Affordability and density are two of the most pivotal factors in shaping successful multifamily housing plans, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros said Wednesday.
Speaking to more than 100 attendees at a housing conference in downtown Minneapolis, Cisneros, who led HUD under the Clinton administration, spotlighted the role housing plays in a nationwide rush to urban centers that is transforming how the nation looks, feels and does business.
Manufacturing, once the base of the national economy, is being replaced by an array of other industries — from new media to logistics — that together are giving way to a new urban landscape, he said. The shift has put new strains on cities, and created new demands.
“As we think about the way the cities are evolving, they are places where people work, they are places where people gather, they are places where people pray, they are places where people learn,” said Cisneros, a four-term former mayor of San Antonio who now runs California-based City View, an urban residential real estate investment firm.“But fundamentally, they have to be places where people live.”
A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found there is no metro area in the U.S. where a family earning the minimum wage can afford the fair market value of a two-bedroom apartment — a barrier that reverberates by limiting access to jobs and other amenities.
But a combined focus on affordability and density can go a long way toward a healthier, more balanced city, Cisneros said at the conference, organized by the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing.
Mixed market-rate and low-income housing projects, particularly near downtown business districts, can revitalize local economies. Increased accessibility and greater density drive growth, he said, though it can be tough to get developers on board.
“In so many places, mixed-income immediately gets developers worried they’re going to have mandates placed on them to include low-income housing,” said Cisneros.
But, he said, it doesn’t have to be so daunting. Cisneros pointed to a government program that gives developers tax-exempt financing to build multifamily rentals if their plans reserve 20 percent of the units for tenants earning less than 50 percent of the local median income.
The payoff from such initiatives is twofold: The developer gets a break on construction costs, while the surrounding area sees an influx of workers, diversity and, in many cases down the line, amenities.
“We must build cities for more than just a creative class, more than just the young professionals,” Cisneros said.
A more holistic approach ideally incorporates more than a dozen key aspects of urban living, he said. The factors include sustainability, infrastructure upgrades, prioritizing density and incorporating public spaces and amenities in downtown areas.
In addition, he said, developing new approaches to financing — especially though public-private partnerships — can prop up metropolitan areas of all sizes.
“We’re a metropolitan nation and our future depends on how our cities do,” Cisneros said.
Like this article? Gain access to all of our great content with a month-to-month subscription.