Dirt that will eventually become The Legacy at Alazan mixed-income apartments abuts the Alazan Courts near El Paso and South Colorado streets. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

From an outsider’s perspective, the apparent sudden shift in the San Antonio Housing Authority’s approach to redeveloping the Alazan Courts came as a shock.

For more than three years, SAHA’s plan, which had been blasted by housing advocates, called for the demolition of the 80-year-old public housing community sprawled across 26 acres just west of downtown, and having it replaced with mixed-income apartments. Many of the 1,200 residents, whose average income is $8,700, would have been given the Section 8 voucher and with it the chance to live in a better neighborhood, even though roughly 58% of voucher holders, by SAHA’s own estimate, are not able to find new housing.

Then came a change at the top. SAHA CEO and President David Nisivoccia left Jan. 6 to become the top executive at Denver’s housing agency. Replacing him the next day in the interim was Ed Hinojosa Jr., who previously served as SAHA’s chief financial officer.

Two weeks later, a much different plan emerged: Not only would SAHA maintain the Alazan Court’s 501 public housing units, it would do so by keeping residents on site.

Big picture, whereas the previous SAHA administration—and administrations before it—sought to demolish the city’s remaining public housing stock, and replace it with mixed-income developments that offered some market-rate housing, an urban renewal strategy introduced by President Clinton, Hinojosa now intends to reverse the nationwide trend and preserve, then expand public housing in San Antonio.

Hinojosa insists the new direction is one the agency has been crafting for months, one that was cemented when Joe Biden won the election in November, thus shifting the federal government’s role in public housing in the U.S. in a more progressive direction. Couple the philosophical change in Washington, D.C., with economic hardships brought on by the pandemic, and it was time for SAHA to change course at Alazan, Hinojosa said.
FUNDING THAT MAY BECOME AVAILABLE

"What’s different today than a year ago is just that: the impact of unemployment on the housing market, the impact of people losing their wages and not being able to pay rent, and the eviction moratoriums … which I think would never have been imagined a year ago," Hinojosa said. "All of those factors sort of coming together, and us really being concerned about the impact on our residents, many of whom are behind on their rent."

Hinojosa said nearly 300 households at Alazan Courts are behind on their rent. The only thing keeping them in place is the national eviction moratorium for federal properties. "And rightfully so," he said in a recent interview.

Had the previous plan been kept, and those residents in arrears eventually took their chances with a Section 8 voucher, out in the free market, beyond the protections afforded to them as residents of public housing, it may have been impossible to find a landlord willing to take them in as tenants.

Kayla Miranda, who lives at the nearby Apache Courts, which SAHA considers part of the same property as Alazan, said families who live in public housing who make $50 to $100 a week couldn’t afford a Section 8 voucher, anyway, and that the previous SAHA administration was setting them up for failure.

"If they get a house … they're not going to be able to afford to pay water, trash, sewer, and their rent," said Miranda, who began fighting SAHA’s eviction policy in 2019 when she was threatened with an avalanche of fees from policies Nisovoccia later admitted, when pressed by the city’s Housing Commission, were excessive. "They don’t have the protections that public housing residents have. It was falling on deaf ears before. At least now … they listened to our comments."

Before the philosophical change, Nisivoccia said the housing authority would be working with residents in arrears, and who might have other blemishes on their leasing record, to better their chances of finding a place. CREDIT SCORES. /// But even Olga Kauffman, a healthcare consultant who sits on SAHA’s board of commissioners, and who aided Wheatley Courts residents in their transition before that East Side public housing community was demolished and replaced with the mixed-income East Meadows a few years ago, cast serious doubt on the strategy.

. . .

This story’s nutgraph

Why should anyone outside of the West Side care about what happens at the Alazan Courts? Because Alazan and Apache, and San Antonio’s other remaining public housing communities—Cassiano and Lincoln, also on the West Side—compose the last remaining public housing stock, which houses San Antonio’s most vulnerable families. Alazan, in particular, because it’s the oldest of the remaining communities, is ground zero for the debate on whether San Antonio should de-concentrate PUBLIC HOUSING

NATIONWIDE TREND

"In public housing, 250,000 units have been rebuilt as mixed-income," Hinojosa said. "So we’ve lost 250,000 public housing units in the last 20 years as a nation."

In San Antonio, an estimated 6,000 public housing units—Alazan, Apache, Cassiano and Lincoln—remaining today, while 40,000 people sit on SAHA’s public housing waiting list, Hinojosa said.

In a level of candor not shown by the previous administration, Hinojosa described the housing that SAHA was helping to build, through partnerships with for-profit developers, as not public housing, but close to it. Although SAHA provides families with vouchers tied to specific properties, to help bring rent closer to their income levels, Hinojosa described apartments for people making 30% of the area median income as "not public housing, REST OF THE QUOTE."

The Section 8 voucher waiting list is almost as bad.
/// Hinojosa says SAHA issues roughly 50 vouchers a month, and that 58% or so are able to find new housing. For Hinojosa, the numbers of the original plan weren’t quite adding up. In the first phase, SAHA would have relocated 250 residents. MORE MORE MORE????
/// The waiting list for a housing voucher, which has been closed for several years, stands at around 8,000. SAHA officials said they’’l. open up the waiting list soon.

. . .

Subhead

REWORD —— As far as the new direction goes,
REWORD —— The optics appeared as simple as one CEO out, another steps in. For the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), one CEO left, another took over, and there was a sudden shift in direction. Perhaps one that housing advocates would consider more humane.
Cha Guzman and her letter

Aside from public housing, Hinojosa is now addressing many of the issues advocacy groups, such as a group of vocal SAHA residents and the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, have chided the housing authority on in recent years.

??? ??? — It also signaled a less adversarial response to its critics, who used the slogan "people over profit" as an objection against the agency’s strong push to partner with for-profit developers on housing that was predominately market-rate or close to it.

For example, Hinojosa said any future partnership with for-profit developers must include some percentage of public housing, or close to it. He also addressed the CUSTOMER SERVICE< MAINTENANCE ISSUES And yet, one can’t ignore the change in tone . . . David Nisivoccia Seemingly all of the issues housing advocates and SAHA residents complained to Nisivoccia about But interim SAHA CEO Ed Hinojoa Jr. begs to differ on that assessment. /// Q: The pandemic has been going on for almost a year, and I hear you on all the points you made, but a lot of folks are going to point out the fact that David Nisivoccia left. You come in and now there’s a new direction for this property that had been very contentious before. Can you speak to that? A: No, I think one other factor that happened is the Georgia elections. When we learned of the result of the Georgia elections, and the Democrats taking control of the Senate, I think in all housing authorities’ minds across the nation, that single event helped changed the funding environment and the outlook for funding in our industry. So today the discussions in Washington, D.C., are about expansion of public housing. There’s something being called the Green New Deal for Public Housing … on a large scale of reinvestment in public housing. That’s being driven by (Sen.) Bernie Sanders and promoted by Congresswoman (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez. And what I would say is because of the change of control of Senate, Bernie Sanders will be the budget committee's chair for the Senate. I really think that completely changes the outlook from a few weeks ago. COME BACK new developments to have public housing also address maintenance and customer service housing as a human right

. . .

To demolish or not

PROTEST TO NISIVOCCIA’S CONDO

Although the tone has changed from adversarial to cordial, housing activists and West Side preservationists aren’t completely on board with the new plan.

SAHA intends to demolish and rebuild the Alazan Courts over phases that would span many years. Hinojosa said the barracks-style units are in too bad shape to rehab, which is what preservationists prefer????.

