Rendering shows Weston Urban's proposed 32-story tower at 305 Soledad St. from the southwest corner looking north. Courtesy Weston Urban

Weston Urban expects to begin work on its $107 million, 32-story high-end apartment building in the middle of this year, and for it to be completed in two years, Mark Jensen and Reeves Craig, the developer’s vice presidents, told the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) last Thursday.

All of the tower’s 351 apartments, ranging from 535-square-feet for an efficiency to beyond 2,000-square-feet for a penthouse, are expected to be priced at market-rate. The average unit size will be 925 square feet.

Jensen and Craig did not disclose rents, but said each unit would cost $362,963 to build, when factoring in the cost of construction along with related costs, such as the land purchase and financing.

Weston Urban has received $7.5 million in city incentives, including a 75% rebate on city property taxes over 15 years, worth an estimated $6.5 million, executed in December. The other 25% of taxes due over the same period, or $2.2 million, will feed the city's affordable housing fund.

Last week, the Houston Street TIRZ agreed to grant up to $1 million to cover the cost of SAWS impact fees.

In a TIRZ, the increment in tax revenue gained is collected and reinvested in the boundary.

The Bexar Appraisal District valued the property last year at $3.1 million.

During the meeting, Jensen and Craig revealed more details about one of the most anticipated residential projects in the downtown area ever.

The exterior will be made of dark and light masonry, as well as concrete and glass. Apartments will consume floors 7 through 32. An amenity deck and pool will occupy the seventh floor.

The 7,200-square-feet of retail space is intended to activate the corners of the building, especially on the northeast corner of North Main Avenue and East Travis Street, kitty corner to the park Weston Urban just built. Jensen told board members there would be a natural pedestrian connection between a large-scale restaurant facing Travis and and Pinkerton’s Barbecue, which opened recently at the park.

The spaces facing Soledad Street and North Main Avenue he described as more "service-oriented."

Weston Urban is planning for the building’s main entrance and lobby to face Main Avenue, and to place vehicular traffic access on Soledad, across from the Weston Centre, where there’s already a garage opening there.

"From a residential standpoint, we’re very excited to bring something to the city that sits in between the river and the creek," Jensen said of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek. "The ability to pop out and go for a run along either of those greenways should be a very special experience."

Jensen said Weston Urban currently has about 20,000 square feet of retail space it’s currently trying to lease, which includes in the Frost Tower, which opened almost two years ago, as well as in the neighboring Rand and Savoy buildings on East Houston Street.

During the meeting Jensen identified roughly $1.7 million worth of public upgrades, such as work that needs to be done to the streets, electrical and gas work, and telecommunications connections—the types of work TIRZ’s were created for—but Thursday’s vote only covered SAWS impact fees, city officials said.

It’s unclear whether Weston Urban will return to the city for a subsidy to fund the gap.

Jensen said Weston Urban will look to build mixed-income housing in future projects, where the average apartment size would be in the 700-square-foot range.

"This one particularly is targeting the higher end of the market," he said.

Ben Olivo, Heron editor

Houston Street TIRZ board consists of District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, board chair; Assistant City Manager Lori Houston; Deputy Chief Financial Officer Troy Elliott; John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department; County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez; County Commissioner Tommy Calvert; and Manuel Leal.

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GOOGLE | HERON

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Previously published

» Analysis: Weston Urban's high-rise tower 'blazes the trail' for downtown growth
» Weston Urban plans 32-story apartment tower in downtown tech district

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Weston Urban residential tower

» Address: 305 Soledad St.
» Developer: Weston Urban
» Property owner: Weston Urban
» Rent or Buy: Rent
» Height: 32 stories, approx. 400 feet
» Land size: .87 acres
» Total units: 351
     » Market rate: 351
     » 80% AMI: None
     » 70% AMI: None
     » 60% AMI: None
     » 50% AMI: None
     » 40% AMI: None
     » 30% AMI: None
     » Student Units: None
» Section 8: Unknown
» Retail: 7,200 square feet
» Parking: Garage, 456 spaces
» Construction start date: Mid-2021
» End date: Mid-2023
» Architect: Unknown
» Cost: $107 million
» Investors: Unknown
» Financing: Unknown
» San Antonio Incentives: $7.5 million
     » SAWS Fee Waivers: $1 million (Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone)
     » City Fee Waivers: Unknown
     » City Loans: Unknown
     » Est. City Property Tax Rebate: $6.5 million, estimated 75% rebate on city property taxes over 15 years ($2.2 million [or 25% of rebate] will feed city's affordable housing fund)
     » Tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ): See "SAWS fee waiver"
» Bexar County Incentives: Unknown
» Texas incentives: Unknown
» Federal incentives: Unknown
» Cashflow: Unknown

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Timeline

Dec. 16, 2020

Weston Urban’s plan to build downtown’s tallest residential building, a 32-story apartment tower in west downtown, took a step forward when the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) gave a thumbs-up to its design.

The commission made no comment as it granted conceptual approval for the design of the roughly 400-foot-tall tower, 305 Soledad St., which would single-handedly create a market for high-rise urban living in San Antonio.

Renderings and floor plans for the $107 million project show that it will have three separate retail spaces on the ground floor and a landscaped area with outdoor tables. Several stories up, the renderings show what appears to be an outdoor pool, and a skydeck close to the top of the building.

Most of the tower’s exterior will consist of grey brick and exposed concrete, but the lower levels will have an exterior of earth-colored brick, the renderings show. — Richard Webner, Heron contributor

[ Read more about the HDRC's decision. ]

Nov. 18, 2020

Word of Weston Urban's plan to build a 32-story apartment tower, the first of its kind in San Antonio, surfaces after the plan hits the city's Planning Commission agenda. The Planning Commission unanimously approved the plans without discussion.

October 2020

Members of the HDRC’s Design Review Committee complimented Weston Urban on the "beautiful" design, according to a report from the meeting. The meeting was not open to the public. One member expressed concern that the grey brick exterior is out of character for San Antonio, but others said they did not share that concern.

