John F. Kennedy photo

News Release on Conference on Urban Affairs, from the Democratic National Committee Publicity Division, Washington, DC

October 20, 1960

The following is the report of the Kennedy Conference on Urban Affairs held in Pittsburgh on October 10, 1960; attended by more than 450 mayors and other local officials from 30 States. This report was presented to Senator John F. Kennedy by Mayor Richard C. Lee, of New Haven, Conn., chairman of the Urban Affairs Conference.

In endorsing this report, Senator Kennedy said: "It is a far-reaching and comprehensive study which examines in detail the vital problems of our cities and suburbs throughout America. I urge that it be given careful study, not only by urban officials, but also by all others concerned with life in our cities."


One of the greatest challenges of our times is the challenge to rebuild our cities and cope with explosive suburban growth.

America is an urban nation - 8 out of 10 families now live in cities or the suburbs which surround them. Yet millions of city dwellers are barred from the quality of life and opportunity which are our national goals. And our urban areas face a crisis of growth and technological change in the years ahead.


The cities and their suburbs provide much of our national wealth and employment, much of our culture, learning, and traditions. But there are unpleasant facts about life in many cities which America cannot tolerate in good conscience.


More Americans live in slums than on farms. More than 40 million Americans live in substandard housing. Five million city homes lack adequate plumbing.

Spreading slums and blight still threaten to destroy American cities despite 11 years of Federal aid for slum clearance and urban renewal. In too many communities, slums spread as fast or faster than the efforts yet made to clear them out or clean them up.

The financial cost of slums - in crime, delinquency, and disease - are enormous. Neglect of the cities decreases tax revenues and restricts economic opportunities. Slums increase local service costs at a time when the tax base is rapidly shrinking.

The social cost of slums is enormous too. Crime and juvenile delinquency are rampant; it is often unsafe to walk down city streets at night. For millions of children, the slums are an asphalt jungle, a mockery of the American way of life. At the same time, cities are the home of the poor, the aged and the problem families who need special help and understanding.

Slums and blight - and the misery they produce - are the shame of the Nation. But the rockbottom slums are only part of the story. The speed with which good neighborhoods are decaying raises equally critical problems by wasting away the largest supply of decent, moderately priced housing.

The basic cause is the inability of the American city, with its limited taxing powers, to finance unaided the massive rebuilding programs and level of municipal services required to prevent decay.


Our cities face a critical short age of decent housing for the low- and middle-income families who are the majority of their people. There are 8 million families with incomes of less than $3,000 a year. There are 15 million families with incomes from $3,000 to $6,500. It is these families that Federal housing programs were designed to help, but in recent years, Federal housing policies have neglected them.

Minority groups

In many cities in all sections of the country, American families from minority groups suffer much worse housing conditions than their fellow citizens. Usually they can obtain only secondhand housing, despite the pressure of population increase. They are subject to over-pricing, overcrowding, and profiteering, and these practices accelerate decay in the neighborhoods in which minorities are forced to live. Creating decent housing opportunities in attractive neighborhoods for all our citizens can constitute a dramatic advance in civil rights and equal opportunities for all.


It is our national duty to provide the best possible educational opportunities for our children. Central city schools are typically old and obsolete, lacking in play space and modern facilities. And nearly every suburban community is straining its local finances to the limit to provide new schools to met the pressure of a growing population.

A stepped-up program of school construction and replacement is essential to improve our children's education. The program will also aid in creating attractive and stable neighborhoods for everyone who lives in our cities.


Downtown U.S.A. and urban industry are principal sources of America's power, wealth and employment. Seventy-five percent of our national wealth and productivity comes from urban areas, but large sections of our cities are now run down, and choked with traffic. Industrial areas are overcrowded with unsafe loft-factory buildings. These conditions lead business and industry to quit central districts, with resulting loss of income, jobs, and services to customers. Consequently, the municipal tax base shrinks at a time when costs are rising.

Many cities have been bypassed by economic growth, leaving depressed areas with an urgent need for new programs in order to rebuild their economic base and to provide employment for their citizens.

Transportation and highways

Automobile ownership has doubled since the war. It will increase by another 60 percent in the next decade. Cities and suburbs both face unprecedented problems of traffic congestion's and commuter transportation.

