By Ben Olivo & Michelle Del Rey
Before temperatures dropped, Delilah Oyervides sat on her stoop at the Refugio Place apartments south of downtown and watched her three kids play on the Labor Street Park playground across the street. The apartments also face the park's basketball court, which attracts seemingly every kid in the Lavaca neighborhood. The day was winding down and people of all socio-economic backgrounds were getting in their daily rituals before dark. People walked their dogs. A couple of high school-aged runners made laps around the grounds. Over on the diamond, a daughter took softball pitches from her old man.
"The park's right there. Whenever they want to play, I sit out here and keep an eye on them. It's pretty easy, it's simple," said Oyervides, 38, who's lived here in a public housing apartment for four years. "I love it here."
Refugio is the name of these apartments and this street, but the larger development is called Victoria Commons, a collection of predominately market-priced apartments interspersed with subsidized units and public housing. For the past 20 years, this community, which includes townhomes and houses, has taken shape on 36 acres that's technically part of the Lavaca neighborhood, where the Victoria Courts once stood.
The transformation has been ongoing since the Clinton administration.
In 1998, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) received a Hope VI grant, a program designed to replace concentrations of public housing with newly-built mixed-income communities. San Antonio's own Henry Cisneros served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the time. In subsequent years, demolition began on the 660 public housing units that comprised the circa-1940 Victoria Courts south of what was then Durango Boulevard, across from the Institute of Texan Cultures.
The completion of Refugio Place followed in 2004, then the Artisan Park townhomes in 2007, and the Hemisview Village apartments in 2010—a community of more than 500 units, apartments mostly, for diverse income levels that's hard to miss from Interstate 37 as drivers enter or leave downtown over East César E. Chávez Boulevard (formerly Durango). The redevelopment was spearheaded by a second Hope VI grant, worth $18.7 million. But plans for more townhomes, more housing, were halted by the Great Recession, which left fields platted for dozens of skinny townhomes vacant for years, utility lines sprouting from the ground unfinished.
Now, SAHA is revving up development in the area once again, hoping to bring this master development to a close in the coming years.
However, neighborhood groups in Lavaca are pushing back on nearly every aspect of the complex plan, and say SAHA is deviating from promises it's made in the past.
For example, a group of townhome owners has hinted at litigation should SAHA not de-concentrate subsidized and public housing in one of four new apartment buildings the agency is proposing.
The larger Lavaca Neighborhood Association is advocating for more housing that's below market-rate than what the agency is currently proposing.
Another concern is density. Adjacent property owners, as well as the LNA, signed off on aspects of the Victoria Commons conceptual plan several years ago. But property SAHA has deemed in play for new construction has caught some nearby homeowners by surprise. Proposed apartment buildings on two triangular stormwater basins next to I-37, and at the sites of the Victoria Courts' former administrative building and a YMCA child daycare center, have property owners concerned SAHA is overpopulating the area.
By SAHA's count, the 901 housing units in Victoria Commons, which the housing authority either controls or instigated, will grow to 1,555 after the master plan is completed in the next 3-4 years.
The pushback is not new. A debate over the right mix of affordability at Victoria Commons has been ongoing in Lavaca for years.
If Joe Biden defeats President Trump on Tuesday, Victoria Commons will have spanned five U.S. presidential administrations, potentially a sixth.
Victoria Commons is composed of the aforementioned Refugio Place and Hemisview Village complexes, which total 455 apartments, and the 22 multi-story townhomes that comprise Artisan Park. Then there's the 26 single-family homes that were privately built on Leigh Street on lots SAHA sold in recent years for a combined $1.5 million, and the 185-unit Victoria Plaza, an older nine-story building for seniors and disabled residents the agency is currently renovating, and expects to finish in February or March.
It also includes a 213-unit, $53.7 million apartment project at Labor Street and Chavez Boulevard, known as 100 Labor, which is scheduled to begin construction this year.
