Eric Garcetti and the Myth of Henry Cisneros

MAILANDER’S LA-Henry Cisneros was elected to the City Council of San Antonio, Texas, in 1975.  At 27, he was the youngest City Councilman there ever.  He became Mayor of the City in 1981, age 33. 

Eric Garcetti was elected to the City Council of Los Angeles, California, in 2001.  Barely 30, he was one of the youngest City Councilmen here ever.  He became Mayor of the City last year, age 42. 

Cisneros, who later went on to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, has had the kind of career that Eric Garcetti wants--or wanted, up to a point.  Garcetti as a Councilman always felt, even in his thirties, that time for himself was slipping away to achieve something more.

But Cisneros has seen much slip away in his time as well. 

Cisneros suffered ignominy in 1999 when he was found lying to the FBI about a mistress and again in 2008 when the bursting of the housing bubble revealed how deeply he had been associated with Countrywide and financial collapse poster child Anthony Mozila.  Cisneros himself also spearheaded the campaign to pass an affordable housing bond in LA in 2006.  But Eric Garcetti doesn't mind ignominy and has kept tight with Cisneros, inviting him to his swearing in for his third term in 2009 and naming Cisneros's son-in-law Sean Burton president of the airport commission.  Garcetti is actually closer to Burton, who attended Garcetti's 2008 wedding to Amy Wakeland. 

A New York Times article on Cisneros' life as a banker's friend from October 2008, "Building Flawed American Dreams," while hardly putting everything right with the world, at least documented the extent to which Cisneros's ideas and relationship to Countrywide even while at HUD "loosened mortgage restrictions so first-time buyers could qualify for loans they could never get before." 

Whether or not Cisneros understood banking well enough to anticipate the consequences of much easier money in the hands of softball bankers remains a question. While he has expressed contrition for other elements of his career, he is unrepentant about his housing policies.  In fact, just this past week, he toured with National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, still flacking for something he understands as "real estate growth" in Arizona.

"What better model [than Arizona] for economic growth?" Cisneros asked his boom-and-bust cycle, sand state audience.

After loosening mortgage restrictions, Cisneros and company still blame the very "predatory lenders" whose boards they sat on as the real culprits of the collapse.

What is far better known than Cisneros's chimerical ideas on home finance is that both Cisneros and Garcetti have through their legislative careers been tireless advocates of heavily subsidized affordable housing, Garcetti sometimes lifting hopeful arguments for heavy subsidies straight out of Cisneros's vest pocket. The urban vision of Cisneros, which was reflected as much in his private business life as in his time as a mayor and again at HUD, simply stated, is to get as many poor folk into real property as possible, and damn the solvency of the lenders or the economic consequences.

How these two men came to preside over cities that ultimately have needed Federal bailouts via the oddly humiliating construction that is now known as a "Promise Zone" is a story neither man likely wants to think about very much, especially Garcetti as he begins to break stride on a mayoralty that has been more typified by government handout than entrepreneurial spirit.  It is part of the final piece of recovery from the financial collapse of 2008 that Cisneros partially set up while at Clinton's HUD, loosening mortgage restrictions. 

Trying to understand Cisneros's mindset better, I asked a writer who's followed Cisneros's career throughout most of his life, Tony Castro.  Castro like Cisneros grew up in Texas in the late '60s, attended Catholic schools there, and Castro's father even measured Castro's progress in the world against Cisneros's when they were younger.

"I thought Cisneros was a great mayor," Castro told me in email.  "You also have to remember that was a different time. He didn't have the great Latino support that Castro has, either in the city or in the state, though the same expectations. Henry was smarter than Julian, perhaps not as politically pragmatic or machiavellian. Just smarter. He didn't have the advantages of Affirmative Action, bilingual ed and all those programs. The positive side is that I think it gave him certain advantages unique for that period when Democrats were in power in Texas and liberal Democrats were still as chic as that word." 

Here we see a forking between Cisneros and Garcetti, as our own young mayor of Columbia and Oxford didn't require much in the line of class distinct support mechanisms. 

But it's housing where Cisneros has made his mark and housing that has alternatively beleaguered Garcetti and filled his own urban vision with hope.

"As for housing," Castro writes, "I think you have to fully understand the segregation in housing that existed in Texas and especially in San Antonio in those days. I mean a Dallas Cowboys star who was black couldn't buy a home in North Dallas in the 1970s. Same way with most Latinos in San Antonio. 

"Doesn't Henry still live in the house where he grew up in the Latino eastside? So I think Henry's housing ideas were predicated on finding equality foremost and maybe some of the poor aesthetics associated with affordable housing in the 1970s and 1980s weren't as important." 

That also sounds like the housing vision of Richard Alarcon, for whom demography was a favorite class in college, who was still talking about "responsible banking" even moments before he left office.  

Alarcon like Cisneros thought home ownership was a virtual civil right, and he didn't express much concern about how it all might pencil out. 

But Castro also let me know that Cisneros wasn't necessarily in his top element when he was at HUD.

"There are a number of people from Texas in those days who thought Housing Secretary was the wrong Cabinet position for Cisneros. Politically, it's not really a great job except for the title. Of course, in retrospect, it wouldn't have mattered, Henry was already doomed from the mess he made of that affair, and he would have lied to the FBI, regardless if it had been HUD, Commerce or Treasury where he had been nominated. And yet it was his housing title that helped him financially in the aftermath and got him further hooked up with the housing people who set him up for life." 

The public rarely can catch up enough with all of the skulduggery that occurs in housing even to recall that despite decades of affordable housing projects, housing continues to become less affordable than ever for most of those in the very cities that clamor loudest for it. Pushing the pause button for a minute might enable a few at a time to realize that even when things go right, even when a community builds projects that seem to work well, the price of real estate on the adjacent blocks go up, making housing ironically less affordable for those who don't win an affordable housing lottery. 

Affordable housing has always, always been the diciest of propositions involving the economics of real estate. 

"It's really hard, everything has to go right," Cisneros told a UCLA Anderson School of Management audience in 2006 when touting Garcetti's last affordable housing bond to an auditorium full of builders and fellow travelers. A couple of things didn't go right, and the bond failed. But Cisneros, now 66 and still pushing, has not backed down from the nation's long affordable housing experiment; and Eric Garcetti, now 43 and converting politics into policy, shows no signs of backing away either.  He may only like to let the policies of Cisneros inform his own thinking to a point.

"The guy who had the best take on Henry was the late Leonel Castillo, onetime controller of Houston," Castro concluded for me. "Leonel was a well-schooled guy who thought all that was bulls**t when it came to being in politics and real life. He told me he'd had a number of heart-to-heart talks to Henry on everything from dealing with the woman to dealing with the press. All those degrees and schooling, Leonel used to say about politicians, make you think you're f**king smarter than you are. I know the last time we went for drinks before I took off on a Nieman Fellowship, he said,' Remember what I tell you because one day you're going to be looking up from some s**thole and wonder what went wrong: Too much Harvard can be like eating too many tamales.'" 

Eric Garcetti too can look at his diplomas and imagine he's smarter than everyone else in the room, and therefore, everything will work out in the end. That's a quality he shares with the perpetually smug Cisneros, and a quality most of us have seen in him time and time again. I don't know that it's a quality that housing markets lend any special favors.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.






Vol 12 Issue 11

Pub: Feb 7, 2014