"I toured the units ... the bathrooms are small and substandard by today’s standards, and very industrial looking," he said. "The rooms are small. The closet and storage space is small. The unit I went into had a space underneath the stairwell; in fact the stairwell is very steep and narrow. There was a space underneath the stairwell made to accommodate the washing machine, and also halfway in that space and halfway in the living room there was a manhole cover. And the manhole cover was used to access underneath the homes, the plumbing and electrical. Those just aren’t today’s standards, and we really think that our residents deserve better than that. So our intention would be to demolish and rebuild based on today’s standard with proper amenities."

SAHA is currently building a mixed-income community adjacent to Alazan Courts called The Legacy at Alazan, which will be able to house some of the residents who will have to move before demolition begins. SAHA is also considering building housing on the baseball field on the Apache side of Guadalupe Street, which bisects the two communities.
/// 40 units of public housing
/// Apache 200 units

"We would use that for staging people so they can move out as we rebuild certain sections," he said.

"What we’re going to do first is engage our residents in the process and see what works for them," he said.

Leticia Sanchez, a West Side activists and co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association, said she was relieved when she learned SAHA intends to keep Alazan’s residents on the site. "We just didn’t want to lose our residents, and we also didn’t want our schools and churches to be affected by the loss of our community members," she said.

But she also cast concern about SAHA’s plan to demolish the circa-1940 buildings, which preservationists say are part of the West Side’s cultural identity.

"It just seems always we have people with money come in and tear down buildings and structures that, even though they may not appear to be in great condition and meaningful to anyone else, they do mean a lot to our community," said Sanchez, who’s also a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance. "It’s a blow to us to hear that SAHA still plans to raze them."

»»»»» L SANCHEZ POINT ABOUT SAN JUAN

and then also as a person who lieves in a green comm,. and not just me, our association hates waste, we want money to be well spent, and we know that it’s more expensive to tear down, remove and build a new structure, we want saha to consider rehabilitating the buildings because structures like that arne’t made any more as we see with the Garden at San Juan, they have only been around for 6 years and already they show major signs of ware. and that’s just because construciton isn’t made the way it used to nbe. the materials that were used are not long lasting, and so we don’t want there to be more destruction in that it would cost more money. oh now we have to talk about moving people again, because the structure is falling apart.

»»»»» SAHA REBUTTAL // use GONZALES

"I’m grateful that we’re not going to lose our residents, but at the same time it’s not the big win we were hoping for," Sanchez said.

It’s unclear whether housing advocacy in this city has reached the height that it has in modern times. Certainly, when the Wheatley Courts were being demolished, that plan didn’t
San Juan
Victoria Courts

. . .

Subhead

Hinojosa declined to give a timetable for when Alazan would be completed. By all accounts, it will be a process that will space many years.

"Our main concern is the residents and not displacing residents outside of Alazan, so that they stay in the community," Hinojosa said. "At this point I don’t know if the reconstruction will occur in groups of 15 units, 60 units, 70 units. A lot of that is going to drive the timeline—how big of a piece we can manage—and we want to work through that with our residents."

TIMELINE DEPENDS ON FUNDING

/// FUNDING

GONZALES

they have not presented an alternative, but that alternative does depend very heavilty on the new admin to support public housing
and it will eventually depend very heaivluy on the city to subsidize it as well

POSSIBLY COSA

PP —— Green New Deal

While preservationists like Sanchez are only somewhat satisfied with the new direction, others like District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales are completely against it. Gonzales, who will term out this May after four consecutive terms as the near West Side’s council representative, pointed to SAHA’s push for the redevelopment of Alazan; originally the agency was trying to land a Choice Neighborhood grant, an program under President Obama that sought to de-concentrate public housing and replace it with mixed-income communities, but in a more humane way by providing social workers for those being displaced, and services inside the new communities for lower-income families.

"You know that this project was a very long time in the making, and I believe one of the reasons why it was ever even considered was since I got on the council, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on SAHA to improve the living conditions of the people who are living at Alazan Courts."

"The new products SAHA is building bare beautiful and modern and having that level of quality in a product is very uplifting for people."

THINKING BEHIND HOPE VI & CHOICE

GONZALES /// those things about people being very much in arreas is not new
that’s not new information, we know that people that are in very poor situations are often in aarreas with all of their bills
i think that was always presented, the extent of the poverty
people in those situations are
but keeping them poor and keeping them in substandard housing, that doesn’t revolve anything, that just continues to perpetuate the issue

that particular model, of concentrating poor people

we do have to have some way of getting mixed incomes

that was part of the model

HINOJOSA —— FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS

Q: If I could also say, what’s happening nationally is a change in conversation about public housing. If you talk with Dr. Christine Drennon from Trinity University (director of the urban studies program) she will say that this philosophy of de-concentrating poverty was a process that started in the '90s and for over 20 years, we as a country believed that it was best to put poor people with others of different income levels.

There’s new evidence—Christine is more an expert at this than I am—that suggests that that theory that started in the late '90s was inaccurate and was a faulty assumption. And today, the growing belief is that the most important thing is housing stability. For an individual that’s poor and perhaps their family’s in crisis, the best thing for them is housing stability, not the location of the housing.

And that’s what will help them achieve some sort of stability in their lives and be able to improve their lives, based on that conversation that’s changing nationally, and locally. And I think that’s kind of the backdrop of one of the other factors that’s playing into the decision here.

/// QUOTE DRENNON’S PIECE

/// QUOTE THOSE WHO BACK MIXED-INCOME

/// GONZALEZ

and this model of concentrated poverty just doesn’t exist anymore

the fed gvt in decades hasn’t funded a project that concentrates poverty in one area

of course ive had a relationship with saha all these years, sometimes contentious but always open

i have never met ed hinojosa

then the new chairperson, . . . who should be ont he board, i just felt like without consulting anyone, in ternally, they made this executive decsion which they have the full auhtoryt to do, tbu it’s just not the way i expected coperation to happen

/// MORE GONZALES

i feel like it was a haste decision by the board and by the chair, and by the director, after many many years of trying to get specifically the alazan courts to a standard of living that people can be proud of

it has caused me a trenemdous amoutn of heartache
tormentend by this decvision
i felt like we were on the right path

OPTION TO COME BACK

GONZALES /// displacing anybody for any reason is going to be very traumtic, and we’re goig to have to support them during that transition.

i think that’s really important, one of the things that has to be mentioned . . . how many people wanted to come back . . .many people with eh voucher, were ok with their new place. i thnk it depends, people i know were given the option to come back

we can learn from what happend at wheatley, it’s been quite a few years now. one of those examples, was building the other propertioes close by so that they could stay in the N, and particularly ikn the schools. esp we know that alazan has a lot of families, and those families could stay in the same school if they wanted to

???? gentrification

GONZALES

/// 70% of all building in th district, that’s housing, office, residential, MF, was built before 1970. if you want to move into my district, you really have very few options. i think that’s a very important as we’re tryig to dev other buildings. other development. we do want people that have a cvhoice to come live here too. i really believed in the model that we were working on. it’s not perfect, but at least we were heading in a direcito to support individuals for a better quality of life

GONZALES

ACTIVISTS FORCED THE DECISION

they made a decision based on what i blieve was pressure from activists, the majority of whom don’t live there.

GONZALES
HER PROGRAMS — addressing gentrification
NOW WE’RE STARTING OVER

. . .

Other directives

Hinojosa said SAHA is now committed to maintaining the public housing at SAHA’s other communities, such as Cassiano and Lincoln.

"Yes, we’re committed to our residents and think it’s going to be an important factor at both of those locations," he said.

