Mayor Ron Nirenberg (from left); Sofia Lopez, housing researcher and SAHA board member; Randy Smith, Weston Urban president; Lori Houston, Assistant City Manager. <em>Courtesy photos</em>
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (from left); Sofia Lopez, SAHA board member; Randy Smith, Weston Urban president; Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Courtesy photos

Downtown Housing in the 2020s

» When: 6:30-9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19; discussion begins at 7:30 p.m.
» Where: The Cherrity Bar, 302 Montana St.
» Cost: Free • Facebook event page

We are thrilled to host our first panel discussion, on Feb. 19 at The Cherrity Bar, on a topic we report on extensively: Housing, in particular downtown residential growth and its impact on San Antonio's urban neighborhoods.

For our discussion titled "Downtown Housing in the 2020s," we've asked four people will deep knowledge of downtown and housing to help explain how we got here, and where we're going: Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Sofia Lopez, housing researcher and San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) board member; Randy Smith, Weston Urban president; and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Heron Editor Ben Olivo will moderate.

Our four guest speakers have each played significant roles of late in how San Antonio's urban core is being shaped.

Nirenberg, two years ago, changed the city's downtown housing strategy after he ordered a revision of the incentives policy to create more affordability. Lopez, who has served on SAHA's board of commissioners for a year, has consistently pushed for more transparency in projects in which the housing authority partners with a private developer. Having just completed the Frost Tower, Smith and Weston Urban now turn their attention toward building housing—lots and lots of housing—in west downtown, where UTSA is also planting roots. And Houston, who oversees two city departments directly involved in urban growth, downtown development, and neighborhood and housing services, is charged with creating density while keeping prices affordable—no easy task.

Among the questions we want to tackle: How does San Antonio strike the balance of creating a denser and more vibrant central city, while doing it in an equitable, affordable way? How is the area doing in terms of supply? Is the demand still strong for downtown living? What about gentrification?

A quick primer

We have seen dozens of developments go up mainly around downtown's perimeter the last 10 years—from large-scale apartment buildings to smaller clusters of for-sale, single-family townhomes. The growth has had considerable impact on property values, in particular, on the near East Side. In this time, Southtown has flourished into a culinary destination, and the Pearl has continued its metamorphosis from abandoned brewery into an upper-class community that regularly opens up to all San Antonians via free programming.

The center of downtown remains a work in progress as the housing developments continue to inch toward the core.

Looking at the big picture, this moment, here at the beginning of the 2020s, feels like a lull before the more significant explosion of development happens in central San Antonio: UTSA's historic expansion downtown, twin residential towers, Hemisfair's completion, the Alamo Plaza master plan, among other major projects.

On Feb. 19, at The Cherrity Bar on the near East Side, we hope to address as much of this complex topic as possible with our guest speakers.

We realize there are many folks in the community who have deep knowledge and strong opinions about housing and its many complexities. We hope this is the first of several discussions about housing and downtown and neighborhoods the Heron will host this year.

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Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

Jefferson Bank has reached an agreement with Still Golden Social House that will keep the popular cocktail bar on East Grayson Street, the bank announced Thursday. The bar will remain open through May 23, at its location on the corner Broadway and East Grayson, then go on a two-year hiatus while the bank's new headquarters is built.

Still Golden's aging one-story building, which sits on the corner of Broadway and East Grayson, is the only structure that remains standing on the block; the others have been razed or moved in anticipation for construction. In June, the building will be demolished and Jefferson Bank will begin construction on its $62 million, 13-story headquarters on the square block bound by Broadway, East Grayson, North Alamo and East Josephine streets.

In 2022, Still Golden is expected to move into a retail space, one of four in the new building, on the corner of East Grayson and North Alamo, the bar's owner Jeret Peña said via text.

Scroll down for more info.

Rendering of 13-story Jefferson Bank headquarters building to be located at 1900 Broadway. Rendering reviewed by HDRC Dec. 18, 2019. Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect
Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect, San Antonio. Submitted to HDRC Dec. 18, 2019.