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Weston Urban properties

Contact the Heron at hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

We haven't seen this much snow in San Antonio since 1985. The flurries started to come down hard around 2 early Monday morning in downtown. By that point, streets and sidewalks, buildings and landmarks were covered in several inches of snow. Some downtown residents and hotel guests trekked out to take selfies. Homeless people cocooned themselves against buildings.

Photos by Ben Olivo, Heron & Isaiah Alonzo, Heron contributor

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Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Downtown San Antonio in 2020 was dominated by images of a struggling economy amid a pandemic, and of protest. There were also signs of progress.

Here's a look at what transpired as captured by Heron staff and contributing freelance photographers. These images were published either on this website, or on the @sanantonioheron or @downtownsanantonio Instagrams.

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Contact the Heron at hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

For the past few weeks, we've visited what are normally downtown San Antonio's most popular spots for viewing and taking pictures of Christmas lights. In most places, the crowds haven't been as large as they usually are, for obvious reasons. But we wanted to share with you the photos we captured anyway.

We'll be updating this slideshow throughout the holidays.

Photos by Heron contributors Chris Stokes (Travis Park, Alamo Plaza and Pearl) and Stephanie Marquez (Main Plaza, Frost Bank, and Rivercenter), and Heron editor Ben Olivo (Casa Rio scenes and H-E-B Christmas tree arrival).

Follow the San Antonio Heron on Instagram for more holiday photos.

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Contact the Heron at hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

Shortly after news networks announced Joe Biden as president-elect, and Kamala Harris as vice president-elect on Saturday, San Antonians began to celebrate downtown. Heron contributing photographers Chris Stokes (@skp.music) and Stephanie Marquez (@estefotografa) captured the scene during an afternoon caravan and night-time celebration on the streets.

Be sure to follow us on Instagram, as well: @sanantonioheron.

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hello@saheron.com | @sanantonioheron on Twitter | Facebook

Kids play basketball at the Labor Street Park in October 2020.
Kids play basketball at Labor Street Park last weekend. Photo by Stephanie Marquez | Heron contributor

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.

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Victoria Commons master plan, San Antonio Texas, October 2020
GOOGLE | HERON

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'Maintaining 45%'

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:

SAN ANTONIO HOUSING AUTHORITY

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."

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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

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[ Download the Victoria Commons presentation by Catellus and SAHA given at a public meeting on Sept. 22, 2020. ]

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Conceptual design for the Victoria Commons master plan in Lavaca neighborhood in San Antonio Texas presented in a community meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.
This conceptual plan was presented at a virtual public meeting in September. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Catellus | SAHA

'A harmonious mixed-income community'

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.

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Adrian Hernandez, 64, starts a charcoal grill behind his Refugio Place apartment on October 25, 2020.
Adrian Hernandez, 64, fires up the grill behind his Refugio Place apartment last weekend. Photo by Stephanie Marquez | Heron contributor

'We're listening to a much wealthier community'

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."

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[ Download "The Victoria Commons Redevelopment Project, San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas," by Kristi Miller Ulrich, Center for Archeological Research at UTSA (2005) ]

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A view of the Leigh St. homes from an empty lot of the Victoria Commons on October 25, 2020.
SAHA is planning to develop these parcels adjacent to the Leigh Street homes in the distance. Photo by Stephanie Marquez | Heron contributor

Of density and design

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.

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A view of the Tower of Americas from the Hemisview Village apartments on October 25, 2020.
A view of the Tower of Americas from the Hemisview Village apartments. Photo by Stephanie Marquez | Heron contributor

'Crime is not an issue'

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."

Kids play on the basketball court at Labor Street Park on Sept. 29, 2020.
Kids play basketball at Labor Street Park on a recent weekday. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

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Previously published

» 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)

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist who recently lived in San Antonio. Follow her at @meeshdelrey on Twitter.

The Lofts at River North are under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue in July.
The Lofts at River North are under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue in July. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

By Carson Bolding & Ben Olivo

When you hear someone talk about "workforce housing," what image do you conjure? What do workforce apartments, or renters, even look like?

It's been described as housing for nurses and teachers, and for people who work in the hospitality industry. Workforce housing is not deeply subsidized housing, for low-income tenants, nor is it market-rate. It's the upper echelon of subsidized housing—which is housing built with the help from some sort of government incentive—for people making somewhere at or below 80% of the area median income, or AMI. For a single person in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region, that's $40,310. Workforce housing is also close to where people work, which lends itself to shorter, cheaper commutes.

This is workforce housing.

Of course, it's not that simple.

Lately, projected "workforce" rents at apartments either under construction or in development seem to be unaffordable for the San Antonians they're supposed to serve. At the Friedrich Lofts on the East Side, which is anticipated to begin construction early next year, an 80% AMI or below rent for a studio is projected to be $1,100, and around $1,400 for a one-bedroom. You don't need to be a housing expert to understand that most San Antonians can't afford to pay that much for an apartment. How can subsidized housing be so expensive? Two reasons: 1) It has to do with how federal rent limits are applied (or not) in San Antonio, and 2) how rent limits are inflated by the federal government's definition of area median income locally—two topics we took big swings at recently.

It's not just that certain subsidized rents are high. Here, we're exploring the term "workforce housing" as jargon and why it's misleading. Developers and housing officials eager to redevelop the downtown area often pitch "workforce housing" as housing for downtown hospitality workers when seeking approval from various boards and commissions. We'd like to know: What hotel housekeeper can afford $1,100 for an efficiency, or $1,400 for a one-bedroom? Or, what restaurant server?

"Working a little over minimum wage, that would be impossible," said Ashanti Williams, a bartender at Boxcar Bar on the near East Side.

The term has become so ambiguous, it's hard to tell if anyone really knows what they're talking about when they talk about workforce housing.