In recent years, SAHA has taken some heat for partnering with for-profit developers

developers tax breaks

///

Q: What about other partnerships that the housing authority has pursued. There’s the one with the Lynd Company near the Pearl. The St. John’s Square in which David knew the developer because they both lived at the Steel House Lofts. What’s the future of these types of public-private partnerships?

A: Let me separate the transactions where we have residents like Alazan, Lincoln and Cassiano, as you also mentioned. Those properties as you know have to all be improved and reinvested in. The approach we’re taking with Alazan is very important to us. It’s very important for us to protect our residents and prevent their displacement outside of the area. And I hadn’t mentioned this before, there’s also an initiative by the mayor’s office, an anti-displacement policy that has been drafted, and it’s being circulated for comment. It’s also coming into play with our thinking.

That’s one kind of deal where we have residents and we don’t want to displace anybody.

The other transactions you mentioned are new construction that’s going in on vacant land. We very much value the partnerships we have with Lynd Co., NRP, at St. John’s Square. And those will all bring additional affordable housing to San Antonio. Those transactions are different in that they are not displacing people.

Q: Some of those are PFC deals where developers are getting a full property tax exemption. Is SAHA going to continue those types of agreements where half is market-rate and the other half is 80% AMI, maybe a little bit of 60%?

A: I think what you’ll see is SAHA going to push to get more public housing created in any new transactions that we pursue. Our public housing inventory is about 6,000 units, including Alazan. We believe there’s a tremendous need in San Antonio. There’s a law called the Faircloth Amendment that only allows us to rebuild public housing, which we’ve removed. Under that law, we can build another 1,800 units of public housing. So we will pursuing all avenues to increase the amount of public housing in San Antonio. That’s what we’re going to be asking in new transactions, in new deals that come forward.

There’s also a discussion nationally of repealing the Faircloth Amendment, and providing better funding to enable it to come to fruition. We’re going to be watching that very closely as well.

Q: SAHA moving away from partnering???

A: In any new deals, we would try to put public housing into them. Refugion,
just south of hemisfair
it has i believe 40 units of public housing.
About a 200 unit complex
Rest is affordable
You’ll see we’ll try to insert

Q: Refugio done at expense of Victoria Courts, Done along time ago.
Before you were saying, the public housing that exists now
On new construction, on land that is current vacant or unused
You want to incorporate public housing

A: That will be how we change the new deals coming out.

Q: Do you think developers will go for that?

A: You’re right, but up to now we’ve been pushing for 30% units which are not exactly like public housing but serve many of the same clientele as public housing. Many of our current developers already have and allow section 8 vouchers into their developments. Those individuals with vouchers can be 30%, 40%, 50% income level individuals. I dont’ think they would be opposed to the concept.

Q: Lynd partnership.
If that development will accept the Seciton 8 voucher

A: It’s my understanding that all of our dev accept section 8 vouchers. I’d have to look into that, but that’s generally what we require

Q: 8:45

A lot of complaints leveled toward saha, having to do with living conditions.

A: Two things

I had a meeting with a group of tenants on Friday, the intention was to listen to their concerns. There are concerns raised about maintenance. It’s a whole separate discussion. At the time, ??? started going toward mixed-income communities, that philosophy 20 years ago, there was also push to defund public housing that started at the same time. It was an effort to push housing authorities into another model. So, over the last 20-25 years, we have been severely underfunding both on operations and on capital investment, and I think that factor is changing under the current discussions in Washington. The discussions that are happening are that public housing should be fully funded, voucher funding should be increased significantly. And the capital backlog that is $70B across the country should be completely funded. That’s another factor we hadn’t talked about. I’m optimistic that the funding situation is going to change quickly and that will enable us to address many of the maintenance issues. A lot of them are money based. Some are pandemic based. Because of the pandemic we are only responding to emergency work orders ….. 12:00

The other issue of customer service we need to continue to address.

Within saha, and at a national level, we keep hearing that housing is a human right, and as an org we believe that, and so internally we are starting a discussion about that and what it means for us and our opertiaons

You asked about eh beaucraticness

Some of our procedures were put in place 20 years ago, we need to revisit all of that

When we do it in the context of housing as a human right we think it’s giving us the proper context.

///

GET SOME CHA

"I’m much more supportive of Ed’s," Guzman said.

“On a good year, we receive $13 million a year (from HUD) for our full portfolio,” he said. “Once you strip away some soft costs and a loan the agency took out on that program years ago, we have about $7-$8 million to spread across 6,000 public housing units. If you take the average cost of wanting to renovate or fix up versus redevelop, about $100,000 per unit, at 500 units: that’s $50 million. That would be about 10 full years of our capital fund program and ignoring the rest of our portfolio. I want all the residents to know and understand: We’re not ignoring Alazan. It’s just a financial challenge. … The deterioration of Alazan has been happening over 20-30 years.”

. . .

SAHA leadership

brought on the question: who runs SAHA

Hinojosa response

What Nisivoccia said …

CHA THIS THIS

///

i developed this with him. This is a dev that the board and staff kind of seeing how we really had not given the comm a view of what the new alazan would look like, that we thought we needed to rethjink it, and give them a better view on . . .we also came to the determination that it really needed to be 500 units instead of less. and that, there’s enough low income comm that we needed to keep them low income, i thnk that the staff was listening to the comm, theboard was listening to the comm, and we jept kind of really taking to heart and trying to understand and see if there was any way that we could change it, and the only way to change it was to not go through with nrp as th eplans had been estabnlished. and modified in a way that would cost more money but would respohnd to the comm better.

if i can remember, i would tell you, but i think ed is much more ammeanable to rethinking and ed began meeting with the comm right after david left and kind of began to understandf how important this was. i htink ed being open to what the comm was saying and me being worried at not having listened, and then our meeting, we just said, ok

///

THEN THIS

we need new building that will focus on safety, on the children being safe.

and so, theyre still not going to be happy with us

i’m so very happy. i dont think they understdoo

we’re going to bjuild one building a sample building so that alazan apache comm see what they’re getting before we start razing any of the buildings, so that they see, we thjought that would really make a difference. uinderstanding our comm has been promised a lot, and many peopoe have come short from their promises, we understand why we aren’t being believed that this is going to be a beautiful safe comm for the alazan residents. if we build a sample building, then they will see what’s coming for them

and i think that will raise their trust and move some of the comm into the new building as they move out from the old units

we thought that would be a better approach.

MORE CHA

i just think studying the situation gave us a greater understanding of how we needed to go about it. i think really, kind of pinpointing, what are the things that we need to change. there are multiple crosspoints, and so ed is the money guy. he was the cfo for 12 years, and ed said, we can afford this dr guzman, it was jiust kind of sitting with the staff and gaining a broader understanding of what we could do. and i think just kind of being able to study things, helped us come to a better understanding ofg what we shoudl be doing

i really do think that ed has made a huge difference

there was a call in, they called in,

Sofia Lopez

called in, and said how happy she was that she had changed, and some of the other people called in, i just, as chair of saha, i try to listen, but let the staff dicsuss, because that’s their responsibillity more than mine. i htink mine is more listening

CHA COMPROMISE

that’s why we’re not coming off, we are not chanigng our mind in the most important thing, and the most important thing is that the children and famlies of alazan get a place that they feel proud of living in and that can be safe for them, and that can be comfortable for them, which is not now

and we researched anmd beyond the doubt there is no way to make those safe and comfortable for the children and the parents

so what we tried to do is listen to the groups, and then listen to the alazan residents hwo in my estimation are the most important because they know what it is like to live there. and some up witht the things that make sense, just devoted to low income and now have the rent levels. have more units rather than less units. the things that the groups were suggesting made sense. we adipted, mainly more units, and low income, those two things made tremendous sense to us in thinking it through

