Henry Cisneros speaks at the State of the City, 2017.


To Henry Cisneros, there’s a quiet injustice that happens late on Saturday nights in Santa Monica and elsewhere on the west side of Los Angeles.

As revelers and networkers collect their keys from the valet, flip on the heated seats in their luxury cars and begin the short drive home from restaurants, parties and events, the very people who served them begin their own journeys. Often, to the bus stop to make the long trek east to the San Gabriel Mountains where they can afford to live and raise their families.

“It’s not fair. We can do better than that,” Cisneros told a crowd of business owners and professionals at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City address. The first Hispanic American to head US housing policy added that most of those bus riders look like him: Latino.

“Great cities have to have a mix of housing types or it becomes an impossible problem,” Cisneros said.

Arguably, affordable housing has been a life’s work for Cisneros. In the nineties, he served as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton. While many have praised Cisneros’ achievements during his time in Washington, there have also been significant critiques of whether his push to increase homeownership in the nineties attributed to the housing crash and crisis in 2008. Cisneros’s HUD loosened mortgage restrictions, allowing many Americans to buy homes for the very first time.

But Cisneros is not looking backward. When the former mayor of San Antonio left Washington in 1997 he went into the public sector, serving as President of Univision. In 2003, he co-founded CityView, a real estate investment and development firm based in Los Angeles. CityView seeks to build multi-family housing in dense, high-cost markets like Santa Monica.

“There’s no such thing as cities planning to stay the same,” Cisneros said in his speech to the Chamber. “Life doesn’t work that way. You are either taking steps to move forward or are, almost by definition, moving backward.”

Cisneros took the podium to address community leaders looking for ways to move past the contentious debate surrounding development in Santa Monica following the November election. Nearly 60 percent of voters rejected Measure LV, which would have required a vote on developments taller than two stories in Santa Monica. The initiative would have had a big impact on Santa Monica’s increasing skyline. Many believe the campaign left a blemish on city discourse.

Cisneros encouraged listeners to envision Santa Monica twenty years from now as “not an elite playground … but a place where real people can live together and improve their lives.”

To the developer, more apartments and condominiums are the only way young people and those in the service industry will be able to keep a foothold in the beach city and raise a family here. His speech received a standing ovation from the crowd inside Soka Gakkai World Peace Auditorium.

His sentiments were an echo of an earlier speech by Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole. When the two sat down on stage for a question and answer talk with KCRW’s Frances Anderton, the two were mostly in agreement about how to address the City’s challenges.

Cole said members of his parent’s generation built housing for baby boomers. Now they must do the same.

“My generation has to have an equal or even greater commitment to the next set of generations,” Cole said. “I think we’ve lost track of that.”

Anderton asked both men if they consider Santa Monica, a city of just 8.3 square miles a “small town.”

“It’s not a small town,” Cisneros said. “It’s in the middle of the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. This is not Hollister, California.”

But if things don’t change, Cisneros worries Santa Monica could become like Monterrey, California – a coastal community mostly seen as a bastion for the wealthy.

In order to keep the city “real” and inclusive, Cisneros warned the City will have to convince their longtime residents that development projects are also in their best interest.

“This is about is creating a place that works in the context of new realities,” Cisneros said.