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The words we use

Members of the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force—Lourdes Castro-Ramirez (from left), Gene Dawson, Maria Berriozabal, Noah Garcia and Jim Bailey—attend an event in 2018. Heron file photo

On May 27, when the Planning Commission heard a proposal to change the property at 538 Everest Street near Alamo Heights from a mixed-use land use to high density, residents of nearby neighborhoods called in to express their opposition to “low-income housing” being built in their backyard. But a representative with developer Vickrey & Associates was adamant that this development was not low-income housing, but workforce housing. Confused, R. Joy McGhee, who serves on the Planning Commission, asked the question that seemed to hang over the teleconference: What’s the difference between low-income and workforce housing?

Around the Plaza

This piece was first published in our newsletter called "Around the Plaza," which is packed with analysis before it hits our website. Readers who contribute as little as $5 a month receive it every Wednesday. Will you become a monthly donor via Paypal or Patreon?

The City of San Antonio defines workforce housing as housing reserved for people making between 61% and 80% AMI, which is roughly between $30,240 and $40,310 for a single person, respectively. "Affordable housing" is housing for people making anything up to 60% AMI, according to the city.

Two years ago, the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force defined workforce housing as housing in the price range for those earning between 80% and 120% AMI.

[ Scroll down for a chart showing 2020 AMI levels. ]

The biggest problem with using "workforce housing" is that it implies people earning less than the threshold being used don't work. But people who are in those lower income ranges are often exactly who you think about when describing the workforce.

Of the $48.8 million the City of San Antonio doled out to people under its emergency housing assistance program, from late April to the end of September, 59% of renters made less than 30% AMI, which is $15,120 for a single person. Recipients had to prove their incomes were impacted by the loss of a job, or reduced hours, due to Covid-19.

"Let's just use a different term: let's call it middle-income housing, but don't call it workforce," said Heather K. Way, director of the Entrepreneurship & Community Development Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law. "There is a push ... to move away from that term because of the way it creates a stigma for other types of subsidized housing, serving those other renters."

Way recently completed a study that exposed flaws in public facility corporations, or PFCs, which are government-run nonprofits that offer developers a full property tax exemption in exchange for offering half the units to renters who make 80% AMI or less—or, workforce housing. One example is the Friedrich Lofts, which is a partnership between the city's San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corporation (PFC), Dallas developer Provident Realty Advisors, and Atlanta-based investor American South Real Estate Fund. Five City Council members serve on the Housing Trust PFC board, and often approve "workforce housing" developments citywide.

These kind of public-private partnerships are always touted as mechanisms for creating workforce housing. Sometimes, developers and housing officials go so far as to describe them as affordable housing.

[ Download "Public Facility Corporations and the Section 303.042(f) Tax Break for Apartment Developments" by Heather K. Way ]

To be fair, the Housing Trust PFC, at least, has shifted to providing more affordable units, for tenants making 60% AMI or less, even if the percentages of total units is small, typically 10%. It's also fair and accurate to say that the shift has happened because the San Antonio Express-News and Heron has shown more light on PFC deals—their complexities, how they work, etc.—in recent years.

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Diving deeper

According to the city's 2019 Status of Poverty in San Antonio report, 9.3% of people living in poverty in San Antonio are employed, a larger proportion than Texas and the United States. And downtown San Antonio in particular is fueled by the service industry. But the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force report notes that these workers—who often include hotel staff, restaurant workers and security guards—rarely make more than $15 an hour, which is approximately 60% AMI, or what was $40,080 for a family of four, at the time. Today, 60% AMI is $43,200 for the same family size.

The City of San Antonio's "Affordability Guide" lists food prep workers, cashiers, and customer service representatives as all earning between 30% and 80% AMI.

But can food prep workers, or hotel housekeepers, or any other worker in the lower rungs of the hospitality industry, afford to pay more than $1,000 for an efficiency, or around $1,400 for a one-bedroom, which is what the 61%-to-80% AMI apartments at the Friedrich are projected to go for? For household making up to 60% AMI, or $30,240 for a single person, the Friedrich is also setting aside studios for $767, one-bedrooms for $822, and two-bedrooms for $987.

[ Editor's note: The Friedrich is a rabbit hole we must sidestep here for the sake of keeping this thing on track. If you want to go down it, read "Why some subsidized housing is beyond reach for many San Antonians." ]

"What makes workforce housing true workforce housing is its proximity to employment centers," said Pete Alanis, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust. "Putting housing and transportation together is the right type of fit."

Jim Bailey, associate principal at Alamo Architects and a member of the task force, explained recently that the labels applied by the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force aren't necessarily perfect. The terminology people use shifts over time. Workforce housing, especially, is a moving target. "I think we're in a different place than we were in two years ago," Bailey told the Heron over the summer. In the midst of a nationwide housing crisis and a global pandemic, Bailey thinks that the existing definition of workforce housing might be too narrow.

Another part of this issue is that HUD's AMI is rising faster than real incomes in San Antonio because it includes higher earners from more affluent nearby communities such as New Braunfels. If a family earning 80% AMI is charged a rent suitable for their income level one year, this unit may soon become unaffordable, as it is adjusted to a higher AMI the next year—while incomes true to San Antonio, and not New Braunfels, stagnate. These changes pose the risk of pushing this large portion of people out of the city and away from the communities in which they work.

Housing advocates prefer to use the median household income provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS) 2014-2018, which is $50,980, because it captures only San Antonio households. But the housing system operates by HUD's AMI, which lumps San Antonio and New Braunfels into the same statistical area.

"We sometimes are pigeoned-holed in these definitions because they are industry wide standards," Alanis said, "but they may not be appropriate in the community we live in."

Alanis also echoed a defense many developers use when defending rent prices: wages need to increase, too.

"Every works really hard," he said. "When they're not paid a wage that provides them the opportunity to live a decent life, that's a problem."

