San Antonio's $34.5M affordable housing plan draws mixed reviews early on

by Ben OlivoAugust 14, 2019
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston will present a $34.5 million affordable housing plan to the City Council on Wednesday. Heron file photo

Editor's note: This is the second analysis in a two-part series examining the city-lead $34.5 million affordable housing strategy. Read the first part here. On Wednesday, as part of the budget process, city staff will present the plan to the City Council for the first time.

Though it will formally be unveiled to the City Council on Wednesday, the city of San Antonio's $34.5 million affordable housing strategy has received some early mixed reviews from housing observers and elected officials with insight into the plan.

The plan, an ambitious endeavor that was sprung from the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force, involves agencies and nonprofits collaborating with the city to create and preserve affordable housing in San Antonio. The goal: 18,681 affordable units by 2029. The plan was first made public on July 31, at a regular meeting of the Housing Commission, which was attended by the city's top officials, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh. For a summary of the plan, click here.

The meeting was lead by Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, the city executive who oversaw the execution of the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, the program launched in 2012 at the direction of then-Mayor Julián Castro. It's the same policy that has spurred roughly 6,800 housing units—either completed or in the works—in the downtown area, and it's the same policy many blame for the gentrification of downtown's adjacent neighborhoods.

For Natalie Griffith, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity San Antonio, she was skeptical when Houston was put in charge of leading the effort to craft the affordable housing plan. Houston was thrust into overseeing the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD), the department in charge of the city's various housing programs, after former Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni left in recent months to head Corpus Christi's city government.

"This is the first time I've been working with the city for 20 years that somebody is trying to develop an actual strategy and tie the programs to that strategy," Griffith said.

Griffith sees the same type of focus and targeted approach that was placed on the production of downtown market-rate housing now being placed on affordable housing.

"Quite frankly, that's why the downtown development was so successful. That's the approach they took with that, and it worked so well," Griffith said. "If we can do that with affordable housing, that would be awesome."

[ Do you live near downtown? We want to know your story—whether you're a homeowner or renter, whether you've lived in the neighborhood for 30 years or three months. Read more, or email us. ]

But for some, the city is putting the cart before the horse.

In recent weeks, Walsh announced the city would soon begin the process of hiring a chief housing executive—a person to lead what's being called a coordinated housing system. These were recommendations the task force made in its final report issued in August 2018.

Former Councilwoman Maria Berriozabal, who also served on the mayor's housing task force, said the chief housing officer should have already been in place. She also criticized the coordinated housing system for not being coordinated enough. It folds in other partners, such as the San Antonio Housing Authority. However, the departments within the city need to be better aligned and interconnected toward the housing goals, she said.

"I believe everything else falls from that," Berriozabal said. In a previous meeting, for example, Walsh said the chief housing officer would also oversee the city's homelessness efforts, but homelessness isn't address in Houston's presentation.

The task force's report was released a year ago this month, in the middle of the budget-making process. Jim Bailey, an associate principal at Alamo Architects, and former task force member, said the timing in 2018 of hardwiring the goals and ambitions of the task force's framework report into a city budget that was weeks away from being adopted wasn't ideal.

"We hadn't finished up the framework prior to last year's budget negotiations," said Bailey, who's supportive of this year's strategy. "We had kind of a wishlist and had to move around some existing pots of money. NHSD hadn’t organized yet. This was really the first opportunity to do that."

For his part, Nirenberg agreed with Berriozabal.

"There has been a whole level of anxiety because we hadn't had it, and stalled on that component," Nirenberg said. "You know, we're glad we're finally taking the significant action to do it. I'm glad it's now. I wish it would have been before, but it's 2019 not 2029."

At last week's City Council meeting, District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry questioned the use of tax increment reinvestment zone dollars, the revenue from which has been typically been used for infrastructure upgrades within a specified area in different parts of the city, for affordable housing.

"And now we're saying, let's use that for affordable housing," Perry said. "I don't agree with that either."

At the Housing Commission meeting two weeks ago, Chairwoman Lourdes Castro Ramirez, who also served as chair of the five-member housing task force, expressed some concern that the city wouldn't have enough staff and resources to be able to execute the plan. Might it be too ambitious?

Houston said the plan isn't NHSD's or the city's to bear. It's a collective effort between the city, other public entities and the nonprofits, she said.

For years, there has been a level of coordination between the city and other partners, such as SAHA. For East Meadows, the East Side mixed-income development that replaced the public housing Wheatley Courts, the city chipped in millions of dollars to repave streets and sidewalks, while SAHA raised the funds to build mixed0income apartments that replaced the old Wheatley Courts public housing complex.

In an email to the Heron, Houston said past coordination was specific to one project. She said the coordinated housing system will "clarify the roles and responsibilities of each entity as it pertains to the housing production targets and the other strategies outlined in the policy."

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

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