CHA’s LETTER

JUNE COMMENTS — The purpose of SAHA is to house the poor.

seemingly the shift

im not sure, i thnk that in
i had just joined the board
as i have seen saha, and i have studied rthe needs of san antonio, i too have grown, and that’s what i always try to do, i walsys try to learn as i’m working, because i think it’s important, and i do still believe that our main mission is to house the poor. and i believe that the biden admin and i am a yellow dog democratic to the end, you must understand, i thin kthat the trump admin may have given options to david’s way of doig it, but it hinkt hte research also has shown that in fact the low income, there’s so much homelessnes than thtere used to be and there’s such great need that we really need to concentrate on the needs.

the more we know,we may be changing some of the ways things were being done because were utilizing informtation and the believe of a new admin as guidepoints, and that’s what i . . . i mean an institution that doesn’t grow and learn is an institition that will die

we want to be the kind of institution that will grow and learn, and that causes changes.

we’re working hard and i think that
i have great hope for this new admin, to kind of understand the needs of the homeless and poor, and to help grow more housing in the u.s. not jkust in san antonio.

Q: scathing letter

A: i talked with graciela a couple of weeks ago, g sanchez from esperanza. And she brought up the letter to me. I was not aware of it before except what i had read in the news. It was in the news, and so I was just tangentially aware of it

We were meeting about other issues, and i mentioned to you that i’m listen to our comm
Listen to her concerns about alazan
I basically told her, it wouldn’t have gotten to that point with me, we would have been able to just pick up the phone and talk to each other.

HINOJOSA TRANSITION

Q: I have to push back in that there are people who believe the complete opposite of what you’re saying. I would put David Nisivoccia in that category. Again, this new direction is a complete 180 from what he was proposing. I guess I would just ask you again, is this as simple as (Nisivoccia), when he was CEO, thought of Hope VI and Obama’s Choice neighborhoods as the way to go, and now you’re coming in and you agree with the opposite approach?

A: I think maybe you’re reading a little more into it. I’ll tell you this work on Alazan started a year and a half ago, and that was before Covid. That was before the economic crisis. That was before these discussions about public housing and increasing the inventory of public housing were happening. It was also before some of these discussions about whether de-concentration is better than not having concentration. All of those factors are happening. And if you ask me, I’m working with a futurist on another project. What I’ve learned from him is that these times of crisis, whether it’s the pandemic or the economic crisis or the unemployment crisis, because people are unable to pay their rent, all of these things come together and they accelerate change at a rate that is faster than what would normally happen.

I think I can answer your questions this way: It was going to happen anyway. But the fact that all of these factors sort of put pressure on change maybe caused it to happen quicker.

Q: And you’re saying these conversations were happening before David left SAHA?

A: Yeah, and you know the board—I don’t know if people realize, but the committee was still deliberating on (Alazan Courts). There were no decisions made by the committee prior to David leaving. They ran 60 or 70 different forecasts about how to structure the deal. And so we live in interesting times. I keep reminding myself a year ago: Who would have thought about a rent moratorium?

Yes, but had Nisivoccia not left for Denver, would this new direction still be happening?

"Yeah, I think we’d still be having those same conversations," Hinojosa said. "I don’t doubt it."

/// /// /// NOTES ///
/// /// /// NOTES ///
/// /// /// NOTES ///
/// /// /// NOTES ///
/// /// /// NOTES ///
/// /// /// NOTES /// /// /// /// NOTES ///

Timeline for the Gardens at San Juan
when were they demolished, when were they rebuilt?

Victoria Commons

are there others???

spreadsheet with the developments

Alazan
501 units
1,238 residents

Apache
184 units
599 residents

6,092 total number of public housing units
13,137 total number of public housing tenants (as of yesterday, Nov. 17)

Wheatley Park Senior Living - occupied @ 93.75%
44 units @ 60%AMI
28 units @ 50%AMI
8 units @ 30%AMI
80 Total Units

East Meadows II still remains under construction.

Park At Sutton Oaks - occupied @ 88.46%
46 units @ Market
88 units @ 60% AMI
25 units @ 50% AMI
49 units @ 30% AMI
208 Total Units

Gardens at San Juan Square - occupied @ 92.06%
189 units @ 60% AMI
63 units @ 30% AMI
252 Total Units

a move that was announced in early November.

FIND SAHA’S ANSWER TO ANNUAL HUD FUNDING

NISIVOCCIA QUOTE ABOUT THE LACK OF RESOURCES

RESERVES

QUOTE NISIVOCCIA

I started writing about the plan in 2017, when SAHA was attempting to redevelop San Antonio's oldest public housing stock under the U.S. Choice Neighborhood grant program. Conceived under President Obama, the program was intended as a more humane way of razing concentrations of public housing, and replacing them with mixed-income developments. But the way SAHA handled the conversion of Wheatley Courts into the mixed-income East Meadows on the East Side a few years prior—which, to date, has been San Antonio's only Choice redevelopment—rankled many housing observers. Many characterized Wheatley Courts residents as being displaced by the redevelopment and scattered across the city, sometimes finding themselves in worse situations than they had been in at Wheatley. SAHA later admitted uprooting those households at once was a mistake. Only about a fifth of the 248 households returned to live in the new digs at East Meadows.

Other public housing communities, such as Victoria Courts and the San Juan Homes, were also razed and redeveloped into newer mixed-income communities in the last 20 years.

The Alazan Courts strategy would be different, SAHA said. The agency proposed to demolish the 31 units and rebuild in phases, which would allow residents presumably the chance to occupy some of the newer-built SAHA housing nearby on the West Side while a new community was gradually going up on the Alazan site. Or, residents could take their chances with a voucher. Housing advocates said the move still amounted to displacement, because of the impact it would have on fragile low-income families. The strategy to de-concentrate public housing was embraced by former SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia, who often clashed with housing activists over how best to redevelop Alazan. The activists said Alazan should be rehabbed, not demolished. In early January, Nisivoccia left SAHA to become the chief executive at the Denver Housing Authority. New at the helm is interim SAHA President and CEO Ed Hinojosa Jr., who has completely changed the strategy for Alazan.

Now the plan is for SAHA to self-develop Alazan, while keeping residents in on the site. This means SAHA has disengaged with developer NRP Group on the project.

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

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

Housing advocates take their anti-SAHA protest to Flores Street on the way to the condo of CEO David Nisivoccia on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Protestors march down South Flores Street on Saturday toward the Steel House Lofts, where SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia lives. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The protest on Saturday started at the San Antonio Housing Authority's headquarters on South Flores Street near downtown where roughly 80 advocates demanded the Alazán Courts demolition and redevelopment plan be halted, among a slew of other complaints against the agency.

It ended 90 minutes later at the Steel House Lofts, five blocks down South Flores, where SAHA CEO and President David Nisivoccia lives. The group that included Alazán Courts residents turned right on West Peden Alley, as a small caravan occupied a lane on Flores and honked their horns. In the alleyway, they chanted, "Shame on SAHA, shame on David!" and "Mi barrio no se vende!" (My neighborhood is not for sale) as they looked up at the four-story condominiums.

Nisivoccia, who has ramped up SAHA's production of mixed-income apartments since he became CEO in 2016, is leaving in January to become executive director of the Denver Housing Authority.

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

SAHA spokesman Michael Reyes said Nisivoccia was not available for an interview on Saturday, but instead issued a statement.