Here's a chart provided by SAHA that shows the affordability breakdown of these projects, and future development at Victoria Commons:
Future phases would add another 654 units, a mix of apartments and townhomes, to the 901 that are either built, being rehabbed or soon-to-be under construction at Victoria Commons.
By SAHA's projections, the new development would lower the amount of below market-rate apartments and public housing at Victoria Commons from 45%, the current ratio, to 39% after the master plan is completed.
The Lavaca Neighborhood Association (LNA) informed SAHA recently that it cannot support the decrease in the proportion of units considered affordable, or below market-rate.
"To better serve the specific needs of the San Antonio community, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association recommends maintaining 45% affordable housing units to be distributed throughout Victoria Commons," the LNA wrote in a letter to SAHA dated Oct. 23.
The LNA cites Lavaca's 130-year history as a diverse and mixed-income community, even as property values continue to increase, as a reason SAHA should keep current affordability levels consistent.
"Lavaca was home to artisans and craftsmen who built the grand mansions of neighboring King William," the LNA wrote in a letter that also addresses a reduction in park space, traffic congestion, among other concerns. "Victoria Commons was once the Baptist Settlement, home to many Latino and Black residents who worked in the nearby railroad depots and lumberyards before making way for Victoria Courts."
In a recent interview, Tim Alcott, SAHA's real estate and legal services officer, said the Victoria Commons master plan is a work in progress. SAHA has hired Catellus, a California firm with a strong presence in Austin, and whose Victoria Commons team has multiple San Antonio ties, to begin the master planning process.
"We proposed 39% based on what we believe the community wanted, but if there's pushback and they want more affordability, we will be happy to have that conversation," Alcott said recently in an interview, alluding to conversations SAHA had with the Lavaca neighborhood several years ago, when SAHA and Lavaca were under different leadership.
Since the interview, SAHA has heard from the LNA, as well as the Artisan Park Townhome Homeowners Association and a group of homeowners on Leigh Street.
"Meetings are being held with representatives of the neighborhood groups, as well as other interested residents, to determine the nature of their concerns, provide additional information and work on modifications of the plan," SAHA spokesman Michael Reyes said in a follow-up email.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño shares some of the LNA's concerns.
"My office does share the neighborhood's concerns with reductions in affordable units, green space, historic buildings, and park amenities," Treviño said in a statement.
In a virtual meeting SAHA and Catellus held in September, the last public gathering, attendees were asked in a survey to opine on the "affordable housing" ratio going from 45% to 39%. Forty people responded. It should be noted that SAHA said it invited residents of Lavaca, including renters at Refugio Place and Hemisview Village; it also sent save-the-date postcards to King William residents.
"What are your thoughts on this mix of income?"
» 35% said they were happy with the proposed mixed-income options
» 25% said they preferred more affordable homes
» 35% said they preferred fewer affordable homes
» 5% said they have no opinion
Among the Artisan Park Townhome Homeowners Association's (HOA) objections is SAHA and Catellus' plan to place 85% subsidized and public housing units in the 180-unit apartment building being planned for the north stormwater basin, which abuts Refugio Place and the townhomes.
The townhomes were built next to Refugio Place, and six of the 22 were priced for lower-income families. But those homeowners were eventually priced out by rising property taxes.
The Artisan Park Townhome HOA called the conceptual plan incongruent with the current distribution of below market-rate apartments at Refugio Place (50%), Hemisview (25%) and 100 Labor (21%). It wants the affordable apartments more evenly distributed among the four multi-family buildings SAHA is planning.
"Our members moved into the neighborhood knowing that it is a mixed-income neighborhood," Artisan Park homeowners wrote in a letter to SAHA on Oct. 2. "We strive to maintain a healthy mix of diverse incomes, backgrounds, races, and occupations."
