Conservative agenda can work for American cities 

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," to be sure, has been synonymous with liberalism — at least since President Lyndon Johnson established the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In reality, it’s conservatism that has brought greater benefits to cities in recent years and offers new, if not widely known, policy ideas that hold more promise than yet another generation of subsidized housing and jobs programs that 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 Block Grants, Empowerment Zones, community development corporations and housing vouchers. They promised they could both rebuild declining neighborhoods and provide a leg up for the urban underclass.

They did little of either, instead renovating scattered buildings at great expense and providing nonprofit social service jobs, rather than sparking economic dynamism. If the Democratic urban agenda had worked, then Cleveland; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Detroit all would 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 homicides from 2,200 in 1990 to just 471 last year, which benefits at-risk minority groups the most by saving their lives.

So, too, has welfare reform — passed by a Republican Congress in 1996 — helped cut into the culture of underclass dependency that 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 in the past 20 years from 1.1 million to just 320,000.

And other policies with conservative pedigrees are showing significant promise. In Atlanta, the Housing Authority, led by black Director Renee Glover, has demolished virtually all of 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 percent.

In Newark, N.J., Democratic Mayor Cory Booker has used a combination of private philanthropy and public funds to start the Newark Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, which is focused on steering returning ex-offenders toward a "rapid attachment to work" and away from new crimes. 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.

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 out that conservative approaches have done what expensive liberal initiatives failed to do: make cities work.


Howard Husock is vice president of policy research at the Manhattan Institute, whose ideas for cities can be found at

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