After two years of planning, the San Antonio Housing Authority appears closer to executing the first phase of its ambitious strategy to redevelop the near West Side. With the plan, however, come concerns from some community groups about the disadvantaged families SAHA serves, and of gentrification in this historically poor part of town. What makes San Antonio a unique city culturally emanates largely from the West Side.
Here's the plan in CliffsNotes form:
Over the course of the next several years, SAHA will build a series of mixed-income developments adjacent to, or in the vicinity of, the Alazan Courts, which occupy 26 acres just on the other side of the Alazan Creek, near downtown. Then it will empty over time the courts' 501 units by offering residents the option to move to other public housing on the West Side, or receive a Section 8 voucher, which affords them the opportunity to live in other parts of the city.
As the circa-1939 courts are emptied, they will be demolished and eventually replaced by modern mixed-income apartments—as opposed to rebuilding the courts as 100 percent public housing. SAHA also wants to redevelop the nearby Apache Courts, as well as the Cassiano and Lincoln properties.
The strategy, to raze clusters of public housing and replace them with mixed-income housing, is one SAHA has adopted in recent years.
"We're not warehousing poor people (anymore)," Lorraine Robles, SAHA’s director of development services and neighborhood revitalization, said at a public meeting this week. "That's not correct. We will always do mixed-income or affordable housing (from now on)."
» July 16: Supported by Zoning Commission
» July 25: Awarded 9 percent low-income housing tax credits from the state
» Aug. 22: City Council to vote on rezoning
» Summer 2020: Construction scheduled to begin
» December 2021: Lofts scheduled to open
On the West Side, SAHA is starting with the $18 million Alazan Lofts, which will occupy the four corners of South Colorado and El Paso streets, on 2.9 acres of land directly south of the Alazan Courts. The lofts will consist of 88 units—40 public housing, 40 affordable units, and eight market rate.
If you're not familiar, this is the courts area of the near West Side, which you enter as you cross Alazan Creek while driving west from downtown on Guadalupe Street. It's prime real estate in the path of a wave of development that's building from west downtown. The just-completed Frost Tower is one early indicator. Eventually, the University of Texas at San Antonio's massive expansion of the downtown campus in the next 10 years will trigger the largest surge.
Wednesday night, after receiving strong pushback from West Side preservationists, SAHA showed a curtailed design for the Alazan Lofts to about 80 people at the Alazan Community Center.
SAHA, which is partnering with developer NRP Group on this project, has lowered the height of some of the buildings to appease concerns from preservationists that the four-story-tall apartment structures would begin to alter the character of the historic West Side.
About 10 residents who live at the Alazan Courts attended the meeting Wednesday and mostly voiced support for the prospect of brand new digs.
"These buildings are very old," said Jannet Garcia, a mother of two who serves as the vice president of the Alazan Apache Resident Council. She lives behind the Pik Nik Foods store on Guadalupe Street, on South San Marcos next to the creek. "I want to be able to provide a good home, a safe home, and be a part of other opportunities and programs, so I can give my children a better education."
88 total units
» 40: Public housing
» 40: 30% to 60% area median income (see definition below)
» 8: Market-rate
Besides aesthetics, the preservationists are also worried those who want to remain in their West Side community—near their schools, doctors, etc.—may not be able to. They point to a history of SAHA breaking up poor communities for newer ones, most recently Wheatley Courts on the East Side, where five years ago roughly 200 families were asked to move—some, some would say, were displaced—by SAHA all at once for the mixed-income East Meadows development.
Robles admitted SAHA made a mistake in how it handled Wheatley Courts—which is why, she said, the Alazan Courts transition will be phased. She also said Alazan Courts residents can stay on the West Side if they choose, a promise preservationists aren't exactly buying.
The City Council is expected to vote on the rezoning of the lofts property on Aug. 22.
Jessica Bowman, a single mother of two, has lived at the Alazan Courts for five years. Originally from Virginia, she's put down roots on the West Side.
"My fear is that I’m not going to be anywhere close to where my daughter goes to school because I can’t afford to take the VIA 30 days out of the month to pick her up and bring her home," Bowman said at the meeting, "and I don't want her to miss out on activities she has in school by being placed even farther away."
Robles responded, "We’re making sure we build first, and then we’re looking to build units within the West Side. So then it will be a smooth transition."
"My concern is all my doctors are downtown, my daughter's school is downtown," Bowman said. "And this is my family. I have zero family from San Antonio. So the West Side—the good and the bad—has become (my home)."