The Artisan Park Townhome HOA points out that of the 204 new "affordable" units SAHA has planned, 153—or 75%—are slated for the north basin building. Artisan Park Townhome HOA said SAHA should stick to the original plan of building townhomes on land where roads were paved and lots platted and prepared for homebuilding—and tackle any additional apartments later.
In an email to the Heron, Artisan Park Townhome HOA President Selsa Gonzalez expanded on the HOA's position with her own.
"SAHA has been successful thus far in creating a harmonious mixed-income community," Gonzalez said. "Our main worry is that this many affordable units in one building will throw off this delicate balance. We want to maintain the integrity of our community."
At the September meeting, Alcott said public funding sources dictate the 85% subsidized housing planned for the north stormwater basin apartments. For example, apartments built from equity generated from the sale of 9% low-income housing tax credits could only be contained in one building, and not be distributed to other buildings within the master plan, as regulated by the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs.
"Each development is going to stand on its own, and what sort of financing you use will determine the income (levels)," Alcott said in the interview.
SAHA and the Artisan Park Townhome HOA, which has met in recent weeks, disagree on whether spreading out the affordability mix would lead to less or equal amounts of affordability.
SAHA contends spreading out subsidized and public housing units would result in less total affordability at Victoria Commons, "since most of the affordable housing is in the units."
In response, Gonzalez said, "If SAHA/Catellus commits to spreading out the affordability between their new projects, then there is no reason (for) the affordability percentage to go down."
Of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association's wish to maintain 45% affordability throughout Victoria Commons, Gonzalez said, "If SAHA could find a way to maintain 45% affordable in the entire project without placing it all in one building, we would be supportive of this."
Alcott explained that the development on the north basin, the one that would be 85% affordable, would work best as housing for the elderly, while a 200-unit building on the south basin, adjacent to Leigh Street and Lavaca's other single-family homes, would primarily be market-rate with 15% affordability.
Alcott's explanation for one apartment building (north basin) having substantially more affordability than the other (south basin) hint at the urban phenomenon known as Not In My Backyard, or NIMBYism.
About the south basin apartments, "It's closer to the neighborhood. So we thought we did the market-rate one as a small affordability percentage. We thought the neighborhood would like that better, if the market-rate was closer to where folks live, because the neighborhood is all market-rate essentially," Alcott said at the September meeting.
This isn't the first time SAHA has received pushback from the LNA and Artisan Park homeowners.
In 2013, Artisan Park threatened to sue SAHA if it proceeded with a plan to build apartments, 80% of which would have been considered affordable, on the land slated for townhomes. At the time, the LNA supported Artisan Park's arguments of flipping the market-rate-to-affordable ratio from 20%-80% to 80%-20%, respectfully.
"If demand for rental units is satisfactorily proven, the market rate allocation on any developed rental units must be no less than 80%," the LNA wrote at the time. It should be noted that Artisan Park, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association, as well as SAHA, leadership has changed since.
It's worth revisiting here because SAHA officials have said those conversations have colored the current conceptual plan.
Over the summer, during a SAHA board meeting, former commissioner Sofia Lopez questioned why the percentage of subsidized and public housing was so low at 100 Labor, the development facing Chavez that's scheduled to break ground this year. At 100 Labor, 21% of the apartments will be considered affordable—or 44 units compared to 169 market-rate units
"We initially approached the community in 2013," said Ryan Wilson, executive vice president of development for Franklin Companies, the developer of 100 Labor. "It took us a year and a half to go through all the arguments you're presenting now." At the time, Lourdes Castro Ramirez served as CEO, and Ramiro Cavazos as chairman of the SAHA board—both of whom have moved onto prominent positions outside of San Antonio.
"'You promised us to provide a certain amount of market-rate housing'," Wilson recalls the neighborhood saying. "'We don't want it to turn into 100% affordable housing like it was before.' That was when the decision was made."
SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia said Lavaca and Artisan Park residents, at the time, feared more affordable housing would lower their property values, concerns that seem to have shifted given the LNA's current support for maintaining total Victoria Commons affordability at 45%.