» Developer: Milam Real Estate Capital (for Jefferson Bank)
» Address: 1900 Broadway
» Property owner: Jefferson Bank
» Type: Office with retail
» Height: 13 stories
» Units/square feet: 190,000 s.f. office; 15,000 s.f. retail
» Land size: 1.8 acres
» Cost: $62 million, according to state documents.
» Investors: N/A
» Incentives: None
» Rate of return on investment: N/A
» Construction start date: June 2020
» End date: Spring 2022
» Occupancy: The bank is expected to use half of the new building—200 to 300 workers—and lease the remaining space to other tenants.
» Architects: HKS Architects (Dallas); Don B. McDonald/DMA Architects (San Antonio)

[ View Google map ]


DEC. 18, 2019
HDRC approves design for 13-story Jefferson Bank’s headquarters building. It's unclear whether Still Golden Social House will be incorporated into the new building. In early December, Plack Carr, Milam Real Estate Capital’s managing director, and Jeret Peña, Still Golden’s owner, declined to comment on the bar’s future. Peña said at the time Still Golden has eight years left on its lease. One of three mid-rise office buildings going onto the fast-changing Broadway corridor. Read more

DEC. 3, 2019
Zoning Commission approves rezoning of the property where Still Golden Social House sits at 1900 Broadway. The vote paves the way for Jefferson Bank to control the entire square block, bound by Broadway, East Grayson Street, North Alamo Street, and East Josephine Street, for its future headquarters building. Read more

AUG. 22, 2018
Three shotgun-style homes on North Alamo Street are prepared for relocation. Read more

JUNE 28, 2018
Jefferson Bank executives purchase 1.7 acres of land on Broadway and East Grayson Street, except for Still Golden Social House. Read more

More images

Rendering of 13-story Jefferson Bank headquarters building to be located at 1900 Broadway. Rendering reviewed by HDRC Dec. 18, 2019. Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect
Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect, San Antonio. Submitted to HDRC Dec. 18, 2019.
Rendering of 13-story Jefferson Bank headquarters building to be located at 1900 Broadway. Rendering reviewed by HDRC Dec. 18, 2019. Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect
Courtesy Don B. McDonald, Architect, San Antonio. Submitted to HDRC Dec. 18, 2019.
Still Golden Social Club, 1900 Broadway
In this photo taken December 2019, Still Golden Social House stands at 1900 Broadway. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

Two towers one by SAHA and JMJ, and the other by just JMJ. Renderings going to SAHA board meeting Aug. 1, 2019. SAN ANTONIO HOUSING AUTHORITY
JMJ Development of Dallas wants to built two, 24-story residential towers on Villita Street, one (left) with the help of the housing authority. Courtesy San Antonio Housing Authority

The potential for two, 25-story residential towers being built in the center of downtown, creating the kind of density our downtown so desperately needs makes me giddy as a downtowner.

and that some will be affordable

Potential headline
Analysis: Is SAHA helping a Dallas developer make a profit?

The truth is: When a governmental entity hands a subsidy, usually a tax break, to a developer, they're helping said developer make a profit. But there are other things to consider. Mainly, what is the public getting in exchange for the subsidy, the tax break? With respect to housing incentives in San Antonio, what San Antonians are getting in return are affordable housing (whose definition varies depending on whom you ask) in the center city, where it's hard to offer such rents because of how expensive it is to build buildings here.
With that in mind, is the trade-off equal? In other words, compared to the number of affordable units, their level of affordability, is the developer's tax break worth it. Then, finally, is the developer making too much of a profit?

Of course, every development is different. Of course, some developments are similar to others.

And then there's the twin housing high-rises JMJ Development of Dallas wants to build across from the Tower Life Building. If built, the two, 24-story high-rises would be historic for San Antonio's downtown: comprising close to 500 new apartments built across from the Tower Life Building. The 24-story Frost Tower received much pomp and circumstance, and rightfully so as the first office high-rise in more than 30 years, when it opened last year. The Class A office space was needed, and the EFFECT IS WHAT???

Imagine two more building of equal height infusing downtown with the type of density it so desperately lacks. We talk about downtown's lack of vibrancy when there isn't a major event for out-of-towners, or when locals don't descend here for Fiesta or the holiday season. This is it. This is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Here's the development in a nutshell.

The Villita and St. Mary's tower are being proposed for Villita Street by the San Antonio Housing Authority and Dallas developer JMJ.

JMJ first wanted to build a luxury high-rise BLAH BLAH
defined PFC
» Villita Tower
112-120 Villita St.
24 stories
226 units
market rate
.35 acres
» St. Mary's Tower
126 Villita St.
24 stories
250 units
80% AMI half
.58 acres


What I can't get out my head is how these developments would work from a financing perspective. Last year, after interviews officials at the San Antonio Housing Authority, and previous interviews with city officials, and what JMJ said to the city's historic and design board. It all adds up to the question: Is SAHA helping JMJ earn a profit on its luxury high-rise. The more I think about it, the more I realize there are really two categories of PFCs

Let's walk through this together:


Here's how my mind reached this question

/// /// /// /// ///

David Nisivoccia

Nov. 12, 2019

Two separate real estate deals.