Robles said courts residents will be eligible to move into the new lofts, but only 40 public housing units will be available to them in this initial phase. They'll be selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, Robles said.
Robles said, based on past experience, 70 to 80 percent of public housing residents, when given the chance, choose the Section 8 voucher over relocating to another public housing property, where residents pay 30 percent of their income on rent no matter how much money they make.
SAHA plans to build similar developments on the near West Side to provide more public housing options for Alazan residents who want to remain in the area. But Robles was vague on details because the planning for those projects hasn't yet begun.
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) is $71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $56,800
» 70% - $49,700
» 60% - $42,600
» 50% - $35,500
» 40% - $28,400
» 30% - $21,300
One has: Tampico Lofts, a half-mile south of the courts. On that project, SAHA is partnering with 210 Development Group. So far, SAHA officials have said half the units will be rented to people making 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), or less, while the other half will be market rate—both sets of rent miles away, affordability-wise, from public housing. At a meeting in February, SAHA executives said they will work to reduce some of those rents.
"We’re concerned when we hear that this is Phase 1, and there are 501 units right now, and they're only going to make room for 40 public housing units for you all," Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, said to courts residents during the meeting before addressing Robles.
"You say you're going to make room? Where? Tampico Lofts? How many of those are going to be made for public housing?" Sanchez asked. "Our concern is that those buildings (the courts) may be demolished before there are housing units for those people."
Sanchez was referring to Wheatley Courts (East Side) and San Juan Homes (West Side) as examples where very small percentages of the original occupants returned after years of being away from the site during construction of the new structures. "We also have a history with SAHA and the lack of keeping people in their places," Sanchez said.
It's a claim Robles didn't refute.
"We understand, and we acknowledge that. And we’re telling you that we’re doing it better," Robles said. "We’ve learned and we are listening and we are proving that, and we are trying very hard to accommodate everyone’s desires."
"We in no way are thinking we’re going to put 501 people in 40 units. There is no way we can do that ... They know that we are looking to build other developments so individuals that want to stay in the neighborhood, stay in the neighborhood."
Some see the Alazan Lofts as the first phase of the gentrification of the West Side, let alone the courts, with the introduction of more affluent people, apartments out of scale with the historic buildings in the area, and the eventual rise in property values. They don't see the concentration of poor people as being synonymous with crime, drugs, and society's other ills.
Displacement of residents come in many forms, Dr. Christine Drennon, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, told the Heron earlier this year. For long-time residents, the neighborhood becomes more expensive to live in, or the cultural elements change to the point where they no longer recognize their own community. So they move.
She also said any use of public funds to improve an area must be studied first, to gauge the impact it will have on residents.
"We cannot tolerate the use of public funds, which will displace its own citizens," Drennon said. "We need to be very aware of the externality and prepare for it in advance."
During the meeting it was suggested that, if SAHA is going to tear down the Alazan Courts, that it come back with twice the public housing units. SAHA officials said while there may be a 30,000 wait list in San Antonio for public housing and the Section 8 voucher, the agency is no longer going to concentrate large numbers of disadvantaged people in one place.
"The results we have achieved from transforming outdated and distressed public housing developments into modern, new mixed-income communities is strongly correlated with thriving neighborhoods where the potential for economic growth increases," SAHA spokeswoman Marivel Resendiz said in an email to the Heron earlier this year.
SAHA points to East Meadows, the old Wheatley Courts, a major undertaking of more than 400 mixed-income units spearheaded by a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhood grant. SAHA also achieved, through various partnerships, other support programs such as the rehab of occupied homes and business facade restorations in the community. The city of San Antonio chipped in $20 million for new streets and sidewalks.
It's what happened before that irks some observers.
By early 2014, Wheatley's nearly 250 units were razed at once. A community that was once there, was no longer. In subsequent years, SAHA built East Meadows.
Afterward, roughly 20 percent of Wheatley's previous residents returned to live at East Meadows. Many gladly took the Section 8 voucher. For others, who may have wanted to return, being away from Wheatley for a few years meant the start of a new life in another part of San Antonio—a new community and support system.
The activists also point to a similar strategy for Victoria Courts, the 660-unit public housing complex south of Hemisfair that was demolished in 2000 for the mix of new housing development that's there today, and growing.
In the case of the Alazan, SAHA says razing the courts has to be done because preserving them would be too costly.
