Henry Cisneros meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to the luncheon.
Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to a meeting of the Urban Land Institute in September 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

If it’s true that an urban renaissance is taking hold across the country, how can the city of San Antonio, among the fastest-growing and changing of them all, ensure that the good times benefit its entire population?

That’s the question Henry Cisneros, former mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, posed to the “urban advocates” – architects, builders, financiers, and city leaders – who attended a meeting of the Urban Land Institute in San Antonio Tuesday. ULI hosted Cisneros, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and a panel presentation for the event at the Pearl.

Cisneros has been presenting his ideas on equitable growth in cities across the country since recently co-authoring the book Building Equitable Cities: How to Drive Economic Mobility and Regional Growth with Janis Bowdler and Jeffrey Lubell. Cisneros is chairman of CityView, an investment management and development firm focused on multifamily housing in mostly Western states.

“It’s really an exciting time,” Cisneros said. “This dynamic of transition from urban crisis to urban renaissance is real.” The crisis began when the manufacturing industry fled cities, for overseas or the suburbs, and people and jobs moved out.

“Cities were left with the residue,” he said. “Now we have a new American economy. It’s taken a long time to get there, but it’s strong. It has a strong base underneath it. That economy is new media, international trade, business and professional services, hospitality and tourism, big higher education, major medical centers.”

Add to that a growing creative class, increased immigration, city governments involved in economic development, and growing number of public-private partnerships, and “this is inarguably an urban moment in our country,” Cisneros said.

But cities also are where people who need the most support live, and throughout U.S. history, cities have served that role. At a time when other levels of government face political stalemates or are not focused on equity issues, cities should be the leaders in creating a more equal society, he said.

“Cities make sense as places where we can advance the equity agenda,” Cisneros said. On that agenda are as issues such as income distribution, housing affordability and segregation, educational quality and access, health morbidities, and representation in governance.

“But there’s no greater manifestation of the equity problem San Antonio has than our housing stock,” Cisneros told the Rivard Report in an interview prior to the ULI meeting. “[We are] 150,000 units short of affordable housing that matches the needs of the workforce.”

During his stint as mayor, Cisneros created The Housing Trust to tackle the issue, and after serving as HUD secretary, supported City-funded incentives to bring Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and affordable, subsidized housing to San Antonio.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “But whatever we do, it will be small in comparison to the problem. … We’re presently producing maybe 3,000 new units a year in the affordable category. We’re not making the kind of headway we need to, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Nirenberg, whom Cisneros lauded for championing the “equity lens” concept in developing the City budget, said the City’s task is to ensure that every person is connected to an opportunity for prosperity.

“And that mission starts with housing,” Nirenberg said. “The evidence is clear. The place you live affects the trajectory of your life.” He set up a Housing Task Force that presented its recommendations in June and issued a final report in August.

“You’re either a city that’s troubled and a discouragement … or you’re a city that has unlimited opportunity,” Cisneros said. “And this question of how we address equity is involved in that. San Antonio is fortunate. I would rank San Antonio in the highest percentages of cities that gets it, a city that’s working on the equity agenda.”

But he challenged city and business leaders to rely on its historically collaborative nature in determining the root causes of poverty and inequity and creating a compact to work together in solving the problems.

Following Cisneros’ address, Leilah Powell, executive director in San Antonio’s LISC office, moderated a discussion between Cisneros and prominent local developer David Adelman, principal of AREA Real Estate.

A proponent of mixed-income housing, Adelman agreed to the equity concept in principle, but acknowledged that developers and others in the industry must also consider how to make projects work financially. He suggested the City create its own program modeled after the HUD 221(d)(4) loan program that would enable developers to create more affordable housing without using tax dollars.

“One of the things we talk about at ULI is sustainability,” said Adelman, adding that it’s more than simply green building practices. “If you had a mixed-income neighborhood from the beginning – the North Side, at the Rim at La Cantera – what if we had workforce housing there? Those neighborhoods would be sustainable for generations, long beyond when we’re going to be here.

“That’s what I think is the most promising opportunity from the SA2020 plan, to try and put some framework and incentives behind that. That’s going to help us overcome some of the burdens we have in costs and incomes.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.