City improves downtown San Antonio housing incentive database

by Ben OlivoMarch 7, 2019
This property on the southeast corner of South Main Avenue and Stumberg Street is slated to become a $57 million, 327-unit apartment building by Austin-based Argyle Residential. BEN OLIVO | HERON

Some time last week, the city of San Antonio updated its Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP) database to include the value of the tax rebate each developer is estimated to receive. The rebates only apply to the city portion of their property tax bill—the developers still pay the other taxing entities such as Bexar County, San Antonio Independent School District, etc.

The tax rebate figures, which amount to the bulk of the total CCHIP incentive package each developer receives, are now listed under the column titled "Delayed Incentives."

The upgrade happened shortly after the Heron—in a column I wrote—called out the city's Center City Development & Operations department for what I considered to be a lack of transparency. In the previous version of the database, you could find the tax estimate, but you had to download the CCHIP agreement and sift through many pages. Few people who aren't developers and who don't work for the city follow this stuff as closely as I do, and I didn't even think to check the agreement for the tax rebate total. It didn't meet my definition of transparency.

But that was then, and this is now.

To the city's credit, the CCHIP database now qualifies as being useful.

Still missing, however, is each project's pro forma, which is the document that describes how much profit the developer expects to make.

This is the critical missing piece one would need to truly assess CCHIP. In other words, how much bang is San Antonio getting (whether that be a more vibrant downtown, more affordable units in the downtown, increased revenue to non-city taxing entities, etc.) for its buck (which are the tax rebates on city property taxes over 10 or 15 years). We'd need to know occupancy rates, as well. So that's kind of one assessment. The other assessment needed would look at the residual effects of CCHIP—what's the impact on the neighborhoods that abut downtown? And what happens to developers' pocketbooks?

And then we kind of weigh all of that information and decide. We're not at that point. We don't have enough information.

Of the 63 CCHIP projects, last year we requested five pro formas, and received four of them. We intend to request the other 58, or so. However, in the aftermath of the piece we ran two weeks ago, I became aware of a 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling that lowers the bar or threshold for the withholding of a company's proprietary information when that company has received a public benefit, such as CCHIP.

In other words, if developers building in San Antonio don't want us to have their pro formas, they need only put up a small fight to get the Texas Attorney General to side with them and withhold the info.

That said, we received four pro formas because, as it was explained to me by city staff, those developers didn't ask the Texas AG's office to withhold the documents. So they were released to us.

We're still studying how all of this stuff works, because, as I'm starting to figure out, there are loopholes upon loopholes, and I'm no lawyer so it's going to take us a while to figure it all out. My goal is that by the end of this year, if the Heron's still around, we'll have all the data—or, as close as humanely possible.

Previously published
Analysis: City buries most relevant info in downtown housing incentive database release

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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