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'It's completely unaffordable'

Ashanti Williams, 30-years-old, works at SoHo Wine & Martini Bar downtown. Shot July 2020.
Ashanti Williams, 30, bartends at Boxcar Bar and SoHo Wine & Martini Bar. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

The Housing Trust PFC has also partnered with NRP Group, a national developer with a strong presence in San Antonio, on The Flats at River North, the monolithic structure currently under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue. Like other PFC deals, NRP Group will benefit from a full property tax exemption while providing half the units at market-rate, and the other half to people making 80% AMI or less. Almost equidistant to downtown and the Pearl, The Flats at River North is sitting on prime real estate, and the rents reflect that.

According to Debra Guerrero, Vice President of Government Affairs for the NRP Group, market-rate rents at this complex can reach up to $3,265. The reserved units at The Flats at River North are primarily studios and one bedrooms. A one bedroom subsidized unit will be priced as high as $1,340, she said.

"I don't know anybody who could afford that doing what we do," said Joe Saenz, a butcher, chef, and the founder of Swine House, which serves Texas pasture-raised meats at pop-ups and private events.

Until recently, Saenz ran a sandwich shop in downtown, which has temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saenz said as a tenant, you have to factor in the cost of parking, internet, and other expenses not included in the rent.

"That's not out of the realm of possibilities in normal times, like for a bartender that does well," said Saenz, who rents a home in Monte Vista with multiple roommates. "But I don't know any cook that really could pay that, just as a base."

For Williams, rising rents in the downtown area have made it challenging to find an affordable place to live for someone on a bartender's budget.

He's lived and worked around downtown San Antonio for six years, and right now is renting a house near Woodlawn Avenue and Interstate 10 with a roommate. The two split the $700 rent and about $250 in other bills.

Those higher rents could work, he said, if it were a couple living together.

"Do I want to say $1,400's an affordable condition? Yes, if I have someone living there with me," he said. "Otherwise, it's completely unaffordable. I make good money as a bartender... But at $1,400 if it was a one-bed, one-bath, I wouldn't be able to live there, unless I had someone to sleep on the couch, paying rent with it. Or a partner, a romantic partner to live with me."

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A more drastic picture

In 2016, the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force reported that “in much of San Antonio, rental housing priced at 80 percent of AMI ... is essentially market-rate housing." The opinion has only grown to near-consensus since then.

More and more developers we interview agree that 80% AMI housing, just because it's below market-rate, shouldn't be called affordable in San Antonio.

Victor Miramontes, whose Mission DG company is building the Tampico Apartments on the near West Side, in partnership with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), says those 80% rents are not necessarily for service workers.

But that's why at Tampico, which is located along Alazan and Apache creeks, near their confluence with San Pedro Creek southwest of downtown, Mission DG and SAHA are providing rents that hit every AMI level.

"If you are a service worker in downtown, you should have the right to live close to where you work, just as the office worker in the high-rise," Miramontes said.

Teri Castillo of the Historic Westside Residents Association paints a more drastic picture of un-affordability. If HUD's regional AMI, which is $72,000 for a family of four, is inflated when compared to only San Antonio incomes, then it's absurdly inflated when used to build housing in San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods.

"We have San Antonio's most economically poor zip code within our district," she said recently referring to 78207 in District 5 on the West Side. The 2016 American Community Survey found that the household median income in District 5 was $28,593, less than 40% of HUD's reported area median income for the San Antonio-New Braunfels region.

Castillo described a graphic shown at a Housing Commission meeting over the summer that demonstrates the mismatch between affordable housing and her community's needs.

CITY OF SAN ANTONIO

The chart, shared at the meeting held on June 24, shows that the city has more than doubled its 10-year goal of building 1,165 units that are affordable to those making 60%-80% AMI. But it has only reached 14% of its goal for housing that's affordable to those in the 30%-50% AMI range, according to the presentation by Ian Benavidez, special projects manager for the City of San Antonio.

That range is equivalent to an annual income of $21,600 to $35,500, which is more in line with the AMI of the West Side.

While this 14% shows that they've met their 1-year goal for production, it still lags substantially behind the construction of other units.

"Where our need is, it's not being met," Castillo said. "Where our folks can't afford is being exceeded."

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Closing thoughts

Housing is complicated. It's even more complex when we use the wrong words to describe it.

At the Heron, we have slowly stopped regurgitating these terms, slowly purging them from our articles. We have started to divide housing into two categories: market-rate and below market-rate. We're trying to steer away from terms like "workforce" or even "affordable," because, honestly, we just don't know what they mean anymore.

So, how do you describe subsidizing housing that's just below market-rate? You have to call it something, and we get that. Just don't call it "workforce."

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Trinity University senior Carson Bolding was a Heron research intern this past summer through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. Bolding is studying economics and communications, and can be reached at @carsonautri on Twitter.

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

The Lofts at River North are under construction at Broadway and Jones on July 9, 2020. NRP Group and the San Antonio Housing Trust PFC are building the apartments.
The Lofts at River North are under construction at Broadway and Jones in July. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

This is the first in an occasional series of columns called "How Things Work."

Recently, while reporting on the East Side's Friedrich Lofts and the West Side's Tampico Apartments, two high-profile developments in the downtown area, the rents the developers were forecasting seemed exorbitant, especially for those deemed "affordable." So I dug a little.

To understand how rents are calculated we must start by identifying the two types of apartments: market-rate and subsidized rents.

With market-rate housing, the monthly rent is unrestricted. Developers dictate prices using the basic law of supply and demand. That's why rents in and around the Pearl typically hover above $2 per square foot [visit the property websites, do the math and see for yourself] making it one of the most affluent submarkets in San Antonio, if not the most affluent.

Many properties use software-based systems to determine rents "on a daily or near-daily basis, similar to how airline ticket pricing is determined," a city official told me in 2018.

But what about apartments priced below market-rate? Those that are supposed to be reserved as "affordable housing"? Those that are backed by government subsidies?