SAHA has nothing to do with their first real estate deal. We’re not involved in it in any form or fashion.
They probably have a pro formas for that deal, and they have a pro forma for the deal that we engaged in a partnership. Those two pro formas are separate entities. Those two real estate deals are separate entities.

Our interest is in the second one to provide affordable housing to the greater community of San Antonio. To provide workforce housing for people who provide a lot of the labor for the hotel industry. For alot of the

A lot of the tourist industry.

For people who can’t affordable viable transportation they can live downtown walk to work and take advantage of the amenities that so many other people have an opp to do so. That’s our interest on the second real estate deal. We have to do with the first one.

/// /// /// /// ///


In all fairness, all public entities that contribute subsidies toward a private development are helping ??? But not all subsidies are created equal.
and in this case, there is no affordabilty component
JMJ eligible for what CCHIP incentives now?

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

Dream Hotel Group, a New York-based hotel company, announced Tuesday plans to build a 25-story, mixed-used development on the River Walk by 2023. The development includes a 217-room boutique hotel, "multiple" restaurants and nightlife venues, and residential units.

Dream Hotel Group declined to disclose the location. According to The Rivard Report, the location could be at the northeast corner of East Martin and Soledad streets across from the Wyndham San Antonio River Walk. The rendering released on Tuesday shows a property abutted by the river, a nondescript three-story office building, and the Wyndham's parking garage.

It looks like the same block occupied by the two-story Bond's 007 Rock Bar and V Lounge, the one-story retail spot formerly occupied by music venue Korova, coffee shop Ruta Maya, strip club River City Cabaret and private club The Red Carpet.

The group will submit designs to the Historic and Design Review Commission "in the next few months," Katie Fontana, the group's vice president of communications and public relations, said via email.

Dream Hotel Group, a New York-based hotel brand and management company, has announced via press release it will deliver a 25-story, mixed-used development on the River Walk by 2023.


» Developer: Dream Hotel Group
» Address: Undisclosed (potentially northeast corner of East Martin and Soledad streets)
» Property owner: Edmund S. Beck (San Antonio)
» Type: Mixed-use (hotel, retail and residential)
» Height: 25 stories
» Units/square feet: 217 hotel rooms
» Land size: 1.3 acres
» Cost: Declined by developer
» Investors: Unknown
» Incentives: Opportunity Zone (federal program where developer receives break on capital gains tax)
» Rate of return on investment: Unknown
» Construction start date: 2021
» End date: 2023
» Architect: CUBE3 Architects (Massachusetts)

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Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

For rent sign in Government Hill taken January 2020.
Renters occupy roughly 46% of housing units in San Antonio, according to data pulled from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey by Councilman Roberto Treviño's office. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

In just two weeks, the debate over whether San Antonio needs a commission composed entirely of renters, which could potentially help shape housing policy, seems to have already reached a boiling point.

The idea, which District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño has proposed, has drawn support from housing advocates, who say renters are underrepresented in San Antonio and require their own voice, their own direct line of communication to City Council and the city's top administrators for issues unique to them. Roughly 46% of San Antonio households rent, according to data pulled from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey by Treviño's staff.

"Then you start to ask: What are the methods in which these folks can be represented in a way that they get to represent themselves and bring up issues and talk about some of the concerns they might have?" Treviño said last week.

On the opposite side of the argument are landlord and real estate groups, who argue a renters commission would add redundancy to the system of local government that already has the Housing Commission, a body formed and appointed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in early 2019, among other housing-related boards.

In his request, Treviño cites Seattle's Renters' Commission, established in 2017, as a potential model here. Groups representing landlords here say the policies taking shape in Seattle are unfair toward landlords. For example, the Seattle Renters' Commission is pushing the city to ban evictions during winter months.

"If we allow tenants to go without paying their rent for those months, who will pay our mortgages?" Raquel Bonds-Wright, a local real estate broker and owner of two properties, told the Housing Commission last week. "It's unfair. If my house forecloses, (the tenants) are still going to be homeless because there will be no where for them to go."

In 2017, Seattle passed its Fair Chance Housing law, which prevents landlords from denying housing to people with a criminal history. Another new law requires landlords to give tenants 14 days to vacate, instead of three, after serving the tenant with a notice to vacate, the first step in the eviction process.

In Texas, the law is more defined at the state level as to the rights of tenants and landlords, especially in eviction cases.

