Emerging Issues: The First HUD Secretary

February 1, 2010

by Bill Barnes

"If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." Sir Isaac Newton, 1676, regarding his discovery of the laws of gravity.

In the urban affairs fields, we tend to neglect our forebears and the foundations they built. We do so at our peril, because we thus lack an understanding of the ground on which we stand, and we tend to be more focused on the latest fad than on enduring challenges and working toward long-term success.

Robert Weaver is surely one of the giants of the field, but his biographer, Wendell E. Pritchett, reports that he is by now an "obscure figure, forgotten by Americans." Pritchett's excellent book, "Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City" (University of Chicago Press, 2008) aims to end that obscurity, to place Weaver in the context of his times, and also to exhibit the continuing relevance of his achievements and the dilemmas he struggled with.

Forty-five years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the law establishing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After four months of delay and dalliance, he nominated Weaver to take the post as Secretary for the new department.

Since 1961, Weaver had served as head of the Housing and Home Finance Administration, the predecessor agency to HUD. Over the three previous decades, he accumulated a record of substantial and visible achievement. He earned a B.A. and a PhD. in Economics from Harvard. He served prominently in federal New Deal agencies, in the city of Chicago, at the Ford Foundation, in Governor Harriman's Cabinet in New York State and in leadership roles in the NAACP and other organizations devoted to advocacy and research for civil rights.

Along the way, he published two books of empirical research and many articles. His studies about residential segregation and housing discrimination contributed to the eventually successful legal challenge to racial covenants in the postwar decade.

During his three years as HUD Secretary, Weaver led the efforts to organize the new department and to achieve the Model Cities program, a large expansion of housing programs and a federal fair housing law.

But the period was tumultuous. Weaver bore the brunt of criticism arising from opposition to urban renewal and public housing and from new forms of civil rights activism as well violence in cities across the nation.

That criticism arose from the rapidly changing contexts that altered the very meaning of HUD and of Weaver's position in two significant ways.

First, "the summer of 1965 was a turning point in the history of American race relations, and the Watts riot in Los Angeles was its most significant event." Reactions to that uprising and conflicts in cities across the nation changed the policy image of cities from places of potential opportunities to places of plight, fright and flight. Much of white America's view of cities, race and urban policy froze in the "urban crisis" mentality that has still not wholly disappeared. A self-described "inside agitator," Weaver did not take well to the new black nationalisms or to the penchant for "the most militant cry." He declared that "most Negroes want to be able to believe in the promises of our democratic institutions."

Second, by 1965, the federal policies and programs to which Weaver and others had devoted their careers - public housing, affordable housing, urban renewal, fair housing and de-segregated neighborhoods - were under siege from political, interest group and intellectual critics. Programs that Weaver thought were right-minded but needed to be implemented correctly were savagely criticized, misused or resisted.

Pritchett concludes that "the very qualities that enabled Weaver to achieve success - his unassuming personality, his commitment to moderate change, and his agreement with the central premise of liberal government (reliance on professional expertise) - were perceived as liabilities in this new era of urban turmoil."

Weaver was the first African-American to be appointed to any federal Cabinet post. His color, Pritchett writes, had posed a "significant obstacle to his advancement" and the biographer does a sophisticated job of describing how that occurred. He describes, for example, the "casual racism" of Johnson's aides, "men who had never worked on a professional level with an African American."

Weaver was a prominent contributor to the development of the racial and urban liberalism that characterized much national government activism in the middle of the 20th century. He believed in education, research, expertise, and professional planning and management. His career exemplifies the possibilities and the limitations of that approach.

Weaver died in 1997. In 1999, Congress named the HUD building in southwest Washington after him.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org. To view and read previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage atwww.nlc.org (in the menu for "About cities").