Opportunity zones of prosperity

Posted: Sep 27, 2004 12:00 AM

It has been a long time since the federal government made a serious effort at urban renewal and development. The efforts that have been made, moreover, have been piecemeal and consequently have produced mixed results.

That's why I have joined with fellow former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, Kent Colton, former president of the National Association of Home Builders, and Nicolas Retsinas, the director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, to produce a book, "Opportunity and Progress: A Bipartisan Platform for National Housing Policy."

This project came together because we all agreed on the gravity of the nation's housing problem. Sure, homeownership is at an all-time high, and that is great news, but for those yet to own a home, particularly those on the bottom of the income ladder, there is much work yet to be done.

In our book, we put forth a set of recommendations that reflects our shared vision for a national housing policy. We wanted this policy to be not just bipartisan, but pragmatic, plausible and actionable - with the underlying rationale being that our nation's housing programs and policies should and must support individual access to opportunity. We understand that homeownership is the linchpin of the American Dream.

Home ownership allows Americans of even modest means to put down roots in the middle class. But, home ownership is more than that - it provides the keys to financial independence and wealth accumulation.

In our report, we outline in detail a 12-point agenda that includes programs to end chronic homelessness, revive public housing, increase the use of housing vouchers and eliminate bureaucratic hurdles to affordable housing, just to name a few. More specifically, we endorse the creation of a National Housing Trust Fund. We feel that the trust fund would help ameliorate the increasing burden of demand for low-cost rental housing outpacing supply in many markets across the country. The trust fund would be used to support the production, preservation and rehabilitation of 1.5 million affordable housing units over the next 10 years. At least 45 percent of the trust fund monies would be earmarked for housing affordable to extremely low-income households.

Another key proposal is a federal homeownership tax credit. This concept has the support of President Bush and should receive broad bipartisan support in Congress. And, one more key proposal is the elimination of regulatory barriers to the production of work force housing. The reason for this proposal is that many communities presently use zoning and other regulations to preclude the production of work force housing. To remedy this problem we propose linking funding incentives within federal transportation programs and the HOME and Community Development Block Grant programs to the production of work force housing. We also seek to promote the formation of public, private and nonprofit coalitions to facilitate barrier removal and facilitate the assembly of urban land for housing and economic development purposes.

Taken together, we hope our recommendations will help shape a broader dialogue on urban renewal.  President Bush has articulated the broader issue as creating an ownership society within which there will be specific opportunity zones, which would include many of our nations' economically distressed urban centers as well as rural areas and the territories. A substantial piece of that effort is the creation of a special collaboration with the National Urban League to create an entrepreneur network, which will include one-stop centers for business training, counseling, financing and contracting. A number of federal agencies including the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency and other agencies will help provide resources and outreach for minority enterprise.

Finally, on a more macro-level, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R.-Wisc., have introduced legislation to jump-start the infusion of capital into these areas with their National Enterprise Zones legislation. Their legislation would "greenline" designated areas for pro-growth tax treatment on income, savings and investment within the zone as a means of fueling economic growth so that opportunity zones and our more specific recommendations will produce maximum positive results.

With presidential leadership, I have no doubt that these seemingly disparate ideas, working together, will help pave the way toward homeownership, opportunity and economic growth to our nation's cities and other economically distressed areas of the country.