"About 90 percent (of tenants) have a decision that's going to go against them if they tell the court, 'Yes, I owe rent'," Judge Roberto A. Vazquez, who presides over Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2, told the Heron late last year. "There's nothing left hear."

In an interview after the Housing Commission meeting, Bonds-Wright, in reference to Seattle, said she's more concerned about renting to a sex offender than to someone with a less egregious criminal background in need of a second chance. She said she has an obligation to protect neighboring tenants at her properties who may have kids.

The commission's purview

At two recent public meetings—the Housing Commission last week, and the council's Governance Committee the week before—critics have asked: Given Texas' narrowly defined property statute, and San Antonio's many efforts to address affordability concerns, what would be the point of a renters commission?

Treviño pointed out that the city's new right-to-counsel program, which offers an attorney to people going through the eviction process, didn't come from the Housing Commission, but from his office. He said there are issues he and other city leaders may not be aware of that could only emanate from a body composed entirely of renters.

"Housing is very complex," he said. "If you look at what's going on, we are tackling it many different ways and all of those are helping. One of the things I don't think we've done well enough is understanding the amount of renters that exist in our city, and how that impacts how we look at housing in San Antonio."

Eviction policy promises to consume a large chunk of the debate. In Bexar County, there were 20,000 eviction cases filed last year, according to an extensive series by the San Antonio Express-News last month. The paper's analysis of local court records shows a 34 percent rise in eviction lawsuits from 2011 to 2018.

"Given the fact that San Antonio has so many evictions and so much poverty, it seems to me tenants deserve an opportunity to have another voice for themselves," Pancho Valdez, a resident of the Marie McGuire Apartments downtown, a San Antonio Housing Authority property, told the Housing Commission last week.

A balanced board?

Some critics have suggested landlords be represented on such a commission.

It's an idea supported by Pete Alaniz, a city housing official who currently serves as interim executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust, a city-created nonprofit that aids in financing affordable housing.

"There has to be a balance though when it comes to deciding future policy direction, that all sides need to be looked at," Alaniz said at the Housing Commission, on which he serves.

"It wouldn't make sense for us to have a renters commission and it be all property owners," he said later. "So why would it make sense to be all tenants? There needs to be a balance to that equation."

Jessica O. Guerrero, who also serves on the Housing Commission, said she was open to including landlords on a renters commission, but said the composers of the commission should strive for equity, not equality—meaning more renters than landlords.

"It's important to acknowledge that all of the boards and commissions that people have mentioned do include heavy and major representation by landlords and people in the industry," said Guerrero, who helped organize the residents of the former Mission Trails mobile home park five years ago.

Treviño said he was open to discussing the merits of including landlords and property owners on a renters commission.

So many commissions

In its 2018 report, the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force stressed the need for a coordinated housing system—one that would better define and align all of the various housing boards, resources and providers—to put San Antonio in a better position to properly tackle issues of housing affordability. City officials are currently working on such a system.

The task force also recommended the city hire a chief housing officer, to oversee efforts citywide in regards to affordable housing. Two weeks ago at the Governance Committee, City Manager Erik Walsh said the job listing was posted earlier this month, and that he hopes to have the officer in place by April.

In a statement, the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR) said adding another commission contradicts the recommendation of the task force.

"SABOR believes that the intended goals of a renters commission can be better served by efforts that are already underway, specifically the strategies of the San Antonio Housing Commission which was recently created to address the concerns of all types of housing interests, including those of renters," said Kim Bragman, SABOR's 2020 chairman.

As Assistant City Manager Lori Houston pointed out, there exist now three commissions and seven task forces related to housing issues.

At the council's Governance Committee two weeks ago, Houston asked that the city be given the opportunity to explore how a renters commission would fit into the gestating coordinated housing system—would it be its own commission, or would it be a subcommittee of the Housing Commission, which Nirenberg formed to tackle all housing issues? They want to deliver their recommendation for the new coordinated housing system to the City Council for consideration in June. But some council members, spearheaded by Treviño, suggested the council, through its own process of committees, take the lead in figuring out where to put such a commission, as well as other questions related to its formation such as who would serve and how they would be appointed.

The next discussion will take place at an upcoming meeting of the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee, which Treviño chairs—though it has not been scheduled. Ultimately, committee would advance the concept of a renters commission to the full City Council for approval.

Setting It Straight: Because of incomplete information provided to the Heron, an early version of this article misattributed the statement from the San Antonio Board of Realtors.

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

mayor nirenberg tackling code violation

relationship between david n and st john's developer

The Cherrity Bar, 302 Montana St.
The Cherrity Bar is located at 302 Montana St. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Folks, this is huge for us.