It's worth nothing that the cost of build apartments doesn't change because the city needs more affordable housing. Businesses that provide labor, materials, and other goods and services, don't give developers a discount for the sake of producing more affordable housing in San Antonio. They have to make money, too. Government subsidies offset the cost of driving down market-rate rents to below market-rate.

How rent limits work?

Every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issues rent limits for metro areas across the country. Most housing developments that receive federal funding or that participate in federal programs cannot charge more than the caps HUD sets. The rent levels are measured by how much a household makes if their wage or salary sits below the area median income, or AMI, which is $72,000 for a family of four in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region. Here's what those caps look like:

2020 rent limits

Studio 1BR 2BR 3BR 4BR
20% AMI $252 $270 $324 $374 $389
30% AMI $378 $405 $486 $561 $627
40% AMI $504 $540 $648 $749 $836
50% AMI $630 $675 $810 $936 $1,045
60% AMI $756 $810 $972 $1,123 $1,254
70% AMI $882 $945 $1,134 $1,310 $1,361
80% AMI $1,008 $1,080 $1,296 $1,498 $1,672
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

HUD uses rent limits for programs such as housing choice vouchers, Community Development Block Grants, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and low-income housing tax credits, among others.

Around the Plaza

This piece was first published in our newsletter called "Around the Plaza," which is packed with analysis before it hits our website. Readers who contribute as little as $5 a month receive it every Wednesday. Will you become a monthly donor via Paypal or Patreon?

Many, if not most, affordable housing tools at the local level also adhere to HUD's rent limits, even if no federal money or subsidy is infused in the project. That's because HUD is the standard for all things housing in the U.S.

For example, local programs such as the city’s Center City Housing Incentive Policy and the fee waiver program abide by HUD’s rent limits. The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) observes HUD’s benchmarks for obvious reasons, SAHA being the local arm of HUD.

There are, however, exceptions.

The San Antonio Housing Trust, a nonprofit entity formed by the City of San Antonio, is one of the largest partners of "affordable housing" development in San Antonio and usually adheres to HUD's rent limits. Usually.

Here's a great example where it doesn't.

The Friedrich Lofts is the envisioned 347-unit redevelopment of the old Friedrich Air Conditioning complex on East Commerce Street. The $68.7 million project is a partnership between the housing trust, Dallas developer Provident Realty Advisors, and Atlanta-based investor American South Real Estate Fund. The housing trust's involvement, through an entity called a public facility corporation, means the partnership benefits from property tax exemption status under state law. All of the deals struck between the trust and a developer are approved by the trust's board, which is composed of five City Council members.

Of the 347 units, 173 will be market-rate priced, 160 apartments priced for people making up to 80% AMI, and 13 for households making up to 60% AMI.

Which is all fine and dandy, but let's look at the actual rent projections at the Friedrich:

Studio 1BR 2BR
Market-rate $1,100 $1,400-$1,600 $1,800
80% AMI $1,100 $1,375-$1,420 $1,420
60% AMI $767 $822 $987
Source: San Antonio Housing Trust

Now compare these 80% and 60% AMI or less rent prices to HUD's rent limits shown in the first table.

You'll find the prices for a 60% AMI studio apartment, for example, are very close: $767 at the Friedrich compared to HUD's cap of $756. Same for a 60% AMI one-bedroom: $822 at the Friedrich versus HUD's limit of $810. Friedrich's numbers are slightly higher because they are predictions of what HUD's rent limits will be two years from now, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for a development to get built.

The 80% AMI rents at the Friedrich are a different story.

According to Pete Alanis, the housing trust's interim executive director, the 80% AMI rents at Friedrich do not adhere to HUD's rent limits. He said the only way the lender, American South Real Estate Fund, would commit to the deal is if the 80% AMI rents were priced at a certain level, which are higher than HUD's rent limits. Some context: This latest iteration of the Friedrich, which has seen multiple redevelopment attempts fail over the years, was delayed because the development group (the housing trust and Provident of Dallas) couldn't find an investor to commit to the Friedrich.

In June, Alanis said the development partnership agreed to give the investor, American South Real Estate Fund, a higher-than-normal ownership stake, 67%, in order to secure the equity the fund was bringing to the table.

"It's the deal that is going to finally allow this project to proceed, and we're finally going to have the Friedrich done," Alanis said. "Otherwise, it just wouldn’t have happened."

In a recent interview with the Heron, Alanis said he doesn't want below market-rate rents of future trust partnerships that don't align with HUD's limits to become the trust's modus operandi.

The trust, through its public facility corporation, has contributed a property tax exemption to more than 30 developments it has partnered with across the city—most of which are complete or under construction.

"Moving forward, my goal is to get all of the affordable rents within the ... HUD-calculated max rent for bedroom size and household size," Alanis said.

Let's pause for a second. How are you holding up? How about them Spurs, huh? Man they gave it their best shot in The Bubble, didn't they? OK, we're almost to the end. Finally: area median income, or AMI.

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About AMI

Yes, but how are HUD rent limits calculated?

It's important to note that in San Antonio below market-rate apartments don't necessarily denote affordable housing. Go back to the rent limits chart: Do the 80% AMI rents seem affordable for San Antonio? For an efficiency, $1,008? For a one-bedroom, $1,080? Some developers would argue those rents are affordable compared to fast-gentrifying cities. But, again, San Antonio is not other cities. To be fair, some developers, agree those rents shouldn't be considered affordable in this city. In recent interviews with the Heron, Victor Miramontes, managing partner of Mission DG, which is building the Tampico Apartments with the help of the San Antonio Housing Authority's tax exemption, and Mitch Meyer, who wanted to build apartments next to the Hays Street Bridge, both consider 80% AMI rents as unaffordable in context to San Antonio's true median wage.

"Eighty percent though, that's not affordable," Meyer said. "Because the people that really need affordable housing, they're not in that AMI."