At the same time, mass transit and commuter rail facilities are becoming more and more inefficient, uncomfortable, and expensive.

Air and water pollution

America has not yet begun to combat air and water pollution in earnest. Too many of our streams and too many rivers and harbors are spoiled by unnecessary pollution. The air we breathe is fouled by exhaust fumes, industrial smoke, and furnaces, creating a menace to the public health. The problem grows more critical as our population increases. We must act to conquer these hazards and purify our air and water, our two most precious natural resources.

Recreation and open spaces

City parks and public spaces are priceless assets. We have taken for granted the open country around our cities which has stood for generations in farms or woodlands. Today we are running out of open spaces, and recreation areas are rapidly disappearing.

National, State and regional park systems must now be developed on a planned basis to meet the needs of a growing population.


With one-third of a nation ill housed, the Democratic Party enacted the Housing Act of 1937, establishing the public housing program. Eleven years ago, under a Democratic administration the Housing Act of 1949 was passed, establishing the framework for redevelopment programs and a national housing policy of "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family."

By contrast, the Republican administration has ignored pressing urban problems. President Eisenhower, the Vice President, and the entire administration have fought to cut back or defeat entirely efforts to launch major programs of urban renewal.

The record is clear:

(1) The urban renewal program has faced continual cutbacks for lack of sufficient appropriations. The administration repeatedly has requested far less money than necessary to do the job. The veto has been constantly threatened. The President has recommended that the Federal share be cut back from two-thirds of net cost to one-half.

(2) In 1959, President Eisenhower vetoed two housing bills.

(3) Fewer public housing units were built in 6 years of the Republican administration than in the last 3 years of the previous Democratic administration, although the need for public housing units has not decreased (124,000 versus 126,000).

(4) Adequate housing is not being built for 15 million families with incomes between $3,000 and $6,500. High interest rates have put new sales and rental housing out of the reach of these families. In 1953, when the Republicans took office, the conventional mortgage rate was 4 1/2 percent. Today the rate is 6 percent. On a 20-year loan, this increase adds $2,000 to the cost of a $10,000 mortgage.

(5) FHA mortgage insurance for rehabilitation of private homes has been a failure. Only a handful of such mortgages have been placed with mortgage bankers.

(6) After 8 years of growing urban crisis, the Republican administration has not developed a comprehensive urban policy - a statement of goals and a program to achieve them.

(7) Mr. Nixon has repeatedly voted against housing programs and urban renewal. He opposed the National Housing Act of 1949. He voted to eliminate any provision for low-rent housing. In 1950 and 1952 he supported moves to eliminate cooperative housing and to cut back public housing construction to 5,000 units a year. In 1952 he sponsored an amendment specifically designed to end public housing programs in Los Angeles. In 1958, as Vice President, he cast a tie-breaking vote to increase the interest rate on Veterans' Administration home-loan mortgages.

In the face of this record, Mr. Nixon's sudden campaign-time interest in housing programs and urban renewal is hardly convincing. Our cities and suburbs require active programs around the clock, not promises 6 weeks before election. The program advanced by Mr. Nixon is neither comprehensive nor specific:

(1) Mr. Nixon's proposals would not increase local freedom to plan, innovate, and improvise. They would result in decreased Federal contributions to renewal costs as a result of withholding subsidies from projects which would help to rebuild the local tax base.

(2) Simply increasing housing starts is not sufficient. The central problem is to increase the supply of moderately priced housing - both rental and sales - a need which the present program neglects and which Mr. Nixon opposed filling changing population.

(3) The program makes no provision for giving badly needed assistance to cities and suburbs for community facilities, such as sewers, control of air and water pollution, or school construction.

(4) There is no provision for the rehabilitation of existing dwellings in older neighborhoods.

Measured by numbers, Mr. Nixon says there is "an ample supply of dwelling units and substantial vacancies." But substandard housing - and 24 percent of our housing is substandard - no matter how ample the supply, is not good enough for American families.


Throughout America, local leaders are awakening to the opportunities to build a better urban life for all our citizens. We must act, and act now, to rid the country of slums and blight, and to provide for suburban growth. We should embark upon a long-range, immediate action program to revive our cities. To achieve this goal we must create a partnership and a sharing of resources between the National Government and the communities of America.