The San Antonio Heron has been selected as one of The Cherrity Bar's featured nonprofits for the month of February.

If you're not familiar with the East Side bar (which houses the Kuriya ramen restaurant), every month, three nonprofits are chosen as the beneficiaries of all profits from The Cherrity Bar, which itself is a charity. Every time you buy a drink, you're given a wooden token, which you use to vote for your favorite of the three featured organizations that month. A committee called the Friends of The Cherrity Bar selects the nonprofits each month.

Ten percent of profits goes to the Tourette Association of America, and the rest is divided among the rotating organizations.

This could be a game-changer for us, granted we beat the competition, which, next month, will be the local chapter of the American Red Cross and the University of the Incarnate Word's School of Professional Studies.

For a fledgling news organization like ours (we are still just 18 months old) we're very excited about this selection, as well as the upcoming Big Give on March 26, which we hope serve as a boost for us heading toward our second birthday in June.

Also, in February, we will host two events at The Cherrity Bar, 302 Montana St., which is located across from the Alamodome:

Has San Antonio Solved Downtown Housing?

6:30-9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19
Our discussion examines housing in the downtown area: the demand, the supply, the role of government tax breaks, gentrification, and other hot topics. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Sofia Lopez, a commissioner on the San Antonio Housing Authority board, are confirmed. We're working on a few others. Stay tuned.

Downtown S.A. Trivia Night

7:30-10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26
Gather a team and test your knowledge of downtown San Antonio for a chance to win one of a dozen prizes. Categories include history, architecture, music and movies, nightlife, the River Walk, celebrities, "Notorious S.A." and culture. Visit the Facebook event page.

We'll have more info on both events soon.

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” says Barbie Hammond, pictured with her granddaughter Libby near the Artisan at Willow Springs Apartments in San Antonio.
“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” says Barbie Hammond, pictured with her granddaughter Libby near the Artisan at Willow Springs Apartments in San Antonio. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

By Juan Pablo Garnham • The Texas Tribune

In the 40-minute bus ride across San Antonio that Barbie Hammond takes to work, there’s one topic of conversation that keeps coming up: the cost of rent.

“A lady that I talk to on the bus told me she had to move because of the rent increases,” the 57-year-old said. “And I told her, ‘Well, when Christmastime came, I got a note saying that the next month there will be a $60 increase in my apartment.’”

Hammond isn't alone. According to census data compiled by the company Apartment List, between 2008 and 2018, median rents increased from $860 to $1,002 in the San Antonio area. That 16.5% jump was more than the increase in the New York City region and almost the same as in the Los Angeles area.

Similar increases happened in the Dallas (18.7%) and Houston (16.1%) regions, but there’s something that makes the San Antonio area unique: While rents have been growing, wages have stagnated. Renters’ median incomes grew from $35,718 to $36,959 during the same period. That 3.5% increase was a third of the percentage growth seen in the Houston area and a fourth of the growth in the Dallas region. Those rent and wage figures were all adjusted for inflation.

The situation has people like Hammond, who is a certified assistant nurse, living paycheck to paycheck.

“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” Hammond said. “Most of the jobs here are not gonna pay me more. San Antonio needs to catch up.”

Historically, rents in the United States grew hand-in-hand with wages. But after the Great Recession, housing prices started outpacing income. In Texas, the state's continued population growth has created more demand for housing, which has raised prices. And in San Antonio, a city with some of the worst poverty and segregation rates in the country, low-income households are having trouble keeping up with the cost of living.

"As a result of this growing gap, families are having to spend more of their already limited income,” said Lourdes Castro Ramírez, chair of the Housing Commission of the city of San Antonio.

According to data from the city, one in three households in the city spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, the threshold that traditionally has been used to define what is affordable.

“And when we look at renters, one out of every two renters are paying more than 30% of their income,” Castro Ramírez said.

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For her, the reasons are multiple and complex, but a primary factor is the kind of housing being built. According to a report from the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, there were 14,000 more units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket in 2005. But in 2016, the tables had turned and there were 2,400 fewer units considered affordable than there were households in that bracket.

“There's not enough housing for working individuals that are making $15 an hour or below,” said Castro Ramírez.

Some also point out the effects of urban revitalization. In 2010, then-Mayor Julián Castro promoted the so-called "Decade of Downtown," an initiative that spurred millions of dollars in development.

Current Mayor Ron Nirenberg told Folo Media in 2017 that the initiative “left out affordability so that only certain portions of our community can actually benefit from that revitalization.”