Lopez's argument during the meeting in June was that more affluent residents in the neighborhood shouldn't dictate affordability levels at SAHA developments, especially on land SAHA owns. But SAHA officials said they needed Lavaca's buy-in before it could proceed.
"We're listening to a much wealthier community about what it is they want to keep lower income people out," Lopez said during the meeting. "This doesn't sit well with me at all. To me that seems like a compromise on the wrong thing."
Wilson referenced a 2011 updated master plan by Boston firm Goody Clancy that assumed 20% of the newly-built units would be priced for people making up to 30% of the area median income, or the most needy households. The rest would be market-rate.
During the meeting, SAHA officials defended the affordability ratio with an argument they've been articulating for more than a year: SAHA needs to build or support predominately market-rate developments to be able to generate revenue to subsidize deeply affordable housing down the road.
During the meeting, Nisivoccia described housing authorities as being "cash poor industries."
"If we continue business operations ... we would rarely generate new affordable housing," he said. "You would just have what you have. Physically, over time, that's going to fail."
It's an argument many housing advocates aren't buying, and have said as much about SAHA's plans to demolish the Alazan Courts and replacement them with mixed-income apartments on the near West Side.
"Every single bit of that property is precious because we own it," said Lopez, who resigned from the board this summer for personal reasons. "I don't see the benefit of constructing this ratio of affordability ... given the climate is in a fundamentally different place than it was in 2014."
Gonzalez, who's married to Omar Gonzalez, Hemisfair's director of real estate, said SAHA and Catellus have been receptive to their current concerns, and are not considering litigation at this time. The couple bought their townhome in 2012, and say they didn't expect to stay in the neighborhood this long.
"Neighbors look out for each other," Gonzalez said. "Labor Street Park is a great gathering place. Our kids often play with kids who live at the apartments across the street (well, pre-Covid at least). I love that the 'hood is mixed-income as it teaches our kids to be grateful for what they have. ... So, I don’t want to leave, which is why we are very attentive to what SAHA is planning."
The owners of the houses on the north side of Leigh Street, which sit on the lots SAHA sold in 2016, submitted their own list of concerns to the LNA, which the neighborhood association shares.
They're concerned about density and the stresses more residents could have on traffic, parking, and the ingress and egress of emergency vehicles. "We are alarmed that an additional 650 units will cause considerable traffic and safety issues," the Leigh Street residents said in a letter to the LNA board of directors in early October.
They're also concerned about building height. The Victoria Commons master plan once showed the height of buildings gradually decreasing as they moved from Chavez Boulevard south to Lavaca's one-story homes. Contradicting the philosophy, the current plan shows a five-story building (the south basin) next to those homes.
"My personal questions is: Why do we need to build great big buildings, most of which are market-rate, at the end of a cul-de-sac at the end of our neighborhood, where there are much more market-rate apartments going up around downtown that don't mess with the integrity of existing neighborhoods?" said Walt Wilson, who lives in one of the new homes on Leigh Street with his wife and two kids.
The groups also question how SAHA intends to build apartments on two stormwater basins, a process SAHA and Catellus have yet to explain. Alcott said the idea for this particular site was generated by the Urban Land Institute. "SAHA is putting some serious dollars into this to be able to move that water correctly, but it is a great use of the land as we redo that site," he said without giving cost estimates.
SAHA plans to demolish the former Victoria Commons administrative building on Labor Street and build a 108-unit apartment building with 133 parking spaces and 19,000-square-feet of retail space. It has asbestos and costs more to rehab than to rebuild, SAHA says.
The YMCA child daycare center, SAHA says, isn't used as much by the residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village. There are "five or less families total that are in our housing or taking advantage of our programs that are using this facility," Alcott said. SAHA wants to build a 102-unit apartment building with 110 parking spaces, and leave some room for a new daycare center within the new building.
