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Can San Antonio get its housing in order? Mayor's task force faces urgent tasks at hand

New home going up on San Antonio's West Side. (Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

This story originally appeared on Folo Media

Two weeks have passed since Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced the formation of his housing policy task force. As with any new governmental entity, the usual questions abound — and they seem amplified considering this is San Antonio, where there is a shortage of 142,000 affordable units, where a downtown housing incentives policy is a potential threat to low-income urban families, where home prices are soaring.

Among the questions: What issues will Nirenberg’s comprehensive housing policy address? How effective will it be? And how transparent will it be? The task force meetings, which are set to begin late next week, are closed to the public, but Nirenberg said public feedback will be essential.

“My hope and expectation is that there will be public input that’s baked into the process,” Nirenberg told Folo Media.

How we got here

In some ways, this moment feels like a repeat of recent history.

Rewind to May 2014. Then, a City Council vote essentially displaced 300 or so residents from the Mission Trails mobile home park, which sat on the high banks of the Mission Reach segment of the San Antonio River three miles south of downtown. In place of the mobile homes would go the gated Mission Escondida, luxury apartments whose architectural renderings suggested a Florida retirement village.

Aiding Mission Escondida was $1.78 million in incentives disbursed by the city through then-Mayor Julián Castro’s center city housing policy. Though it’s not located downtown, the project fell under the policy’s footprint, so it automatically qualified for the incentives.

The bulk of the incentives package for Mission Escondida, a project by local developer White-Conlee, is an estimated $1.5 million in tax rebates spread over 10 years.

Realizing other urban households — property owners and renters alike — could be at risk of being pushed aside by larger developments, Castro created a housing task force to address these effects. Soon after, however, Castro left City Hall for Washington, D.C., to join President Barack Obama’s administration, and he never saw the task force’s efforts realized.

“The first announcement about Mayor Castro’s task force to address gentrification . . . was an effort to address some of the gaps in policy and challenges presented by this new urban growth,” Nirenberg said. “If anything, I see this (the current housing task force) as a continuation of that work.”

The tasks at hand

The five-member task force’s first order of business will be to corral the mishmash of housing efforts currently underway.

Many of those efforts belong to another housing body, the Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods, a descendant of Castro’s task force that took shape in 2015 under Castro’s successor, Mayor Ivy Taylor.

For example, the locally-based National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders is conducting a study to identify the city’s most vulnerable communities — so, potentially, the next Mission Trails. The gears of the $20 million Neighborhood Improvements bond — a mechanism that allows the city to prepare land for affordable housing construction — are beginning to turn.

But more has to be done, and faster, Nirenberg said. Where Castro’s task force recommended the creation of the Housing Commission, Nirenberg’s task force wants to keep the effort confined, precise, authoritative. The group is like an extension of his cabinet, he said.

“There’ve been countless task forces and committees and commissions set up to deal with issues of housing across the board for several years now … we know what the issues are,” Nirenberg said.

In the case of Mission Trails, the residents were renters who were forced to move by the landowner after the Council voted to rezone the property. The only relocation assistance came from White-Conlee, which the developer wasn’t required by law to provide. But could assistance come from the city at some point? What about those people who own land, and homes, who might be forced to sell if property values rise to the point they can no longer afford the taxes? Of course, the other option: solving how to keep residents in place.

Aside from gentrification, Nirenberg’s task force will address San Antonio’s affordable housing shortage of 142,000 units. Building affordable housing in more prosperous neighborhoods, and in gentrifying areas, is one potential strategy, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

Some of the language talked about providing incentives to developers both private and public for building in “high-growth areas,” about “aligning” affordable housing that’s funded by state tax credits with “areas targeted for future development,” and about incorporating affordable housing in upcoming city master plans.

Another task: How to maintain home affordability.

“The average family in San Antonio can no longer afford the average home being built,” Nirenberg said. “We have to address that if we’re going to have a sustainable city.”

The median home price in San Antonio reached $218,800 in July, the third-highest median price ever for this market, according to the San Antonio Board of Realtors. The two highest median home prices were also set this year.

As far as new homes go, only 18 percent of homes being built in San Antonio start at $200,000 and less, according to the latest data from Metrostudy, a local housing researcher.

These are staggering numbers for a city that’s built a reputation nationwide as an affordable place to move to. Some Texas economists have said that San Antonio’s rising home prices could hurt its competitive advantage with other cities. Despite those concerns, a million more people are expected to live in San Antonio by 2040, according to state demographers.

So, no small tasks for the task force, whose first meeting could happen next week, the mayor’s office said.

Meanwhile, as the policy makers convene and discuss, life continues for the groundlings of San Antonio’s urban core. More than two years have passed since 107 households, according to one report, were uprooted from Mission Trails. Three years after the Council vote, and construction on Mission Escondida property (very top photo) has yet to begin.

The afterlife of Mission Trails

In 2014, the process to rezone the Mission Trails mobile home park, and to ultimately force roughly 300 residents from their homes, dragged on painfully. Many Mission Trails residents appeared before the City Council in protest. After he voted against the zoning change, Castro left the dais and consoled some of the residents.

The vote was 6-4 in favor of rezoning, and Nirenberg was among the consenting votes.

“Had we known then what we know now, about how Mission Trails played out, that vote would have been different,” Nirenberg said.