The increased property values in downtown San Antonio had a ripple effect, making the surrounding neighborhoods more attractive to investors and more expensive for people already living there.

“In San Antonio, some of the poorest areas of the city are the closest to downtown, so the places where you saw the fastest rates of real estate price appreciation were also where the lowest-income people live,” said Noel Poyo, executive director of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders. “This doesn't mean that investment policies are a bad idea. It means that we should be thinking about the impact that they could have on the back and on the front end.”

Housing providers say the city that once had a reputation for being affordable no longer is.

“There’s absolutely more demand,” said Jennifer González, executive director of the Alamo Community Group, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing. “Our occupancy is very high. If a unit becomes available, someone is right away looking to rent that unit.”

González said that people seeking their services now include middle-income residents and not just minimum-wage earners. A decade ago, her clients would make between $7 and $12 per hour. They were mainly single mothers, many of them without college degrees.

“Now it’s gone up to $15 per hour,” González said. “We are seeing two-headed households with fewer children, younger households. They have a four-year degree or a two-year degree where they’re nurses, medical assistants or dental hygienists. We’re seeing a more educated population.”

Falling behind

Melissa Romo, 36, has worked hard to find a comfortable home for her two kids. Five years ago, she was living in public housing. She earned a degree needed to become a dental assistant and found a job with a higher income. A bigger paycheck meant her federal housing subsidy was reduced. Then she experienced an unexpected health problem, and she couldn't work as many hours. That shrank her paycheck.

“I got behind and they evicted me pretty quickly,” she said.

Romo ended up in a transitional living facility for families for two years. There, she slowly managed to fix her credit score while studying to get a degree required to become a chemical dependency counselor.

Today, she’s able to afford the $850 monthly rent on a two-bedroom duplex northwest of downtown.

“It’s the lowest I could find for a two-bedroom in that area. It took me six months to find that place,” she said.

Five years ago, she was making $11 an hour as a dental assistant. Today, after several jobs and a new diploma, she earns $16.75.

“It’s not a huge difference. I feel like I’m in the same position,” Romo said. “The thing that keeps me afloat is changing jobs every six months to a year. I utilize that experience and I use that as a negotiation tool. It’s been helpful, but it’s not very stable.”

According to experts, San Antonio’s lack of upward mobility affects residents' quality of life beyond just limiting their housing options.

“We’ve actually had to cut down a lot of expenses,” Romo said. “We can’t eat as much as we would like to. We eat less, believe it or not. We had to stop using higher-quality supplies. My utility bill is separate, and a lot of times I can’t pay the whole thing, which adds in fees.”

Melissa Romo lives with her children Mia and Zavier on San Antonio's West Side. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune
Melissa Romo lives with her children Mia and Zavier on San Antonio's West Side. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

Political will

Closing the gap between wages and rents is a bigger challenge in the San Antonio area than in the Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Houston regions.

“Rents are going up everywhere, and there are a lot of reasons for that,” said Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University. “The renter income is the interesting statistic here: We are eight times lower than a place like El Paso in renter income change, for example.”

The biomedical sector is the San Antonio region's biggest employer, but jobs in the high-paying areas of science, engineering, mathematics and information technology have remained flat between 2011 and 2017. Area residents still make 10% less than the average American worker, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

“Wages are connected to a broader economy,” said Poyo. “And then the other thing is that this is about matching skills and education with current day jobs. You can retrain people — we need to do that workforce development, and we need to be much better about it. But you just don't turn corners that fast on people's educations and capacities.”

College enrollment and the percentage of adults with college degrees haven’t increased significantly in Bexar County, according to the nonprofit SA2020.

In 2017, Nirenberg appointed a Housing Policy Task Force that recommended hiring a housing czar, building more affordable homes and safeguarding low-income renters from displacement. It also suggested preventing the demolition and mitigating the disrepair of existing affordable homes. In September last year, the City Council approved $34.4 million for these goals.

“There is political will to continue to support this,” said Castro Ramírez. “There are about 2,500 units that are in the production or rehabilitation pipeline, which is pretty significant. But we are still not producing enough units for lower income.”

Council member Roberto Treviño has been promoting several measures, including a program to defend low-income renters from evictions, which can lead to more expensive rents in the future or even homelessness. Between 2011 and 2018, evictions grew 80%, according to the San Antonio Express News.

Next month, the city is starting a pilot for a right-to-counsel program, in which tenants receive free legal assistance if they decide to go to court to fight their evictions.