"Today’s protest at the home of a SAHA staff member is another demonstration of the Esperanza Center choosing intimation and scare tactics over truth or productive dialogue," Reyes wrote.

To be clear, Saturday's protest was by a group composed of the Coalition For Tenant Justice, the Historic Westside Residents Association, Texas Organizing Project, the San Antonio Tenants Union, along with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and other housing advocates.

Reyes' statement went on to describe the protest at the Steel House Lofts as "uncivil" and that SAHA does not condone protests that "jeopardize the safety of our leadership and staff members."

At no time did the protest get out of hand or become violent. If it was anything, it was loud, as the group shouted, "What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now! If we don't get it? Shut it down!" When cars or delivery trucks entered the alley, the group moved out of the way to let them pass. Some of the Steel House Lofts residents observed the protestors from their balconies.

"We have invited them to the policy discussion and have attempted to explain the affordable housing crisis, yet they refuse to understand it because it doesn't align with their political agenda and fundraising efforts," Reyes said of the Esperanza in a lengthy statement.

About 80 people gather at SAHA headquarters on Nov. 21, 2020 to protest the agencies plan to demolish the Alazan Courts.
About 80 protestors gather at SAHA's headquarters on Saturday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The event's organizer, Kayla Miranda, who's also a member of the Historic Westside Residents Association, and a SAHA resident, said in response, "We have every right to go to David's home. He filled out the paperwork with the city same as other officials and commissioners. ... And he's coming after our homes. Why shouldn't we confront him in his?"

In a lengthy response of her own, Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza, said, "I have no idea of what policy discussions he speaks of. All we have been able to do is attend the monthly SAHA meetings and speak for 3 minutes, unless of course, we're limited to 1.5 minutes because too many folks wanted to speak against demolition of the Alazán Courts."

Sanchez was referring to the SAHA board limiting time for citizens to be heard at the meeting in early November because of the sheer volume of people who signed up to speak, more than 60, on Alazán Courts.

The fierce debate over SAHA's development strategy, which calls for eliminating San Antonio's remaining public housing communities, while partnering with for-profit developers to build mixed-income apartment complexes, has only escalated between the authority and its supporters versus a growing number of housing activists with each step the authority takes.

On Nov. 5, the SAHA board of commissioners voted 5-2 to seek permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish Alazán's 501 units on the near West Side, and replace them with a mixed-income community to be built by Cleveland-based developer NRP Group in the coming years.

This patch of land on the northwest corner of South Colorado and El Paso streets—adjacent to the Alazan Courts—is being eyed for a 98-unit, mixed-income development called Alazan Lofts.
The Alazán Courts from El Paso Street. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in a letter of support dated Nov. 3, has backed the plan and wrote, "It will provide modern quality apartment homes for families at a variety of income levels."

Activists and preservation groups have called for rehabbing the 80-year-old courts—a collection of decaying, barracks-style public housing units spread across 26 acres along Alazán Creek. Roughly 1,200 people, whose average yearly income is $8,700, currently live there.

The activists describe the redevelopment as a massive displacement, one in which 1,200 people would be scattered throughout the city. They point to the former Wheatley Courts on the East Side, where, in 2014, roughly 200 families were forced to leave the area to clear the way for SAHA's 414-unit East Meadows mixed-income community. Also, see the Victoria Commons as another large-scale example. SAHA has admitted it made a mistake by demolishing the Wheatley Courts all at once, and therefore plans to raze and rebuild at the Alazán site in at least two phases.

SAHA says annual funding from HUD has dwindled, and doesn't have the means to build large amounts of new affordable housing on its own. It also doesn't have the funding to maintain and repair its aging public housing stock, the agency says. The mixed-income projects, in which SAHA provides a toolkit of subsidies to private developers, will provide much needed revenue that will bolster its reserves, which can then be used to subsidize more below market-rate housing down the line.

In a recent SAHA board meeting, Nisivoccia said he estimates the agency has roughly $7-8 million annually to spend on the remaining 6,000 public housing units.

"If you take the average cost of wanting to renovate or fix up versus redevelop, about $100,000 per unit, at 500 units: that’s $50 million," he said at the October meeting. "That would be about 10 full years of our capital fund program and ignoring the rest of our portfolio. I want all the residents to know and understand: We’re not ignoring Alazan. It’s just a financial challenge. … The deterioration of Alazan has been happening over 20-30 years."

But housing activists don't buy it. They question the math behind the systemic elimination of public housing units in San Antonio at a time when SAHA's wait list for affordable housing has grown to more than 45,000 families compared to 15,000 in 2000, according to San Antonio Express-News archives.

"We are insulted that he thinks that they need to explain to us about the affordable housing crisis," Sanchez said. "What was the demonstration about except to say that affordable housing isn't even affordable to public housing tenants, and their current housing policy is mixed income housing."

Jacquline Caldwell speaks at a protest in front of SAHA headquarters on Saturday, NOv. 21, 2020.
Alazán Courts resident Jacquline Caldwell speaks at a protest in front of SAHA headquarters on Saturday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

During the rally, Alazán Courts resident Jacquline Caldwell described SAHA's new business model as a public housing holocaust. SAHA has said it plans to demolish the remaining public housing stock: The nearby Apache, Cassiano and Lincoln courts, and replace them with mixed-income communities.

"Stop this holocaust," said Caldwell, a mother of two. "Stop killing our homes. Stop killing our communities. Stop mass murdering all of our dreams and expectations and aspirations so that you all can profit."

Big picture, SAHA says it's actually creating more affordable housing by partnering with for-profit developers. Currently, SAHA has more than 8,800 mixed-income apartments it is either constructing or planning with another developer. Alone, the agency says, it would build a fraction of that amount if it were just building subsidized apartments.

From 2008 to 2018, the agency produced 3,500 units.

At Alazán, the new apartments are projected to have some public housing units, but also market-rate units. SAHA is also building other mixed-income communities on the West Side, including the 200-unit Tampico Lofts near San Fernando Cemetery No. 1. But West Side activists criticize the development, which is a SAHA partnership with developer Mission DG, for only having nine units priced for people making up to 30% of the area median income, or, the most needy. It has a range of other affordable rents; while 64 are priced at market rate.

SAHA protestors make their way down South Flores Street on Saturday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

SAHA contends the financial cost to rehabilitate Alazán Courts is higher than the cost to demolish and rebuild. The agency says current Alazán Courts residents will have first dibs at one of the new apartments, should they choose to return to the site. They can also move into one of the newer developments SAHA is building. Or, they will be given Tenant Protection Vouchers from HUD, which they can use to find housing elsewhere in San Antonio.

Housing activists point out that landlords don't have to accept the voucher, and that some end up losing a voucher that was never used.

Like at East Meadows, as well as Hemisview and Refugio Place just south of downtown, SAHA envisions the Alazán apartments with a range of rents, for people in public housing to people who can afford to pay market rate.

Although the East Meadows master development had the support of President Obama's $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant, which was partly designed to mitigate the harmful effects of such a move on families with little means, many of them still suffered the move, Olga Kauffman, who sits on SAHA's board, and who worked directly with Wheatley Courts families at the time, told the Heron recently.

SAHA has begun to put together a plan to help families with their credit scores, and other potential impediments to finding housing with a voucher in hand. For more on their plan, view SAHA's presentation for relocating Alazán residents at its Nov. 5 meeting.

Activists protest outside Steel House Lofts where SAHA CEO David Nisivoccia lives on Saturday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Nirenberg agrees with the strategy.

