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What San Antonio's $1 million displacement policy would address, not address

by Gaige DavilaJan 18, 2019
About 40 people attend a displacement policy meeting Wednesday night at the Ella Austin Community Center. BEN OLIVO | HERON

The city of San Antonio is closer to adopting a housing displacement policy as its Neighborhood & Housing Services Department (NHSD) nears the end of a public meeting process.

The three-year Risk Mitigation Policy, which taps into $1 million taken from the city's general fund, intends to address city-wide displacement and lessen the traumatic effects of relocation. The policy, a recommendation of the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force, could be adopted by City Council as early as February, with a potential launch date between April and June.

The current draft of the Risk Mitigation Policy lists three "priority actions:"

» Emergency assistance, $250,000, for those who've become unemployed, experienced an income change or a medical crisis, or some large, unexpected expense, to prevent displacement.

» Residents relocation assistance, $650,000, for people facing displacement because of development, with relocation paid by the owner and/or developer of a property with assistance from the city, if needed; counseling access for residents; and increasing the eviction notice of a sold property from 30 to 90 days.

» Rental incentive fund, $100,000, a "backup" account to pay landlords for "repair(s) in exchange of waiving the risk assessment fees" for residents with criminal backgrounds or a history of eviction.

NHSD has said explicitly the policy is not meant as a solution to displacement or gentrification, will not create or preserve affordable housing, will not lower property taxes, or house the homeless, because current do—or future policies will—address those issues.

Since last October, NHSD has held four community meetings on the policy. The fourth meeting was held at Ella Austin Community Center on Wednesday, with nearly 40 residents from across the city's 10 districts in attendance. The policy was presented as the "Displacement Mitigation and Prevention Policy."

NHSD has also met with focus groups, had one-on-one meetings with stakeholders, and conducted surveys. Some of the notes from that outreach can be found on the city's website.

Ian Benavidez, a city coordinated housing system and policy manager, said the discussions from this community outreach will help shape the Risk Mitigation Policy.

At Wednesday's meeting, attendees were told to prioritize "priority action" items in the policy draft, ranking the "most critical situations of hardship," "most important relocation assistance" and "most important conditions to provide (the) Rental Incentive Fund"—and explain why—in round-table discussion groups.

Vallerie Hartfield (left) and Stephen Lucke discuss a question presented to attendees of a displacement policy meeting Wednesday night at the Ella Austin Community Center. BEN OLIVO | HERON

NHSD is using these public meetings to measure resource allocation, but attendees at this past meeting were still unsure of the policy's goals.

Several people said the language of the policy was confusing which, a group facilitator told me, was a unanimous complaint at the three previous meetings.

One attendee compared the policy to "putting a band-aid" over the issue they said was at the core of displacement and homelessness across the city: gentrification.

"We're not touching any of that because there are programs already for both types (of homelessness)," said Dr. Azza Kamal, a planning coordinator of housing policy with the city. "We're trying to help people who are in between (being homeless and not), about to be, or helping them to stay."

She continued, "Our goal is to continue to work with them."

Over the course of the meeting, people were discussing San Antonio's average rent increase and how to incorporate it into the Risk Mitigation Policy.

"We've got such a diverse city, geographically, that talking in averages isn't very meaningful," said Matt García, an attorney with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. "You have to focus on the neighborhood level."

Referring to the amount of city departments working on housing issues, Garcia said, "It's almost as if people are resistant to thinking about the problem holistically." He continued, "the (city's) policy should be cohesive across everything and there should be one unified vision."

For the last meeting's last activity, the groups were told to discuss the effects of a rent increase on a household.

"We know as a city and as a country, people are already paying 50 percent or over of their income on rent," said Cosima Colvin, board member of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association and participant of one of NHSD's focus groups. "So to ask ‘What kind of increase can you afford?' to me is a bad question. Most people can't afford any increase."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed the task force, he has said, largely because of the uprooting that took place at the Mission Trails mobile home park on the South Side in late-2014, early-2015. More than 100 low-income households were removed for a luxury development by local builders White Conlee called Mission Escondida. The development, which is on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River near Mission Concepción, received an incentives package worth an estimated $1.7 million from an old version of the Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP). Projects like Mission Escondida, in which direct displacement would occur, are ineligible for incentives under the newly-revised CCHIP.

NHSD will hold its last meeting on the policy on 5:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Urban Ecology Center at Phil Hardberger Park, 8400 N.W. Military Highway.

Clarification: The original version of this article has been changed to better describe who would benefit from the emergency assistance fund.

Contact Gaige Davila: 956-372-4776 | ben@saheron.com | @gaigedavila on Twitter

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