“It exposed gaping holes in our city’s preparedness in the kind of urban redevelopment that we’re seeing more and more of; and the promises made by the developer have proven to be grossly inadequate.”

Though it wasn’t required to, White-Conlee, who did not return multiple requests for comment on this story, offered cash in varying amounts to help residents with the move. Margarita Flores was offered $2,500, she said.

Flores, now 38, mother of five, said the cash wasn’t enough to cover the move. She felt she was in a stable situation at Mission Trails because of nearby resources. She ended up moving to the outskirts of San Antonio — to the South Side, outside the city limits.

“Our life was here. The schools, clinics . . . everything,” Flores told Folo Media while attending the new City Council’s first meeting in June — tears streaming down her face. “We moved so far and had a hard time moving into our new place. It was hard trying to get electricity and running water.”

After the May 2014 rezoning, it took the rest of the year and the beginning of 2015 for all of the families to finally leave the park. Most of the residents were low-income. About half were women who only spoke Spanish, according to a May report by Vecinos de Mission Trails, a community group that has studied the displacement.

Some of the residents owned their trailer homes, others didn’t. But they were all renting on the 21-acre property that fronts the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The land became prime real estate once a Bexar County-led, $271 million effort to revamp that stretch of the river was completed in 2013.

When asked a few months ago about the possibility of Nirenberg forming a group like the housing policy task force to address gentrification, Flores applauded the effort.

“That’s good the mayor is doing that especially since the city is changing so much,” Flores said. “It is very important for people to understand what happened to us at Mission Trails. People that are making decisions need to understand the impact of these decisions.”

Like Flores, Lupe Turner, 66, paid out of pocket despite collecting $2,500 from White-Conlee, she said. She now lives in the Lamplighter Mobile Home Community in northeast San Antonio.

Before she was uprooted, Turner had saved money for retirement and to pay off debt. But a year later she heard about the rezoning, and her savings went toward the move.

“The amount of money they gave wasn’t really that much,” Turner said. “I had to use my own money to pay for certain things. It was one thing after another, and it was hard.

“I miss that part of town because it was convenient to everything.”

Turner said she used some of her savings to move from Mission Trails. JOSE ARREDONDO / FOLO MEDIA

Her church, St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church, was nearby. So were her medical appointments.

“At some point you have to move on, but it’s irritating when you visit the South Side and you see the park sitting there with nothing done,” Turner said.

On Nirenberg’s task force is former Councilwoman Maria Berriozabal, who was an advocate for the people of Mission Trails before and after they were displaced.

The task force is lead by Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, who served under former Secretary Julián Castro as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deputy assistant secretary.

“Now, a modern city can recognize errors and it’s important and imperative for me as a policymaker to identify mistakes that even I have been a part of,” the mayor said “And that’s why, as Maria (Berriozabal) and many other people who were involved in Missions Trails will tell you, I’ve worked every day since then to try to address those inadequacies.”

From the private sector, task force members are Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers; Jim Bailey, associate principal at Alamo Architects; and Noah Garcia, senior vice president at Vantage Bank Texas.

A matter of optics

Unlike the Housing Commission, Nirenberg’s task force will convene in private. The group will also oversee smaller, technical groups that could be the actual crafters of policy.

Nirenberg has said that the public will be included throughout the process.

“From a transparency aspect, the solutions, and understanding how to move our city forward on housing, can’t be done in a vacuum,” Nirenberg said.

A virtue of the Housing Commission, however, is that every debate, every sentence uttered, is public record. The meetings are open. It will be up to Nirenberg and the task force to ensure taxpayers that they will have proper oversight over whatever policy comes from the task force and its technical groups — before it becomes policy.

It’s undeniable that a sense of public exclusion exists with some San Antonians regarding the city’s processes. Maybe not the current budget session — which has had extensive public meetings — but certainly the bond process. During that campaign, many of the criticisms were over its public engagement.

At that time in the Fall 2016, Ana Sandoval, not yet the District 7 councilwoman, sat on the housing bond committee. She thought public inclusion could have been better. Not reaching out to the neighborhood association presidents, she said, was a big flaw.

“I feel that neighborhood leadership is an important stakeholder to have at our table,” Sandoval said recently in a wide-ranging interview. “Some people feel that neighborhoods are just about saying ‘no.’ I’m not that cynical about it. I think we should all be at the same table and say, ‘These are our goals,’ and try to find a way to get there.”

There also seems to be inconsistency with the posting of public meetings. For example, subcommittees of the Housing Commission are posted on the city’s meeting calendar page; but subcommittees of the Historic and Design Review Commission — where details of upcoming high-profile developments are discussed between commissioners and developers — are not.

Another big optics challenge? Selling locals on the idea that San Antonio, indeed, is in a housing crisis.

During the Housing Commission meeting last week, with their priorities completely up in the air thanks to the task force, a discussion emerged that was at times pragmatic and at times philosophical. Mike Hogan, a local affordable housing developer, offered this big-picture take:

“You have to convince the community to accept affordable housing. We have to do that neighborhood by neighborhood. Unless you lay the beach for the invasion of affordable housing, on a city wide basis, making them comfortable with those other people, we’re not going to go much farther than what we are doing.”

Setting It Straight: The part of town former Mission Trails resident Margarita Flores moved to after she was displaced was incorrect in the original version of this post. She lives in south Bexar County.

Folo Media reporter Jose Arredondo conducted the interviews with the former Mission Trails residents.

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