“In San Antonio, only 1% of people in the process of eviction stay at home,” said Treviño. “We have an issue of affordable housing and wages, so we can’t exacerbate those with this amount of eviction that we see in San Antonio.”

But such initiatives might not be enough.

“Trying to get counsel for people who are in the eviction process is great and we need it, but that’s not systemic change,” said Drennon. “Systemic change would be trying to get more affordable units on the ground.”

San Antonio, by charter, can’t issue debt to produce affordable homes, which limits the city's ability to fund housing. But city leaders hope voters will approve a charter amendment next year to amend the rule.

Barbie Hammond, in the meantime, is calculating how she will manage the $60 increase in her rent. She normally receives two checks a month. The first goes to the rent; the second goes to her other expenses. But now rent will start taking part of her second check.

“Sixty dollars is a lot of money to me,” Hammond said. “I appreciate the help that I get, but you're raising it to a point where that's all I'm gonna be able to pay.”

[ Read the original story at ]

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled a San Antonio City Council member's name, misstated the name of a task force, wrongly portrayed how certain low-income earners were classified, misstated how many affordable housing units existed for a specific income bracket in 2005 and misstated the existence of certain affordable housing units in 2016. The council member was Roberto Treviño. The Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force compiled the report referenced in the story. The affordability of housing units were determined by household income. In 2005, there were 14,000 more units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket. In 2016, there were 2,400 fewer units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket.

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Klines Building
This rendering shows the Kline's building (lit up) on West Commerce Street, behind Texas Public Radio's headquarters and near San Pedro Creek. Courtesy Overland Partners

At the moment, the 300 block of West Commerce Street is practically comatose.

Every building but one, the venerable Penner's men's clothing store, is vacant. Lifeless neon signs advertising "Texas State Optical" and "Golden 50's Greatest Cut," relics of Old San Antonio, jut from a historic two-story commercial building on the west bank of the massive San Pedro Creek restoration project, currently a muddy scene of heavy machinery and men in hardhats 18 feet below grade. The block gets a good amount of foot traffic, a lot of transients, as the main connector of inner downtown and the Market Square area.

Give it two years.

By then, if everything goes according to plan, this section of the San Pedro Creek project will be finished and pedestrians will stroll the tree- and mural-lined walkway, which will seamlessly connect the creek with West Commerce Street and the plaza in front of the new Texas Public Radio (TPR) building—all of it opposite a 250-foot-wide waterfall on the creek's east bank. Part of the $75 million phase, which is expected to be completed by April or May of 2021, included the demolition of the old Dollar General building, which now creates room for the gardens area at creek level. The San Antonio River Authority, the project's manager, purchased the building, which was a local landmark, according to city records, from Penner Brother's LLC in 2016 for an undisclosed price.

A rendering of segment 1.2 of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park is shown from the perspective of West Commerce Street.
A rendering of the latest phase of San Pedro Creek Culture Park shows the view from West Commerce Street looking north. Courtesy San Antonio River Authority

On Commerce Street, decoratively-paved sidewalks, newly-planted trees, dramatic lighting, and artistic benches and bus shelters will be installed, one of downtown's largest bond projects. The building carcasses of today will be revived with restaurants and bars, creating the downtown area's hippest culinary and nightlife destination.

In this section of downtown, multiple parties, both public and private, are converging to create what should become one of downtown's most unique pockets. Many decades ago, the area was considered San Antonio's West Side, when it was dense with homes and commercial buildings, before Urban Renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 wiped it nearly clean save for a few landmarks, such as San Francesco Di Paola Church, pushing the West Side's edge to Alazan Creek. On the vacant lots and in the vacant buildings are plans to build a new neighborhood, and West Commerce Street promises to be at the center of it all.

The Kline's building

The possibilities were brought to light when renovation plans for the Kline's building, 337 W. Commerce St., were approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday. A portion of the building, which is owned by local developer James Lifshutz, will be demolished, creating a paseo connecting West Commerce to the TPR building, which will feature a blackbox theater, and the attached Alameda Theater facing Houston Street.

"As you know, for decades, the walk from City Hall to Market Square, even though it's not a long distance, it's been a lonely walk," said Lifshutz, who also serves on the TPR board of directors. "It's been a vacant, ugly, blighted stretch ... The idea of fixing up the streetscape and revitalizing that stretch has long been hoped for."

Lifshutz, the developer behind the Blue Star Arts Complex, said TPR employees are scheduled to move into their new digs "shortly," with a grand opening scheduled around May.

