The recent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore have returned to national attention the challenges facing many urban areas, as well as the continuing racial disparities within this country. Economic decline, the deterioration of tax bases and the decline of social services, dysfunctional educational systems and ongoing social turmoil all continue to plague many of our urban areas, and the burden of these problems falls disproportionately on Americans of color.

At the same time, economic revitalization in places such as New York City and Washington, D.C. has brought new life to once-troubled places while raising new questions regarding the inequitable distribution of this growth. At the city and state level, urban policies have a prominent place in our debates. The federal agency that one might think was created to address these problems has been notably absent. This is not surprising. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which celebrated its fiftieth birthday in June and just announced new fair housing rules this month, has had an identity crisis since its creation.  

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When it was formed in 1965, HUD promoters held high hopes that it would help to bring order to American urban areas. However, while the federal government’s role in urban affairs, through programs including the FHA, public housing, urban renewal and highway construction, had increased dramatically since World War II, most politicians held to the belief that questions of urban development should be dealt with on the state and local levels.   

In 1962, Congress rejected President Kennedy’s plan (one that he had touted during the 1960 campaign) to create a Department of Urban Affairs. A coalition of conservatives opposed to the expansion of the federal government and southern Democrats opposed to Kennedy’s commitment to make Robert C. Weaver (then head of the agency which managed federal urban programs) the first black cabinet secretary, handily defeated the proposal. 

One reason for the lopsided defeat of the department was that advocates never clearly defined what it would do.  Some argued that a new department was needed to deal with suburban “sprawl” (a term coined by William H. Whyte in 1958 to describe the spreading out of residential settlements). Others - particularly the mayors of the nation’s biggest cities - argued that, since rural areas had the Department of Agriculture, cities deserved a seat at the table.  Several policymakers claimed that the federal government could play a role in coordinating the many levels of government and diverse programs that impacted urban areas.   

If it hadn’t been for Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, HUD might never have come into existence. The overwhelming Democratic margins in both houses were a large part of the reason for the victory, but the increasing racial turmoil in American cities (a problem that achieved widespread attention only after the Watts riots just weeks before the law passed) was another major factor. 

Immediately after HUD was created, the agency was thrown into the increasingly vitriolic debate about race relations in American cities. During the second half of the 1960s, the “urban crisis” vied with the Vietnam War as the most important issue in American politics. Dozens of bills were introduced that promised to solve the problems of deterioration and racial tensions that had been festering in American cities for years but now received nationwide attention because of the violence.   

HUD, and specifically Weaver as the nation’s top black official, was expected to solve these problems immediately. By 1968, three years after its creation, many observers declared that the new department was a failure. 

As the recent protests - and the June 25 U.S. Supreme Court decision addressing housing discrimination and its impacts - reveal, the debates over intersecting questions of race relations and urban policy continue to vex this country. Over the last 50  years HUD programs have provided public housing and rental assistance to millions of people, have provided decent shelter to the homeless, and contributed to the growth of many cities.  

The best example is the HOPE VI Program, which helped cities replace dilapidated public housing with new mixed income communities and deserves much credit for creating an atmosphere where private investment could occur.

But in general HUD has not played a significant role in either responding to urban decline or helping our regions develop equitably. Over the past few decades other federal agencies have struggled with questions about the scope of their responsibilities and the importance of their functions, but no other agency has struggled like HUD to define its basic purpose. HUD supervises several initiatives that provide desperately needed housing. But those important programs could be located within other agencies.  

The point of a cabinet department is (or at least should be) to bring focus to an issue of national concern. Since the policy makers who created HUD never answered the question why the agency was necessary, it is understandable that HUD lacks a clear mission. Fifty years on, now is a good time to decide if we need it, and, if so, what it should do about these continuing challenges.

Pritchett is the Presidential Professor of Law and Education at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the author of Robert Clifton Weaver: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer.