Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros: Shift housing focus to geography and demographics

“A great city needs a mix of housing types because,
by definition, a city is a mix of people.”

– Henry Cisneros, former secretary of housing and urban development

Over the last few weeks, we’ve tried to shine some extra light on housing. We covered Mayor Gray’s $100 million commitment to affordable housing. Gretchen wrote about how housing intersects with so many different issues and why everyone should care about it. Tamara reached out to youth advocates with a message about why having a stable home is essential to the healthy development of a child. And just last week, we posted about research showing that a person making minimum wage would need to hold three full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in our region. That person would have to work 24 hours a day.

Last Thursday, WRAG kicked of its 2013 Brightest Minds series with former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, whose expertise not only leant itself to an examination of larger trends in housing, but to firm solutions for fixing our inequitable housing market.

His conversation with a room full of local funders, nonprofits, local government officials, and housing advocates was wide ranging and deep, but two terms continually resurfaced: geography and demographics.


In our region, the bulk of affordable housing is being created at the edges while the prime real estate hovers more closely around conveniences like public transit and shopping. The same is not true of jobs. A high paid CEO works in the same office as a low-wage custodian, for example. But whereas the CEO likely lives close by, the custodian probably has to travel a considerable amount of time to and from the job. Cisneros pointed out a few of the negative effects of long commutes:

  • Associated high transportation costs cut into savings.
  • They are bad for employees since they take so much time and bad for employers because they decrease productivity.
  • They create a severe imbalance in work and personal/family time.
  • They can have dire consequences in extreme cases. During “Snowpocalypse,” for example, many health workers were unable to get to their jobs.

The bottom line? People need to live closer to their jobs and housing needs to be transit-oriented.


Cisneros also echoed what Dr. Jim Johnson pointed out last year – our demographics are shifting rapidly. Specifically, he cited two trends:

  • The Silver Tsunami is underway and picking up speed, but the housing market isn’t ready. Baby Boomers need more housing options that can accommodate their health and wealth. Cisneros discussed the concept of “lifespan” housing, which can be smaller, more affordable, and equipped to allow Boomers to age in place.
  • In recent generations, the country’s housing stock has been supported by identifiable groups – the post-war generation in the ’50s and ‘60s, the Baby Boomers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The next big wave will be immigrants. Currently, they represent 39% of all housing transactions in the country.

What does it mean? As the housing market shifts into its post-recession phase, both construction and policy will need to be molded around these major shifts in demographics.

Looking forward

After discussing these housing trends and the challenges they pose, Cisneros discussed specific ways that philanthropy can help create a more equitable housing market in our region. Tomorrow, Rebekah will write about his suggestions for local funders.

What is a ‘home’? Over the course of his career in both the public and private sectors, Henry Cisneros has developed a comprehensive and meaningful definition. Listen to it above. If you can’t see the flash player, click here to listen.