Jack Kemp on Friday termed homelessness "a national tragedy of appalling proportions" and promised to give it top priority if he is confirmed as President Bush's secretary of housing and urban development.
The 53-year-old Kemp, a former nine-term conservative Republican member of Congress from Buffalo, N.Y., criticized cuts in housing programs made by former President Ronald Reagan and declared that mortgage interest rates were too high to make homes affordable for millions of young and lower income Americans.
The former presidential candidate was universally praised by both Democrats and Republicans at a hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee. His confirmation by the Senate appeared likely to be unanimous.
"It is a national tragedy of appalling proportions that there are Americans without basic shelter and human services," Kemp said. "If one person were without shelter, it would be too much, in my opinion. . . . I'm willing to give it the highest priority at HUD."
Even before he could deliver his prepared testimony, however, six advocates for the homeless in the audience disrupted the hearing with shouted demands for "Housing Now" and accused the government of failing to address the plight of the homeless. They were removed from the room and arrested by Capitol Police.
Kemp, pausing only briefly, said he was sorry that the protesters could not have heard his testimony on behalf of federal assistance for what he called "poor folks" without a roof over their heads.
He also promised to promote "greenlining" in urban areas. This would involve targeting public and private funds to areas that were once denied loans by banks' policies of "redlining" undesirable areas.
Testifying with the enthusiasm of a Cabinet newcomer, Kemp said he would fight for more housing funds within the Administration and implied that he might seek help from his friends in the House and Senate if he lost intra-Administration battles over spending priorities.
"I want to be audacious--I want to try things," he said. "We're going to take dramatic and, in some cases, radical steps to put entrepreneurship back in the inner cities."
Kemp quoted both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.). "When I was nominated, I quoted Martin Luther King, who said he had 'abiding faith in the future of America and audacious faith in the future of mankind.' " Kemp said.
"Bobby Kennedy once said 'to fight poverty without the power of free enterprise is to wage war with a single platoon, while the great armies are left to stand aside.' Well, I agree with that. We need to enlist this great army of private enterprise and unleash it in our inner cities."
On the homeless issue, Kemp said public and private agencies must work together not only to provide shelter but pave the way for jobs, permanent housing, health care and human dignity. He said he would work to restore funds for emergency assistance for the homeless authorized by Congress but not proposed in Reagan's final budget sent to Congress on Jan. 9.
Noting the success of resident management of public housing, he said he would encourage that wherever possible and promote home ownership "in every way possible" without cutting back on the housing available to low-income people.
Kemp also vowed "full and vigorous enforcement" of a new law that bars discrimination against families with children and the handicapped and toughens enforcement against housing bias on the basis of race or sex.
Urging the use of tax incentives to reward business for investing in blighted urban and rural areas, Kemp said: "We've created a stunning national recovery in this nation . . . but there is a forgotten frontier in our midst--ghettos and barrios that still experience unconscionable levels of poverty, unemployment and despair."
In another break with the Reagan Administration's priorities, Kemp said he would favor a national housing policy aimed at construction of 2 million new homes and apartments each year for the next five years.
While sympathetic to Kemp's ideas, Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) and other Democrats on the panel told Kemp that Reagan's two terms had seen a sharp drop in federal housing funds and left a legacy of homelessness.
Even Republican Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, supporting Kemp's nomination, acknowledged: "HUD for the last eight years has standpatted. There hasn't been much action. But with President Bush seeking more compassionate government, HUD may take a 180-degree turn."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), however, sounded a common theme. "You're going to have to fight for more resources in a constrained budget," he said.
Kemp, however, refused to utter a discouraging word, saying that he would know more about spending plans when he is confirmed and meets with Budget Director Richard G. Darman. "I think there's going to be some reordering of priorities within the HUD budget," he said, noting that Reagan's spending plan dropped Kemp's favorite program--tax incentives for "enterprise zones" to encourage rebuilding in big-city slums.
Recalling the time when he drove a truck in Los Angeles in his youth, Kemp said: "I know what it's like at 150th Street and Central Avenue. We can't have a country that's moving forward and leave the cities behind."
Kemp said that, if confirmed, he would visit blighted inner cities around the country. He said he visited privately with leaders of Miami's riot-torn Overtown and Liberty City areas last weekend when he was in that city for the Super Bowl.