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Washington Examiner


A Conservative Agenda For Cities

February 24, 2010

By Howard Husock

As conservatives set out to forge a positive governing agenda, an area to which they should turn their attention is that of the future of American cities. An “urban agenda” has, to be sure, been synonymous with liberalism--at least since Lyndon Johnson established the Department of Housing and Urban Development--but, in reality, it is conservatism which has brought greater benefits to cities in recent years and offers new if not widely-known policy ideas which hold more promise than yet another generation of subsidized housing and jobs programs which dominate the liberal menu.

The liberal approach to cities has had a long series of incarnations since the Johnson era: HUD, Model Cities, Community Development Bloc grants,, Empowerment Zones, community development corporations and housing vouchers. They promised they could both rebuild declining neighborhoods--and provide a hand up for the urban underclass. In reality, they did little of either--instead, renovating scattered buildings at great expense and providing non-profit social service jobs, rather than sparking economic dynamism. If the Democratic urban agenda had worked, then Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit would all be booming, rather than being the dangerous ghost towns they’ve become.

Conservatives don’t talk much about cities but actually have an urban policy of which to boast. Most notably, the triumph of New York-style crime prevention-oriented policing has led to a public safety revolution, one that allows poorer neighborhoods and their residents to thrive by actually reducing crime. “Compstat” policing has served as a rebuke to liberals who insisted that only some ill-defined social justice utopia would ever cut crime; instead, it turns out that cutting crime allows cities to rebound. In New York, where property values in Brooklyn and Harlem have skyrocketed, the numbers are simply stunning--a drop in murder from 2200 in 1990 to just 471 last year--a drop that benefits at-risk minority group members the most by literally saving their lives.

So, too, has welfare reform--passed by a Republican Congress in 1996--helped cut into the culture of underclass dependency which had come to dominate too many urban neighborhoods. Its work requirement and time limit has been an astounding policy success, with the emergence of an urban working class its embodiment. Again using New York as the example, the welfare rolls have dropped over 20 years from 1. 1 million to just 320,000.

And other policies with conservative pedigrees are showing significant promise. In Atlanta, the city Housing Authority, led by African-American director Renee Glover, has literally demolished virtually all the city’s public housing projects--replacing some with privately-owned, tax-generating apartment complexes but providing most former tenants with housing vouchers tied to a work requirement. Employment levels have risen from 13 percent to more than 60.

In Newark, Democratic Mayor Cory Booker has used a combination of private philanthropy and public funds to start the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative--focused on steering returning ex-offenders toward a “rapid attachment to work”, and away from new crime. This is an issue of exceptional importance: more than 700,000 prisoners leave state and federal institutions each year. Conservatives should push to bring the spirit of welfare reform to this population. Rewarding parole officers for keeping parolees out of jail--not for locking them up again--would be a revolutionary change, one that would keep cities safer and allow states to safe millions on corrections costs.

Much of a constructive conservative agenda should be played out at the local, not the federal level, including reformed public employee pensions based on defined contributions, not unaffordable defined benefits; private financing of public infrastructure projects and continued push for the competition and quality that charter schools show signs of bringing to urban education. (It’s notable that young black reform mayors like Newark’s Booker and Washington’s Adrian Fenty are both school choice advocates; conservatives would be wise to make common cause with them.)

Conservatives should stop avoiding the idea of an urban agenda--and never apologize for not supporting a wide range of programs--from no-strings-attached welfare to the community reinvestment act--which have consistently boomeranged. Instead, they should be proud to point that conservative approaches have done what expensive liberal initiatives have failed to do: make cities work.

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