[ Editor's note: You'll hear more from Miramontes and Meyer on an upcoming analysis on "workforce housing." ]

So while the San Antonio Housing Trust may price affordable rents above HUD's rent recommendations, the recommendations themselves seem skewed. That's because HUD's rent cap formula is based on AMI, which has its own convoluted method.

We recently explored AMI in depth, in an analysis that looked at how surrounding, more affluent communities tilt the AMI upward for San Antonio, which is the poorest large American city.

Here's a look at area median income chart for the San Antonio-New Braunfels area.

1 person 2 person 3 person 4 person 5 person
120% $59,640 $68,160 $76,680 $86,400 $93,360
AMI $49,700 $56,800 $63,900 $72,000 $77,800
80% $40,310 $46,100 $51,850 $57,600 $62,250
70% $34,790 $39,760 $44,730 $50,400 $54,460
60% $30,240 $34,560 $38,880 $43,200 $46,680
50% $25,200 $28,800 $32,400 $36,000 $38,900
40% $19,880 $22,720 $25,560 $28,800 $31,120
30% $15,120 $17,280 $19,440 $21,600 $23,340
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Forget the Friedrich for a second. If you're looking to rent a subsidized apartment that's reserved for a single-person making 60% of the area median income, that's $30,240, according to HUD. According to HUD, the developer can charge you up to $756 for a studio or $810 for a one-bedroom.

However, it doesn't add up if you do the math.

Take $30,240 after taxes [12% according to the current income bracket] divide that by 12 and you get $2,217, or the amount you pocket per month. HUD's definition for affordable housing is 30% of a household's income [which is its own pandora's box to be opened by the Heron another day]. Thirty percent of $2,217 is $665—well below HUD's rent limits of $756 for a studio and $810 for a one-bedroom.

There is more, there is so much more. For instance, when discussing below market-rate apartments, there are restrictions on what percentage of a tenant's income a developer can charge. If you can call them restrictions.

The Flats at River North, which is under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue, is a partnership between the San Antonio Housing Trust and NRP Group, a Cleveland-based developer with a strong presence in San Antonio. Again, the trust's involvement means NRP Group will benefit from not paying property taxes.

In return, NRP Group will price half the units below market rate: 10% for people making between 50% and 60% AMI, and the rest for households at or below 80% AMI. Of those below market-rate apartments, NRP Group can charge up to 35% of the tenant's income, 5% above HUD's standard for affordable housing. These equations are negotiated between the trust, which is ultimately voted on by the trust's five-council member board, and the developer.

Which is completely worth unpacking for another day.

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Volunteers Ashanti Williams (left), 30, and Saurau Majumdar, 29, sort through boxes of food at Eco Centro at San Antonio College on June 24. Each box contain apples, oranges, onions, potatoes, carrots and a pound of pinto beans. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

By Benjamin Gonzalez and Michelle Del Rey

For Jeannette Rico, 30, a single mother and resident at Alazán-Apache Courts, the coronavirus pandemic has made accessing food harder than ever.

“I have three children, and so it was hard to walk with them [to the nearest pantry] all at once,” Rico said, “but there’s nothing being given out, so that’s not even the problem right now. There’s no food at all.”

The work she did as a babysitter has dried up. Now she and her kids aren’t able to leave the apartment at all.

On June 30, Rico discovered her oldest son, who is 14, was exposed to a relative who tested positive for Covid-19. Because he was not showing sufficient symptoms, her son could not get tested at multiple testing sites, she said. Now, she and her kids must self-quarantine at home, where she must rely on family and friends to bring her groceries.

“I don’t always know if anybody’s able to bring me anything because a lot of people are afraid to get near," Rico said. "It’s like the plague, you know?”

Some residents who live at San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) properties say food programs available to those younger than 60 are scarce. Due to the impacts of the coronavirus on people's finances and food accessibility, they are now arguing for programs that include non-seniors, especially those struggling to access food that meets their nutritional needs. The median annual income of residents in subsidized housing provided by SAHA is $10,000.

Residents such as James Hamilton, 48, who lives at Lewis Chatham apartments, say the difficulty is compounded by the SAHA administration’s lack of comprehensive food distribution programs. Another resident who’s taken up the cause is Pancho Valdez, one of SAHA’s most outspoken critics who lives at the Lofts at Marie McGuire Apartments downtown. Hamilton and Valdez are members of a group called the San Antonio Tenants Union.

When asked about the complaints, SAHA Communications Manager Marivel Resendiz said in an email, “Of more than 55,000 residents and tenants, only Mr. Hamilton and his fellow Tenants Union member, Pancho Valdez, expressed concerns about their food insecurity. There may also be a few others they recruited to attempt to disparage SAHA."

Currently, the San Antonio Food Bank serves SAHA residents through Project Hope, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, Kids Cafe, and other food programs only accessible to children, the elderly, and pets. The city has its own initiative called the Senior Nutrition Program.

In response to residents' complaints, Resendiz cited several food deliveries to Lewis Chatham apartments. All but one were from “emergency deliveries” from various local non-profits and from the San Antonio Food Bank.

On May 1, SAHA launched a new food program with the Food Bank to supply "bi-weekly food deliveries" to an additional 150 vulnerable families with essential goods, according to a press release. Residents brought on to the program are selected through self-referrals and wellness checks conducted by the housing authority.

“We expanded our partnership with the Food Bank to distribute food to our residents younger than 60-plus that didn’t not qualify for [the Senior Nutrition Program],” Resendiz said. “It’s specifically for residents who didn’t qualify for those other assistant programs.”

According to the press release, when the program launched May 1, more than 100 new families had food delivered to them at 23 SAHA communities.

But despite the bi-weekly schedule, Hamilton and Brian Gordon, food sovereignty coordinator at Southwest Workers Union, who has helped organize deliveries to SAHA properties during the pandemic, claim SAHA has only made one such delivery, at least at Lewis Chatham on the South Side, describing it as a “publicity stunt.”

