solves old ones. For example, it does no good to tear down a slum when you have no place to house those who are dispossessed and when the new housing will accomodate not slum dwellers but higher income residents. By giving the old inhabitants no new housing within their means, the urban renewal project has merely hastened the creation of a new slum somewhere else. These mistakes are easily made, and some amount of planning guidance from experienced Federal administrators would be of considerable use.

Racial prejudice is another serious difficulty in urban renewal. Some Negroes, economically able to live elsewhere, are forced to stay in the slums because they cannot find other housing. Private developers are reluctant to enter into Government-sponsored renewal projects, because the Government insists (quite justly) on racially integrated housing and realtors fear that integrated property won't rent. And, of course, the whole slum creation process often starts when a respectable Negro family moves into a white neighborhood: the whites move out and landlords divide the houses into smaller, more crowded units and reap the profits of a slum. If, as Housing Commissioner-designate Robert Weaver says, integration in housing is the key to integration else-where, conversely the elimination of racial prejudice generally would be an important step in solving the critical slum problem.

Although there are many pitfalls in any urban renewal program, important opportunities remain. Many of the major advances must take place on the local level, to prevent the growth of new slums; then the Federal government can put in money to clear the old slums and replace them with government-owned or subsidized housing.

The Kennedy Administration, then, either through the present Housing Administration or through a Department of Urban Affairs (the latter might ultimately be more desirable), should actively encourage municipal governments to take the following steps: strengthen and enforce building codes, to make slum-owning a less lucrative proposition; pass and enforce legislation similar to the New York City ordinance prohibiting discrimination in private housing; explore the possibility of metropolitan area government to handle slums outside the city limits.

If the efforts of his administration can halt the deterioration of the American cities, Kennedy will be doing far more than paying a campaign debt to the urban voters.