A city commission to address renters issues will be formed, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said Saturday during a town hall meeting at San Antonio College. Who will serve on the commission, what issues it should tackle, and what it should be called were some of the myriad questions that were discussed during the three-hour community meeting.
"The renters commission in San Antonio is going to happen. I'm positive of that," Treviño told the audience of about 200, who were predominately landlords and property owners. "How it happens ... it's up to us on how we help shape that."
The idea seems to have support from many council members, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, based on feedback they gave during a Governance Committee meeting last month.
Since mid-January, when the concept of a renters commission was first publicly debated, Treviño has said renters need a stronger voice in local government on issues that are unique to them. There are approximately 597,100 renters living in San Antonio, compared to 841,900 property owners, according to data pulled by Texas Housers, an Austin-based housing advocacy group, from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Treviño argues such a commission would hone in on tenant-landlord issues, and that it would work in concert with existing boards and commissioners, especially the Housing Commission, which addresses a wider spectrum of issues.
Landlords and property owners, on the other hand, say a renters commission would be redundant, because the Housing Commission already exists. That body, which Nirenberg formed in early 2019, has addresses issues of displacement.
To buttress the point, during the meeting Saturday, Erika Hizel, managing partner at Kimeaux Investments, LLC, quoted from the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force report of 2018, which city officials are using to shape housing policy going forward:
"Through the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force process, a strong conviction surfaced regarding the presence of an oversight body in San Antonio: that is, that too many new commissions and oversight boards would simply muddy the waters," Hizel said.
Treviño said he was aware of the paragraph in the task force's report.
"What we're trying to do is not create more red tape, but simply help to align some of these issues so we can provide a better focus," Treviño said.
Treviño has pointed to the example of the right-to-counsel program, a budding piece of local policy that offers an attorney to tenants who are being evicted. That policy was created by his office, outside the parameters of the Housing Commission. A renters commission could also provide direct input on the agenda the city pushes during session of the Texas Legislature.
Also, in his 2019 council request to start a renters commission, Treviño mentions the Seattle's Renters' Commission as a possible model for San Antonio, which has drawn the ire of landlords because it bans evictions during winter months, among other regulations.
During the three-hour meeting, a few themes emerged. Most of the people who spoke, mostly landlords, argued that the commission should include landlords and property owners, as well as property managers on the commission.
The conversation began somewhat heatedly as landlords pressed Treviño for answers. After opening remarks and a Q&A, the audience split into groups to discuss how a renters commission should be formed. Most tables had one renter represented—some had none. In other moments, the tone was more amicable, as the two sides—renters and landlords—talked about the importance of working together to find solutions.
Educating tenants on their rights and about the system emerged as the main point of emphasis for both renters and landlords at the meeting.
One attendee, Molly, spoke of the economic segregation that has enveloped San Antonio.
"The only way you can resolve economic segregation is by providing real impactful rent control," said Molly, who declined to give her last name. Her suggestion was met by a few groans. She said San Antonio needs to provide more housing at 30% of the area median income, which is $21,300 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Shortly after Molly's remarks, another attendee, a landlord named Robert, said rent control would only create slums because the property owner wouldn't have the funds to reinvest into the property.
"I understand we have to balance it out, but putting a cap on it is going to (create) more of a slumlord situation," said Robert, who declined to give his last name.
In San Antonio, rent control does exist, but it's rare. Rent caps are applied to people renting a subsidized housing in very specific developments built with the help of a full property tax exemption, which Texas law grants to development partnerships if they provide half of the units at below market-rate rents.
At The '68, the mixed-income apartments at Hemisfair, built by local developer David Adelman, rents in the subsidized units cannot exceed 25% of a tenant's income. At The Flats at River North, which is currently under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue, rents cannot exceed 35% of the tenants' income if they are renting a subsidized unit.
During the meeting, most of the attendees said the renters commission should follow the rules of the city's Building Standards Board, which appoints its members based on expertise and background. For example, one spot is reserved for a veteran, another for a senior.
The idea, according to the feedback at the meeting, would be to assign commissioners who represents all facets of a lease agreement—from tenant to landlord to property manager.
By comparison, the Zoning Commission is composed of representatives appointed by each council office. The Historic and Design Review Commission is a hybrid; its members are appointed by council members, but many of them work at local architecture firms because the cases that come before them are highly technical.
Treviño said the next town hall meeting for the renters commission will be held April 4. He said he expects the renters commission to go to the full City Council for consideration in May.
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The area median income (AMI) levels shown here are for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.