The 300 block of West Commerce Street. Photo taken January 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
The Kline's building (in gray) stands in the middle of the 300 block of West Commerce Street. The former Continental Hotel building stands on the left. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

As for the Kline's building, which is a local landmark that dates back to at least 1958, Lifshutz said he wasn't sure how many tenants will fill the ground level and the second floor. The assumption is that a restaurant or bar will operate next to the paseo; Lifshutz said the tenant or tenants should "activate that space in an interesting and valuable way."

"It just adds visual interest and adds stickiness for pedestrians who are walking past or for whom that will be a destination," he said.

I asked Lifshutz about the kind of tenants he was looking for—not necessarily in terms of use, but in terms of affordability. Will they resemble the West Side or something more gentrified? It's a question I've been pondering of late? Right now, he said, he's just looking to renovate the space and complete the shell. "It's a process and I'm not there yet," he said.

Bring on the housing

Across the street, spanning the entire block, stands the former Continental Hotel, a three-story city-owned structure that will be sold to a developer (most likely to local developer Weston Urban, as the only applicant of a solicitation process, the San Antonio Express-News reported last month) to renovate into mixed-income housing. Undoubtedly, Weston Urban will convert the ground-level into retail and restaurant spaces as to activate the street—a priority of Weston Urban and the city.

As the owner of roughly a dozen properties in this western half of downtown, Weston Urban intends to build multiple housing developments, all with retail on the ground level, totaling something like 1,000 new units.

Future housing and retail in this area, whether it comes from Weston Urban or Lifshutz or other property owners, will likely cater to the university demographic: students, faculty and staff alike. Part of the expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio's downtown campus will manifest in these parts, in particular on Dolorosa street, a block south of West Commerce, where new buildings for its National Security Collaboration Center, the College of Business and the School of Data Science will go.

300 block of West Commerce Street
Map of the 300 block of West Commerce
1) The Leeds building, 345 W. Commerce St., owned by a local partnership group that includes members of the Gembler family. 2) The Kline's building, 337 W. Commerce St., owned by local developer James Lifshutz. 3) Commercial building at 331 W. Commerce St. owned by a New Mexico-based entity. 4) Two-story commercial building owned by an entity based in Aurora, Colorado. 5) The former Continental Hotel, 322 W. Commerce St., likely to be sold to Weston Urban by current owner the city of San Antonio. 6) Texas Public Radio future headquarters. 7) San Pedro Creek Culture Park current phase. Map by Heron | Google

The rest of the block

The building sandwiched between the Kline's and the creek, the one with the old neon signs at 331 W. Commerce St., is slated to be renovated and eventually house a food and beverage operator.

"Options could include space for special events and also a potential rooftop bar, which would have stunning views of the creek project," said Patrick Shearer, a local realtor.

Shearer represents the New Mexico-based owner, registered as 331 W Commerce LP, which has the same address as the owner of 1900 Broadway, the Stay Golden Social House property that's being sold and folded into the Jefferson Bank headquarters project.

"The focus will be on something that will appeal to locals, whether it’s UTSA students living nearby, families strolling along the creek, or people attending a special event at TPR or the Alameda," said Shearer, who declined to name the owner. "I think if you build it for the locals, tourists will love it, too."

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Three or four years ago, the city ran a clinic from the Leeds building, 345 W. Commerce St., before vacating. The local ownership group is looking to sell the building, which stands opposite The Vistana apartment mid-rise, co-owner Curtis Gembler said.

Another notable building is the retail spot across from Penner's, which is also located next to the creek. Most recently, it served as an art gallery, and an upscale Mexican arts store before that—but it's been closed for a few years. In 2016, the Suneson family, which has ties to San Antonio, sold the two-story building to an entity called Am Yakes LLC of Aurora, Colorado, which could not be reached for comment.


West Commerce project

At $15 million, the reconstruction of West Commerce is among the largest capital projects slated for downtown.

The first phase, from Santa Rosa to North St. Mary's streets, will include the block that includes San Pedro Creek. Eighteen months ago, construction of this segment supposed in January 2019. That work couldn't begin until utility work underneath San Pedro Creek could was finished. Now, construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and be completed by December 2021. Other portions of Commerce west of Santa Rosa, all the way to Colorado Street, have later completion dates.

Commentary: The Decade of Downtown is over. Now the hard work begins.

[ Editor's Note: I realize one question that remains unanswered in this piece is this one: Why would the city allow a local landmark, the one which most recently housed the Dollar General, to be demolished? I will ask the city's Office of Historic Preservation that question next week, and will update this piece accordingly. ]

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

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