January 30, 1997 - From the January, 1997 issue

HUD’s Henry Cisneros Sums Up His Reign… “Leave No One Behind, Extend Opportunity To All”

As his tenure of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development draws to a close, Henry Cisneros delivered his final and moving speech to the National Press Club in early January, shortly after the nomination of Andrew Cuomo as the next Secretary of HUD. The Planning Report is pleased to present excerpts from Cisneros’ speech.

“Too many Americans, some of them elected officials, are willing to write off (problems like homelessness, poverty, public housing, and inner-city decay) as necessary loses—not because they don’t care, but because they’ve given up on funding solutions that work…”

I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you… I am also proud that President Clinton selected Andrew Cuomo to be the next Secretary of HUD. 

… I am optimistic about America's future because of the wonderful, determined, clear-thinking, hard­working people I have met over the past four years. In that time, I have visited over 180 cities and communities, housing projects and suburban areas in all fifty states, and I've seen enough good, enough hope, enough shining examples of the human spirit to lend purpose and meaning to the rest of my life. 

Many Americans haven't seen what I have seen and many are pessimistic about the nation's future. As we approach the new millennium, too many Americans are frustrated with problems that loom so large, they appear too great to tackle. Problems like homelessness, poverty, public housing, and inner-city decay. Too many Americans, some of them elected officials, are willing to write off these areas as necessary losses—not because they don't care, but because they've given up on finding solutions that work. Well, I'm here to tell you that while from a distance these problems seem insurmountable, close-up they are not, if we are willing to work at them. 

The truth is, after all the comprehensive solutions and sweeping ideas. I've learned that the way to solve the biggest problems is block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. There is no substitute for the magic of persistent, untiring, day-to-day work… 

Today, I am going to talk to you about four areas where that reach for greatness meets some of its severest challenges: Homelessness; changing the complexion of public housing; creating more affordable and less discriminatory housing; and rebuilding our cities. 

Eradicating Homelessness 

There are 600,000 people, on average, homeless in this country on any given night. About a third of them are suffering from a serious mental illness. 

Twenty years ago, our country made a promise. It has two parts. One: "We will remove people from mental institutions where they are being warehoused in inhuman conditions." Two: "We will build a network of community health facilities." Part one happened; part two never came close. The result: thousands of mentally ill persons are on the streets. I believe we must use a portion of our homeless funds to build a network of supportive housing for the homeless mentally ill. 

Changing the Face of Public Housing 

… The old public housing developments are too often high-rise buildings with caged hallways stretching into blocks of despair. I remember one development in particular, one in Baltimore, where the police would not let Mayor Schmoke and me go in because, the police officer told us, there were drug dealers with automatic weapons living in the building and they might mistake us for a police officer or a rival gang member. 

The more I looked at this issue over time, the more clear it became to me: The buildings are flawed; the policies are flawed. We have to replace both. And now we are replacing the worst of the housing units—23 thousand units in the past four years alone… 100,000 by the year 2000—that have for too long been the settings for our children's urban nightmares.

Instead of the superblocks of Cabrini-Green, grids of traditional streets are being designed. Instead of mammoth apartment buildings, small scale, townhouse-style housing is being constructed. Instead of acres devoted exclusively to poverty housing, mixed income housing is being encouraged. Instead of housing built, owned, and managed by public entities, partnerships with for-profit and non-profit developers are being forged… 


The public housing of old is changing right before our eyes. A better way is emerging. We can do it, if we push ourselves to finish the job. 

The Shortfall in Affordable Housing 

I mentioned a moment ago that we need more affordable housing. That is in fact an understatement. We are nearing a crisis in affordable housing: 5.3 million low income families are living in substandard or over-crowded conditions or spending more than one half of their incomes for rent, sacrificing what they might spend for food, medicine or clothing. Most of these families are America's working poor. 

But Congress has responded to this crisis in the worst way possible. Congress has taken steps to end the 20 year bipartisan record of increasing the number of new rental vouchers for America's poor and working poor families. Additional housing vouchers that help Americans afford housing have been cut completely for three straight budgets. In President Reagan's worst budget, he included 40,000 new vouchers. We proposed 50,000 new vouchers. Congress for three years now, has responded with zero additional vouchers. 

As we move towards welfare reform, as we fundamentally change the relationship between the government and the poor, as we cut and sometimes end government aid to poor families and children, we must not take away the last margin of support that makes housing available to these same families. 

The Importance of Cities 

… After 25 years of decline, America's cities are beginning to relate to the new American economy. The trends that were once hopelessly downhill have begun to reverse themselves, and areas for which obituaries had long ago been written are now stirring with growth and life…  

This transformation is being born out of a realization that the new economy rewards regions that ignore the old distinctions of city limits. The new economy is a metropolitan economy. 


Let us remember that we can create a positive model of government that leaves no one behind as it extends opportunity to all. That means extending a hand to the poorest and the ill who live on our nation's streets; helping families get out of the vortex of traditional public housing and onto the path of self-sufficiency; giving hard-working Americans the opportunity to buy or rent their own home without discrimination; and building an economy that is not drained by inner city decay—but bustles with rebirth and renaissance.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.