"We recognize that displacement can destabilize and harm residents," the mayor wrote in a statement to the Heron. "As SAHA prepares for the next steps, we look forward to reviewing the Relocation and Re-Occupancy Plan for Alazan Courts residents, which we intend to ensure centers and addresses their comprehensive needs throughout the changes ahead of us. The process must thoroughly address displacement concerns.”

Nirenberg did not return several direct interview requests for this article.

SAHA says the majority of residents it polled earlier this year prefer the voucher. The Heron obtained copies of the survey, which was stopped because of the pandemic, and which SAHA has authenticated. View the survey here, and the results here.

A protestor attends a rally Saturday at SAHA headquarters. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Related
How to relocate Alazan Courts’ 1,200 residents? San Antonio Housing Authority says it’s complicated, critics say you don’t
» Alazan-Apache Courts named one of America’s most endangered historic places
» NRP Group chosen for Alazan Courts redevelopment
» SAHA, NRP Group moving forward with contentious Alazan Lofts project
» How best to revitalize Alazan Courts and the near West Side? It’s complicated.

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

Alazan-Apache Courts taken from Brazos Street. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

This article was updated at 7:29 p.m.

The 80-year-old Alazan-Apache Courts on the near West Side have been named one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately-funded nonprofit that protects and promulgates the importance of historic sites.

Today, 501 public housing units comprise the Alazan side of the courts on roughly 26 acres north of Guadalupe Street—both Alazan and Apache are west of Alazan Creek near downtown. The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) plans to demolish Alazan in phases over multiple years, and replace the aging units with a new mixed-income development. Last November, SAHA's board of commissioners approved the plan and chose Cleveland-based NRP Group as the developer. The timeline for the new Alazan development is unclear, SAHA says, because it's still identifying funding sources. It will presumably include some public housing, as well as below-market-rate and market-rate rents.

"The preservation of historic buildings that provide affordable housing—and the communities that call those places home—should be a priority not only for San Antonio, but all cities nationwide," said Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust's chief preservation officer.

[ View the "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" list. ]

SAHA's plan has received stiff and consistent pushback from West Side preservationists, most notably the Westside Preservation Alliance, which, in partnership with the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, submitted the endangered sites application to the National Trust in February.

They say SAHA's plan to raze Alazan, known colloquially as "Los Courts," "will break up the existing community and scatter its residents throughout the city." The redevelopment is also seen as a major trigger in the gentrification of the West Side.

The preservation alliance has advocated for the rehab of the barracks-style public housing complex that opened in 1940-41, according to the preservation alliance.

"The plans to demolish Los Courts would not only bring the loss of an architecturally significant site, but also the loss of a deeply embedded community while paving the way for the gentrification that has already taken over other downtown-adjacent neighborhoods," Sara Gould, a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance, said in a press release.

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

Kayla Miranda, an Alazan-Apache resident, said SAHA should be preserving its housing stock, instead of destroying it.

"They want to flush us out to make room for higher income individuals and majority market rent properties," Miranda said in a press release.

SAHA officials have said the cost to rehabilitate the units on cement cinder blocks is greater than the cost to rebuild, although SAHA has not produced specific financial figures when asked by the Heron in the past.

"Residents are unable to have access to a central air and heating system nor washer and dryer connections," SAHA spokesman Michael Reyes said. "Moreover, interior insulation is not possible which makes winters colder and summers hotter."

SAHA cited a survey of Alazan residents, in recent years, when it was pursuing the Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in which 81% of residents said they'd prefer the two-story buildings be rebuilt rather than remodeled.

The Alazan redevelopment is one piece of a larger plan to revitalize the West Side. Current residents will either be given an opportunity to move into the new development, as it's completed in phases, or into one of the other West Side development's SAHA is building, such as the Tampico Apartments, which just began construction nearby.

An 88-unit mixed-income project called The Legacy at Alazan at the intersection of El Paso and South Colorado streets, a vacant site that abuts Alazan to the south, is the first phase of SAHA's West Side strategy. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall, and take roughly 18 months to complete.

Alazan Lofts footprint map San Antonio Texas
GOOGLE | HERON

Or, current Alazan residents will be given vouchers.

In a recent interview, SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia told the Heron the reduction of public housing units on the Alazan site—from the demolition of public housing for a mixed-income development—would be made up through other programs offered by HUD.

"If a housing authority makes a decision to reprogram a development, HUD gives us what they call 'tenant replacement vouchers'," Nisivoccia said.

"One thing we require of all our new developments is that they have to receive Section 8 vouchers," Nisivoccia continued. "So that client has a choice to come back to that property, just under a different program, Section 8. Or, they have a choice to take that voucher and go somewhere else that they might see as more advantageous to their lives or their children’s lives, for whatever reason. Closer to a job, closer to family, closer to their social network, wanting to escape a high concentration of poverty area."

In the meeting in last November, when the SAHA board approved the plan, Sofia Lopez, who served on the board of commissioners at the time, rebuked the assertion that a voucher was an adequate replacement for a public housing unit.

"Vouchers are not a perfect program, and landlords across the city are not required to accept them," said Lopez, who resigned from SAHA's board this summer for personal reasons.

The preservationists say they're trying to leverage support for Alazan to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would qualify it for historic tax credits, Gould said.

The East Meadows community in 2017 when it was being built. Folo Media archive

SAHA has repeatedly described the redevelopment strategy at Alazan as being multi-phased, over potentially 5-8 years, composed of potentially 700 units. It's a different strategy than the one SAHA employed at Wheatley Courts on the East Side, where SAHA demolished roughly 200 units at once in 2014 for the mixed-income community called East Meadows that stands there today. SAHA officials have since admitted it made an error in razing those courts all at once.

Of the 205 households who left Wheatley Courts, roughly 50 of them chose to return to the site and the new development, according to SAHA. Another 56 received housing vouchers, and 99 are no longer in SAHA programs, the agency said.

Another example of replacing public housing communities with mixed-income is the old Victoria Courts site just south of Hemisfair, which was demolished in 2001; SAHA built the first phase called Refugio Place in 2004, and is still building on the site within the Lavaca neighborhood's boundaries.

SAHA says it wants to de-concentrate its other public housing communities, most notably the Apache courts, the Cassiano Homes and the Lincoln Heights Courts—all on the West Side. The trend is one adopted by housing authorities nationwide so that people of all socio-economic background "learn and grow from each other," Tim Alcott, SAHA’s real estate and legal services officer, said at a virtual neighborhood meeting this week.

"The Alazan-Apache community is located in the poorest ZIP code in the poorest big city in America," Reyes said. "It is not acceptable that Alazan residents must continue to live under these poor and outdated conditions."

Previously published:
» NRP Group chosen for Alazan Courts redevelopment (Nov. 11, 2019)
» SAHA, NRP Group moving forward with contentious Alazan Lofts project (Aug. 25, 2019)
» How best to revitalize Alazan Courts and the near West Side? It’s complicated. (Aug. 17, 2019)
» Controversial Alazan Lofts gets boost from a reluctant zoning commission (July 17, 2019)
» As downtown development spreads, displacement and gentrification are set to roll over the West Side (May 21, 2019)
» Alazan Lofts project gets assist from non-West Side council members (Jan. 19, 2019)

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

David Nisivoccia, SAHA’s CEO and president, addresses the Housing Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, at San Antonio College. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
David Nisivoccia, SAHA’s CEO and president, addresses the audience at the Housing Commission on Wednesday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Responding to mounting criticism over the San Antonio Housing Authority's eviction policy, CEO and President David Nisivoccia on Wednesday said the agency will place a moratorium on non-criminal evictions at all SAHA properties through Dec. 31—a practice SAHA has followed during the holidays in recent years—while his staff considers changes to its system. Nisivoccia stopped short of making any promises to the Housing Commission, which asked him to address the concerns on Wednesday, and to the few dozen public housing residents and community organizers who attended the meeting.