Hamilton said at Lewis Chatham one delivery was made May 1, and the case managers there didn’t know if there were going to be more deliveries. He said the next food deliveries for seniors at Lewis Chatham have been scheduled—for Monday and Thursday—but none for younger residents were made in June, and none are scheduled for July.

. . .

Early on

Volunteers load a bus with food on June 26. Photo by Michelle Del Rey | Heron contributor

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic here, on March 13, the San Antonio Housing Authority distributed flyers to residents announcing the suspension of food distributions, effective Monday, March 16, until further notice.

Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper said SAHA reached out to his staff and asked them to stop delivering to their sites. The restriction was put in place as a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of residents contracting Covid-19, he said.

Still, the piece of paper failed to offer alternative ways for hungry residents to meet their immediate needs. In a panic, multiple tenants called the Food Bank’s emergency hotline, forcing the nonprofit to deliver aid packages to SAHA properties in spite of the ban.

Food Bank senior programs Project Hope and Commodity Supplemental Food Program were not reinstated until 12 days later, on March 27, according to a news report.

In January, when word of the coronavirus was making international headlines, Cooper said the Food Bank was distributing food to 60,000 people a day. The number has risen to 120,000, he said.

Across Texas, roughly 4.3 million adults and 1.6 million children are at risk of going hungry, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study published in 2019.

SAHA has adopted other measures to assist residents, including forgiving 25% of due rent in June, and contributing $350,000 to the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program, to be used only for SAHA residents. In early- to mid-May, when it launched its food program for non-seniors, SAHA at the time reported losing $1 million a month in lost revenue because of the pandemic.

During the Housing Commission meeting last month, SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia said the agency needs more support, not pushback, on upcoming developments that deliver higher amounts of rents close to or at market rate. Those revenues, he's argued, can be used to finance much lower rents at future residential projects, and to support food programs, and other social services, during times of crisis.

"I would ask people to not be so myopic in their perspective that they would understand the global dynamic of which we are operating in," Nisivoccia told the commission, "that certain business aspects will support other business aspects and ultimately provide better services to our clients ... There are only limited resources."

. . .

'What are these folks going to do?'

Janece Johnson, who lives at Alazan-Apache Courts, receives a box of food on June 26. Photo by Michelle Del Rey | Heron contributor

The partnership between SAHA and the San Antonio Food Bank brings commodities such as canned vegetables, eggs, and other food staples to residents. Roughly 3,000 out of 55,000 tenants at SAHA properties currently receive food assistance, with most programs serving the elderly and disabled.

After the coronavirus outbreak, “there were people who didn’t meet the [age] criteria who had to go without food,” Hamilton said.. “And some were people who had underlying health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. They were forced to eat things that weren’t too healthy for them because they didn’t have anything else.”

Though Valdez qualifies for the Senior Nutrition Program, he believes the current pandemic necessitates more support for tenants younger than 60.

“The people that have always been denied food from the Food Bank are people under 60, which we feel is unjust,” said Valdez. “We’ve got a pandemic, many people don’t have cars, they’re encouraging us to stay home … so what are these folks going to do?”

Cooper said families that have been significantly impacted by Covid-19 can call the nonprofit’s hotline, 210-431-8326, to have an emergency food box delivered to them.

Hamilton said he and other residents began exchanging emails with SAHA officials in an effort to receive food that met his dietary restrictions as a diabetic. “SAHA initially had the stance that the people who don’t qualify for the program aren’t getting anything,” Hamilton said. “And they’re saying this during Covid-19.”

. . .

The smaller nonprofits

Pancho Valdez, 68, places boxes of DiMare Fresh onto the cart to distribute to tenants under 60 at the Lofts at Marie McGuire Apartments at 211 N. Alamo St. The boxes were delivered by the Coalition for Food Justice. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

Gordon with the Southwest Workers Union has been helping to organize several deliveries to SAHA properties during the pandemic, including some of the emergency deliveries referenced by Resendiz.

In conjunction with other non-profit organizations, Southwest Workers Union and the People’s Nite Market donate around 80 food boxes weekly to SAHA residents, and hundreds more to other sites in San Antonio, according to Gordon. The deliveries began in mid-March after SAHA initially paused the Food Bank distribution. The boxes are donated via a $24 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to DiMare Fresh, a Houston supplier, which then sends two trucks full of food boxes to People’s Nite Market each week. Though the grant was recently renewed to last through the end of August, Gordon stressed that they are only providing a temporary solution.

“We’re only a Band-Aid right now,” Gordon said. “Our fear is that we cannot sustain a program like this. We’re really hoping for more leadership from SAHA or the Food Bank on a program.”

In response to long-term food insecurity issues at SAHA, Southwest Workers Union, along with the Food Policy Council, People’s Nite Market, and many SAHA residents, formed the Coalition for Food Justice focused on advocating for more comprehensive food programs that are open to all ages.

"Maybe that would be income-based rather than age-based," Gordon said.

. . .

'They're cheating the residents'

Residents at the Lewis Chatham Apartments received 25 boxes from DiMare Fresh food supplies, distributed by the Coalition for Food Justice, on June 24. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

Though many residents are looking to SAHA for answers, Victoria Evans, a resident of Cassiano Homes, doesn’t think it’s the agency’s responsibility to find a solution to food insecurity facing her community.

"It’s not SAHA's fault, it has to be the Food Bank’s," she said. Evans, 28, who’s also receiving assistance from the Food Bank, argued that the products being distributed by the nonprofit are inadequate for those whose survival depends on them.

Evans, a single mother of a five-year-old son, applied for food assistance after she quit her job because she had to watch her son now that schools were closed.

As a volunteer, she used to assemble packages of meat, fruits, and vegetables at the Food Bank from 2015 to 2016. “If someone is depending on that they’re expecting a package of meat or two. Not just necessarily the leftover stuff from the grocery store that nobody wants,” she said. “They’re cheating the residents.”