Intelligent planning requires long-term planning. We endorse a 10-year Federal-local action program to eradicate slums and blighted areas, and to help to solve the problems of explosive growth in metropolitan areas. This 10-year program should have five areas of special concern:

1. Rebuilding cities.- Primary emphasis should be placed on rebuilding cities through a long-term Federal commitment to urban renewal. Such an approach has already been endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Municipal Association among others. It will give local officials the assurance they need to enable them to move ahead with comprehensive urban renewal programs.

2. A decent home for every American family.- We should build three homes for every two we are building now. Total housing production should be increased to more than 2 million units a year, with emphasis on housing for low- and middle-income families. The housing program should provide for rental as well as sales housing, for expansion of cooperative housing, and for effective rehabilitation of existing homes.

To make this possible, the home building industry must be given the mortgage assistance necessary for lower interest rates, long-term mortgages, and reduced down payments. Where necessary, direct Government loans should be provided.

Even with this new approach, there will still be a need for a substantial public housing program for low- and middle-income families. To meet this need there should be a shift from large to small projects which blend into existing neighborhoods, as well as rehabilitation of existing substandard private units. The public housing program should be flexible enough to permit sales to long-term tenants. We should also have a program of family counseling and technical assistance patterned after the successful experience of the Agricultural Extension Service. The program must also bar racial discrimination and meet the needs of the elderly and large families who have difficulty in finding decent homes.

More direct help should be given to families and businesses displaced by redevelopment and other governmental programs, through increased moving benefits and other assistance.

3. Mass transportation.- Transportation binds the cities and suburbs together. Nearly every metropolitan area has a transportation crisis. On a national level we have acted to help highway construction but we have practically ignored commuter railroads, bus, and street-car service. Without new policies, the transportation crisis will only get worse. We need Federal aid for intelligently planned and unified transportation systems, meshing commuter and transit service with expressways and parking facilities.

4. Pollution.- The pollution of the air and water about our cities is not merely an unpleasant nuisance. It is dangerous to health. In simple business terms, water is a scarce resource not only in the arid West but in almost all parts of the country. Water conservation can be carried out only on the basis of comprehensive plans for each river basin, and in this planning the Federal Government clearly has a vital part to play.

5. Recreation and open space.- We must act now to provide the National, State and local parks and recreation areas required for a growing population. The Federal Government should assist in the preservation of natural open spaces and the creation of new parks and recreation areas by providing financial assistance for their planning and development in all sections of the country, but particularly major population centers.


The key to success in urban renewal is the coordination of all these activities into an integrated program of development.

The roots of day-to-day American democracy lie in allegiance to State and local governments. Mayors, city councilmen, and local officials and citizens have firsthand knowledge of the needs of their communities. We will continue to look to these local officials for leadership in planning and carrying out rebuilding and conservation programs. The initiative and responsibility will properly remain local.

At the Federal level, administration and coordination of Federal aids and assistance should be centered in a new Cabinet-level Department of Urban Development.

The Federal Government must share the leadership in urban programs because it is in the national interest to rebuild and maintain cities representing billions of dollars of investment and productive power. With a sharply limited tax base, cities cannot finance the required building programs alone. Even if they could, there would be no money saving. The only question would be whether the entire cost should be raised exclusively from taxes on real property or shared with revenues from the graduated Federal income tax.

The Federal Government and the cities would share in the cost of planning and executing these programs. Two Federal dollars for every local dollar is a fair division of the cost. The total amount of Federal funds required by this proposal would depend upon the willingness of local governments to finance their share of the rebuilding.

The total cost would be greater than the $430 million proposed by President Eisenhower for housing and community development this year, but it would be less than the cost of the mutual security program or the farm program. The public investment will serve as seed money bringing about large-scale private investment. More important, the cost will be many times greater if the job is postponed.

This, then, is an all-out program to provide the best quality of life in our cities and suburban communities. It calls for local action as well as Federal action, for local leadership as well as national leadership. It is a program vital to all America, a program which Americans can endorse and upon which they can act.

John F. Kennedy, News Release on Conference on Urban Affairs, from the Democratic National Committee Publicity Division, Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Simple Search of Our Archives