He did, however, concede that changes need to be made and that the system is flawed in places. For example, on the unregistered pet fee, which accrues by $10 each day it's not resolved, "I think we're piling on there a little bit," he said.

The condemnations in recent months have come from residents living at the Alazan-Apache Courts, who say its management is recklessly doling out lease violations, which, for lower-income families, can inevitably result in the start of the eviction process. Or, the management is mis-handling some cases by not following procedure—such as issuing 3-day eviction notices for less egregious noncriminal offenses, when those households are supposed to be given up to 14 or 30 days to leave—and by misplacing documents that would help residents clear up disputes.

"We'll also look at how we communicate with our (residents) better, before (issuing) a notice to vacate," Nisivoccia said while speaking to the commission, of which he is a member, and the residents. He said, for the time being, he and his staff will review eviction cases at Alazan-Apache rather than the management.

[ Editor's note: For a more in-depth examination of the residents' complaints, read " 'It's like prison.' Some Alazan-Apache residents accuse SAHA of pushing them toward eviction." ]

The Housing Commission convenes at San Antonio College on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2019. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
The Housing Commission convenes at San Antonio College on Wednesday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Evictions in San Antonio
This is the first in an occasional series on evictions in San Antonio, an incredibly complex topic we'll be exploring in the coming months. If you have been evicted, or are going through the process, we'd like to know. Contact me at ben@saheron.com

The meeting came two days after Nisivoccia made the same pledge to re-evaluate SAHA's eviction policies to the residents and their supporters, including the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, at a closed-door meeting on Monday.

Some of the residents who attended both meetings said they were skeptical as to what may result from Nisivoccia's pledge.

"Again, he's falling on policy—the policy's this and the policy's that—and he's expecting it to happen that way," said Kayla Miranda, a mother of four, who lives at Alazan-Apache Courts, and who was taken to eviction court last month by SAHA. She said she was unjustly hit with a pet fee, among other maintenance fees, which accumulated into a debt she couldn't pay. "Why isn't he down at the Alazan office ... finding out what's happening with these employees?"

She continued, "I think it's a good start. And if he follows what he says he's going to do, and actually investigates it, then I think it can be a good thing. But again, we don't want empty promise or words. We want action. We want to see something actually happen."

At the Alazan-Apache property, which also includes the nearby Guadalupe subdivision of single-family homes, more than 1,800 residents live in 741 public housing units.

In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, there were 44 evictions at Alazan-Apache, and 12 instances where households were given notices to vacate and then left on their own—or, "involuntary terminations." In the 2018 fiscal year, there were 55 evictions and 22 involuntary terminations. In fiscal year 2017, there were 21 evictions and 21 involuntary terminations. In fiscal year 2016, there were 38 evictions and 20 involuntary terminations.

[ Editor's note: The Heron has asked SAHA for eviction totals by calendar year for Alazan-Apache going back to 2011. ]

At Wednesday's meeting, Nisivoccia said SAHA's eviction rate for fiscal year 2019 was 3.14 percent, which is calculated by dividing the total number of evictions by the average number of units occupied. In total, there are 13,137 people living in public housing in San Antonio, and 6,092 actual units, according to SAHA.

The Alazan Courts. Photo by Ben Olivo taken October 2019
The Alazan side of the Alazan-Apache Courts. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

'Bad actors'

During the two-hour discussion on Wednesday, after Nisivoccia responded to criticism from residents and supporters, he then felt heat from the commissioners who, for the first time, had a chance to ask questions. The residents first attended the previous Housing Commission meeting, held Oct. 23, but the commissioners couldn't interact with them because the issue wasn't on the agenda. Also, Nisivoccia didn't attend that meeting because he was in Washington, D.C., requesting more funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The commissioners suggested to Nisivoccia that SAHA might extend the moratorium, as well as freeze the accumulation of fees, until the agency reaches some sort of conclusion. To those suggestions, Nisivoccia said he'd "take it under advisement."

They also echoed the residents' complaints about so called "bad actors"—SAHA employees who might be acting too aggressively or incompetently toward residents.

"I'm not hesitant to remove an employee," said Nisivoccia, ensuring better training for SAHA's front-line employees. "We have removed people in the past." He added that he wanted to better educate residents so they're more aware of SAHA's appeal process when it comes to lease violations and evictions.

He added, "I'm sure the staff is correct in some instances," in regards to lease violations and notices to vacate.

Veronica Compean, former resident of the Alazan-Apache Courts, addresses the Housing Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Veronica Compean, former resident of the Alazan-Apache Courts, addresses the Housing Commission on Wednesday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Last month, Veronica Compean, 42, says she was evicted because of one of these management mishaps. She had lived at Alazan-Apache for nearly four years. In October she was forced to leave and soon found herself at Haven for Hope, regrouping her life.

"I am homeless, and it's been a lot of stress on me, I suffer from anxiety and mental PTSD," Compean told the commission.

In August, the day before her court date at Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2, Compean went into the Alazan-Apache office to pay her balance. That's when the person she was dealing with at the office told her she didn't have to go to court the next day, she told the commission. The next day, SAHA was granted a default judgment, meaning the court ruled in the agency's favor because Compean was a no-show. Two months later, Compean found herself at Haven for Hope, eventually evicted for owing $58 in late fees, she says.

Currently, Compean is staying at a Motel 6 downtown with the assistance of the city's anti-displacement fund.

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

Nisivoccia said his staff has already begun looking at how other housing agencies collect rent and late fees. SAHA merges the two into one debt, so, for a resident who might have debt related to fees, when they attempt to pay rent, those funds are applied to the fees first—and the rent is never fully paid. The alternative is that an agency separates the rent and fees, so they're each resolved on their own. Nisivoccia suspects housing authorities use both methods equally.

"We'll fall on the side that's more human than administrative," Nisivoccia said.

Rep Diego Bernal said he's looking at introducing a bill at the next Texas Legislative session that would require housing agencies to separate fees owed and rent owed.

Nisivoccia said SAHA would also review how it handles residents' documents, such as paystubs or doctors notes, to keep them from getting lost; and consider giving residents whose utilities have been shut off 14 days to vacate instead of three.

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Kayla Miranda talks about her rent and fees at Alazan-Apache apartments Monday, Oct. 21 in her living room.  Photo by V. Finster | Heron Contributor
"If we don't live here, where are we going to live? I can't afford anything else," Kayla Miranda says. Photo by V. Finster | Heron contributor

Fighting an eviction, as Kayla Miranda has learned, is a commitment.

The single mother of four is challenging an attempt by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) to remove her from her Alazan-Apache Courts apartment, a "three-bedroom" unit that's smaller than some one-bedrooms in the newer city-subsidized downtown developments.

Her daily routine is stressful enough as she shuttles her kids to and from school in another part of town. In between, she runs her own errands and raises her two-year-old nephew, De'Andre, whose parents are in prison. With the threat of eviction looming over her household of five, Miranda squeezes in meetings with the neighborhood association that's helping her and other Alazan-Apache residents organize. Then there are the trips to eviction court far out on Bandera Road, and meetings with her pro bono lawyer and at state Rep. Diego Bernal's office, which is looking into the matter.

"And nobody's paying my gas, nobody's helping me watch the kids, nobody's putting in for all this extra expense," said Miranda, 36, who's lived at the courts a little more than two years. Her only source of income is her nephew's $771 Social Security check, which she uses to pay the monthly rent of $168*.