Zoning is another concern, as SAHA and Catellus have said they will pursue a broader form of infill development zoning for the vacant properties, which would give them more options. That's exactly what concerns homeowners. "This designation is virtually unlimited and while we appreciate that promises can be made relative to building sizes, parking, etc., unforeseen things happen," the Leigh Street homeowners wrote. "Projects get delayed and participants change."
Catellus' role as master planner has yet to be formally approved by the SAHA board. Assuming Catellus is chosen long-term, the firm will take the plan from concept to something more concrete, a blueprint for the overall development. Other entities would actually build out the remaining townhomes and apartments.
One concern from all of the neighborhood groups was what appears to be the removal of the Labor Street Park basketball court, which is highly popular with Lavaca's youth. SAHA has since said it intends to reincorporate a basketball court into the master plan.
The final conceptual plan and master plan agreement with Catellus is expected to be reviewed by the SAHA board before the year ends. Infrastructure construction is expected to begin May 2021, and take a year to complete. SAHA and Catellus have not revealed cost estimates.
Originally built in 1940 as a whites-only housing project, Victoria Courts provided low-income homes to hundreds of families for decades until its demise in 2000. Within that time frame, it also developed a reputation for being a volatile neighborhood.
“You’d hear about crime incidents, shootings,” said Darryl Ohlenbusch, who bought his property on Labor Street in 1998, when the Victoria Courts were still standing. “A lot of that was probably overhyped.”
Soon after, Ohlenbusch got involved in the LNA during the critical years in the early 2000s when SAHA was planning the redevelopment. He currently serves as the LNA's zoning and historic preservation director.
"The idea was you don’t warehouse poor people," said Ohlenbusch, who is a lecturer at UTSA's College of Architecture, Construction and Planning. "You should integrate them into a community of mixed incomes so they’re not stigmatized. And that was the whole premise for the redevelopment generally."
SAHA still hasn't fulfilled its obligations under the Hope VI grant—the agency has yet to build 40 public housing units it's obligated to replace from Victoria Courts. Those units will go into 100 Labor and in The Legacy at Alazan, a new development breaking ground this week next to the Alazan Courts on the near West Side, the agency says.
On multiple occasions Heron reporters walked around Victoria Commons to gauge how residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village feel about SAHA's plans. Most didn't know about them.
One resident, Maureen Galindo, who lives at Hemisview Village, and who's one of SAHA's most outspoken critics, didn't attend the September meeting. But she questions SAHA's willingness to include lower-income families in the master plan discussion. When asked, SAHA said it has repeatedly informed residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village throughout the process, and said save-the-date postcards were sent to those residents notifying them about the September meeting.
Catrina Rivera, who rents a market-rate apartment at Hemisview Village, said she welcomes more affordable housing at Victoria Commons.
"To be honest (more) affordable housing would be great because it's super highly expensive to live here downtown," said Rivera, who works at a hotel downtown. "So affordable housing would actually be good, because it would help out a lot of those people who do need help."
Oyervides, the mother of three who lives in a public housing unit at Refugio Place, described a vibrant and, for the most part, safe neighborhood that has some issues specific to downtown living. Her kids attend nearby Bonham Academy, which is recognized as one of the San Antonio Independent School District's better K-8 schools.
"The only think I don't like: there's a lot of homeless people," Oyervides said. "Sometimes they walk here. And I don't like to sit right here because I'm right here and they know where I live. I don't like that. (But) nobody's messed with me."
Although recently, her apartment window was busted and had to be replaced. For the most part, "crime is not an issue," she said.
"It's a good place to be. I like it."
» SAHA plans to add fourth development between Hemisfair and Lavaca (Dec. 20, 2018)
» Catellus chosen to finish building on old Victoria Courts site (May 21, 2020)
» SAHA’s Labor Street apartments get final design approval (Aug. 8, 2019)
Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist who recently lived in San Antonio. Follow her at @meeshdelrey on Twitter.