The groups with major reservations about the plan—the Esperanza, the Historic Westside Resident Association, Mi Barrio no se Vende and the Westside Preservation Alliance—welcome new public housing, but want it to mesh with the fabric of the one- and two-story building stock that's been around for generations.
The Esperanza points to the Rinconcito de Esperanza, its cultural hub on South Colorado Street, a stone's throw from the lofts site, made from rehabbing existing homes on the property; and the Museo del Westside, a small museum next door that will live in the old Ruben's Ice House once it's finished.
The groups see the inclusion of four-story structures as pushing the West Side farther west, a practice that began during Urban Renewal decades ago. What is west downtown now, around the Alameda Theatre, used to be where the West Side began.
For a month, the Heron has tried multiple times to get clear answers from SAHA and NRP Group as to how much profit NRP Group expects from the Alazan Lofts deal, but to no avail.
The answer to this question may lie deep in the 967-page application for 9 percent low-income housing tax credits SAHA and NRP Group submitted to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) in February. We continue to dissect it, but have not found the answers we are looking for.
We also tried to ascertain the third partner involved in the lofts beside SAHA and NRP Group. The tax credit application mentions a to-be-named third partner, presumably one that will provide equity for the non-affordable portion of the project. In an interview last month, Robles said revenue from the sale of the tax credits, which TDHCA awarded to the lofts a few weeks ago, and which are the lofts' primary source of funding, can only be used to build the affordable components.
These were topics not broached at the community meeting. Residents of Alazan had more immediate, day-to-day concerns.
But it's important to note that NRP Group, because SAHA owns the land, will not pay property taxes on this project for the duration of the 75-year ground lease.
Understanding these dynamics help us understand the rents.
At the meeting, officials gave some figures, but an overall list was not provided to attendees. And a request to SAHA and NRP Group for the rents structure was not granted.
At the meeting, you got the sense that the preservation groups feel SAHA is telling courts residents what they want to hear by promising new apartments to everyone who wants one. Several times, Robles clarified to the room SAHA's plan. Then, the head of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, a nonprofit with deep roots on the West Side, spoke.
The Avenida Guadalupe and Esperanza consistently butt heads, and represent two vastly different approaches to revitalizing the struggling West Side.
"Today, we don't think twice when saving a cantina, but when it comes to public housing for the poor, we’re saying not in my backyard," Gabriel Velasquez, president of the Avenida Guadalupe Association, said in direct reference to the Esperanza and it's current effort to reopen Lerma's Nite Club. It's worth noting that the city and Bexar County have each donated $500,000 to that restoration project.
"I appeal to your conscious, set your self interest aside and let our residents continue to empower themselves," Velasquez continued. "Because if you go deep enough in your family history, you are them. We are them."
Sanchez spoke of the public conversations from two years ago, when SAHA first attempted to revitalize the courts by procuring another Choice Neighborhood grant. It was unsuccessful. But the plan was similar, one in which the courts would be demolished in phases and replaced with mixed-income housing.
In those conversations, Sanchez said, the Esperanza and other groups thought there wasn't enough public housing, and demanded more.
"We challenged that, and to your credit, market-rate housing went down, and public housing went up," Sanchez said directly to Robles before shifting her remarks to the courts residents.
"I just don't want us to be pitted against you all," Sanchez said. "We support housing, we especially want housing for la gente ... We’re with you."
Talking with some of the residents in attendance, there was a sense that they didn't give a damn about the Esperanza or the Avenida Guadalupe or any other group outside the parameters of the courts. Some talked about the conditions of their units, and of wanting to stay in the neighborhood. Others have talked about leaving the West Side with the Section 8 voucher in hand.
"Some of the units (SAHA) did let get really bad," said Houston native Adrenna Cervantes, a mother of three small children who's lived at Alazan for one year. "Some units I've seen brand new counter tops. You get what you can get."
Cervantes said she's had to solve her own roach problem, as well as strip layers of bubbled paint on the walls left over from previous tenants—all with little help, she says, from SAHA. Which is why supports SAHA's plan to build anew.
"I feel like it's not a bad idea to transition over," Cervantes said. "It's time, actually."
Setting it straight: In a previous version of this article, the number of children belonging to Alazan Courts resident Jessica Bowman was misstated. She has two.
Editor's note: This piece looks at one upcoming development on the West Side. For a more expansive view of the other planned changes, read this piece by the Heron and San Antonio Current: "As downtown development spreads, displacement and gentrification are set to roll over the West Side."