Not too far away from Evans, Lawrence Peleón, 40, says he’s been happy with the provisions he’s been given. Peleón suffers from epilepsy and relies on the packages distributed through the Food Bank’s partnership with SAHA.

On June 26, he received his first delivery, but said that SAHA didn’t tell him when he’d be getting another one. It’s a dilemma he described as “a waiting game.”

“When you’re dealing with a housing authority in the 'hood or the barrio, these kinds of agencies don’t give people a lot of information. They do things on their own time,” he said.

During the interview, Peleón repeatedly asked for information about when he’d be receiving his next delivery, if the Heron would be able to arrange for him to receive another package.

“A lot of people around here run out of food, and I just feel like the housing authority needs to keep on giving people these boxes, because it’ll help out a lot,” he said.

Related
» For some renters, housing assistance from city taking more than a month to receive
» San Antonio Housing Authority chips in $350K for rental assistance

Benjamin Gonzalez is a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at bencruzgonzalez@saheron.com, @BennyCruzG on Twitter.

Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She graduated from the University of Westminster in London, England with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism, and can be reached at chelledelrey@gmail.com, @chelledelrey on Twitter.

Heron Editor Ben Olivo contributed to this report.

The former Continental Hotel, 322 W. Commerce St., will be sold to a developer for the production of mixed-use, mixed-income housing
Weston Urban will purchase the former Continental Hotel, 322 W. Commerce St., from the city. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

By Ben Olivo & Benjamin Gonzalez | San Antonio Heron

The City Council voted last Thursday to sell the former Continental Hotel property at 322 W. Commerce St. to Weston Urban, the San Antonio-based developer whose portfolio includes the Frost Tower and more than a dozen properties in west downtown. Construction on an apartment mid-rise on the property could potentially be for "future students, faculty, and staff" at University of Texas at San Antonio's expansion on Dolorosa across the street south.

[ Scroll to the bottom for a map showing Weston Urban's properties. ]

The purchase price for the four-story Continental Hotel and the adjacent parking lot, located a half-block west of City Hall, is $4.7 million.

Two years ago, Weston Urban purchased the abutting two-story Arana building and the O. Henry House Museum, which face the 600 block of Dolorosa; all structures including the Continental are bound by West Commerce, San Pedro Creek, Dolorosa and South Laredo. There are no plans yet for the O. Henry House, where American writer William Sydney Porter lived in 1885, said Weston Urban President Randy Smith.

Weston Urban intends to preserve and refurbish the Continental Hotel and Arana buildings, rather than eviscerate them leaving only the facade—a common practice in San Antonio. On the lot between the buildings, a new structure containing 274 apartments rising 8-12 stories will be built. At least half of the apartments will be reserved for people making 80% of area median income, which is $72,000 for a family of four according to preliminary 2020 federal estimates.

"I think it would scale real well with the (Bexar County) buildings, with the Vistana," Smith said last week. "I do not view that as a high-rise site."

Weston Urban plans to build mixed-use apartments with retail at the former site of the Continental Hotel, 322 W. Commerce St.
HERON | GOOGLE

Last year, the city started the process of finding a buyer for the Continental Hotel building, which has been owned by the city for many years. The late-19th century building last housed the Metropolitan Health District offices until 2016. The campus expansion is expected to add more than 3,000 faculty, staff, and students to the area by 2028.

The development also includes a parking garage with 432 spaces—68 of which will be available to the public during the day.

Construction is expected to begin November 2021, and be finished two years later.

Aside from UTSA's growth just south, there are plans north of the site to renovate old commercial buildings into a collective retail and restaurant hotspot—the San Pedro Creek project flowing alongside all of it—lead by James Lifshutz' redevelopment of the Kline's building.

Proceeds from the Continental Hotel sale will be deposited into the City Tower fund, which supports the city's renovation of the old Frost Tower at 100 W. Houston St., Kelly Saunders, spokesperson for the Center City Development and Operations (CCDO), said via email.

For the Continental Hotel and Arana project, the city is recommending Weston Urban receive $161,000 in city fee waivers, $1 million SAWS impact fee waiver, and $500,000 in an infrastructure grant from the Houston Street and Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones. Under the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, the project is also eligible for a city property tax rebate for 15 years, the estimated value of which was not provided by the city.

However, Smith said Weston Urban may partner with a public facility corporation, government-created nonprofits, which would exempt the project from paying any property taxes.

The city also anticipates to receive $18,500 a year in sales taxes from the retail portion of the project.

Continental Hotel/Arana Building project

» Developer: Weston Urban (San Antonio)
» Address: 322 W. Commerce St.
» Property owner: Weston Urban buying from City of San Antonio
» Type: Apartments w/retail
» Height: 8-12 stories
» Units: 274 units units
» Rental type: Half market-rate, half priced at 80% area median income or lower.
» Land size: 1.86 acres total
» Cost: Unknown
» Financing: Unknown
» Public subsidies: City recommended $161,000 in city fee waivers; $1 million SAWS impact fee waiver; and $500,000 in an infrastructure grant from the Houston Street and Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones. Also, 15-year city property tax rebate via the Center City Housing Incentive Policy. Potential for full tax exemption via a public facility corporation partnership.
» Return on investment: Unknown
» Construction start date: November 2021
» End date: November 2023
» Architects: Unknown

Timeline

June 4, 2020

The City Council unanimously votes to approve the sale of the Continental Hotel to Weston Urban.

2019

The City of San Antonio issues a request for proposals for a developer to build apartments at the Continental Hotel site. Weston Urban is the only respondent, and was awarded the sale.
» Read more: "Former Continental Hotel to become mixed-income apartments"

2016

The City of San Antonio moves Metropolitan Health District from the old Continental Hotel building.

Area median income

Here are the latest area median income (AMI) levels for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to know more about how AMI works? Click here.
[table id=4 /]

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

Correction: A previous version of this article implied the apartments for the upcoming project would be built for UTSA faculty and staff. Anyone can eventually live there. Also, the article erroneously stated a condition of the sale.

Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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