"My kids see me down every day—tired, exhausted, frustrated. And I'm worried. If we don't live here, where are we going to live? I can't afford anything else."

Miranda's is one of seven other households at Alazan-Apache who accuse SAHA of harassment by way of, what they describe as, bogus lease violations. If they're not addressed, the infractions snowball into what's called a notice to vacate, the landlord's first attempt to take back possession of the property. Last month, Miranda lost her case at eviction court, and has appealed.

Miranda and some of the other residents facing eviction, or who have been evicted recently, describe an authoritarian community at Alazan-Apache, where SAHA case workers, who are assigned to each household, and management patrol the property and hand out lease violations frivolously. SAHA is supposed to be helping its residents, among San Antonio's most vulnerable, Miranda says. Instead, "it's like prison. It's like having a bunch of guards walking around," she says.

Evictions in San Antonio
This is the first in an occasional series on evictions in San Antonio, an incredibly complex topic we'll be exploring in the coming months. If you have been evicted, or are going through the process, we'd like to know. Contact me at ben@saheron.com

SAHA paints a different picture.

David Nisivoccia, SAHA's CEO and president, declined to address specific cases. Big picture, he says evictions currently account for 3 percent of all public housing units in San Antonio. If they're issued notices to vacate, it's because they didn't follow the rules largely set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said.

"We always root for our clients," Nisivoccia said. "I think it’s important to note that 97 percent of our clients abide by the rules and regulations."

Nisivoccia outlined several options available to residents hit with a lease violation or who face an eviction. Residents have several chances to appeal within SAHA's system at any point during a disagreement, he said. The housing authority, he said, also points residents toward services that help pay utilities or rent. For folks who fall behind on rent or fee debt, he said repayment agreements are often available.

"The housing authority is in the business of housing people," Nisivoccia said. "We don't want to evict people. And we have certain mitigation initiatives in place to help people navigate through that system" if tenants find themselves with mounting fees or the prospect of being evicted.

The residents agree that SAHA's appeal system is a good one, but that it’s not being consistently followed by Alazan-Apache management and the case workers who interact with them most. Nisivoccia, they say, paints a quixotic picture of how these situations should be handled, not how they actually are.

"It's always going to be our word against theirs," Miranda said. "He's the CEO. Of course he's going to defend his process and his system. He's not going to sit there and admit the system is flawed. They're going to close ranks the same as the (management) office does."

Their assertions have grabbed the attention of the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that offers free eviction defense; the city of San Antonio, which has paid the eviction debt of 15 families living at SAHA properties through a program enacted this past May by City Council; District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales' office, which has intervened in at least one case at Alazan-Apache; and of Rep. Bernal, who is considering proposing a bill at the next legislative session to address some of the residents' concerns.

In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, there were 44 evictions at Alazan-Apache Courts. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Mounting fees

The fees are what get them.

In interviews the Heron has conducted with about a dozen families going through the eviction process—at Alazan-Apache and non-public housing units—the tenants complained most about fees.

The fee total SAHA says Miranda owed, and which landed her in eviction court, was $891.

The bulk of the debt, $710, was for a dog, Joy, a terrier mix who belongs to her ex-husband, who watches the kids from time to time. She insists Joy doesn’t live there, but says she was inexplicably hit with a pet fee, which accrues by $10 a day if it's not resolved. The other charges were for maintenance repairs, such as to the stove and front door, which she says SAHA should have handled itself.

She says Alazan-Apache management has been targeting her with lease violations after a dispute in which a paranormal group she's a member of was excluded from the last National Night Out gathering at the courts. She admits to being late on rent in previous months, but contends she made the payment every time, including the late fee.

There had been other lease violations issued to Miranda, which were dismissed through SAHA's appeal process. But some time between March and April, these latest ones—the pet fee and the maintenance fees—stuck.

Since then, as she pays rent, the funds are applied to the fee balance first. In these situations, when a tenant pays the rent and doesn't address the fees, the rent owed for that month is never settled. Miranda contends the fees were unjustified. As a result, SAHA took her to eviction court over nonpayment of rent.

When Rep. Bernal first heard about the complaints from the residents, his first concern was that the 2,200 air conditioning units installed at public housing properties earlier this year, an effort he orchestrated, were a contributing factor. Some residents say their utility voucher, which are afforded to public housing residents, wasn't adjusted for the added cost of running their new AC units, an issue Rep. Bernal has asked SAHA and CPS Energy to solve.

His inquiry into the residents' complaints have also led him to question SAHA's policy for how residents' debt is resolved. Other housing authorities, such as in Austin and Fort Worth, separate rent and fees into two tranches.

"One makes sense to me," Bernal said of the separated structure. "The other—I'm not saying it’s done this way on purpose—but it feels more like a payday loan structure where if you accumulate fees and fines, and also owe rent; that money goes to the fees and fines first before it goes to the rent."

Siblings Pablo Miranda, 11, and Nadia Miranda-Colgrove, 14, play Mortal Kombat while sister Melody, 10, naps and cousin De’ Andre Gant, 2, watches a movie Monday, Oct. 23 in their apartment at the Alazan-Apache Apartments.  Photo by V. Finster | Heron Contributor
Miranda's children, Pablo, 11, and Nadia, 14, play video games while sister Melody, 10, naps and cousin De' Andre Gant, 2, watches a movie inside their Alazan-Apache home. Photo by V. Finster | Heron contributor

By the numbers

In San Antonio and throughout the county, eviction defense lawyers are hard to come by. If a tenant is having trouble making ends meet, how can they afford to hire someone to defend them? As opposed to criminal court, defendants in civil cases in Texas typically do not have a right to counsel.

Adding to the paucity of eviction defense lawyers is the sheer number of cases.

Each year, for the past four years, about 16,000 eviction cases reached some sort of conclusion in Bexar County, according to research conducted by Amelia Adams, an analyst with Texas Housers, an Austin-based housing advocacy group. In 2018, of the 15,925 cases that were heard locally, the landlord won 79 percent of the cases, which amounts to 12,580 evictions. In 57 percent of those cases, the landlord won because the tenant failed to show up to court, according to Texas Housers’s research.

That same year, another 19 percent were dismissed for one reason or another.

The state’s property code is such that if a tenant owes back rent, no matter the specifics of the dispute, they’re nearly guaranteed to lose the case and be slapped with an eviction on their record.

Then they have five days to appeal, or five days to leave the home. Others who stay past the five days without appealing are eventually removed by Bexar County Constables. We are currently looking into these statistics.

[ Editor's note: This would be a good point to pause and explain a few things about eviction data. It's complicated. Texas Housers pulled its data from Bexar County, but the set, which the Heron also received, didn't come all neat and clean and ready to comprehend. A fair amount of work had to be done to clean and organize the spreadsheets before they could be analyzed. The Heron is in the process of doing its own analysis, which we'll release early next year. Also, for this piece, SAHA released eviction data for its properties, which is organized by fiscal year, instead of calendar year. SAHA also gleaned some numbers from the Eviction Lab, Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist Matthew Desmond's group out of Princeton University, which studies evictions nationwide. For now, let's stop here. But know that making sense of this data—never mind trying to factor in the illegal evictions that happen outside the system—is a worthwhile effort and one the Heron is dedicated to tackling in future reports. It's also worth noting that evictions have skyrocketed in Bexar County the last 10 years for reasons we presume include stagnant wages, the rising cost of housing and the area's population growth. This, too, we'll explore in future articles. ]

Nisivoccia insists that while evictions do happen, they are uncommon at SAHA properties compared to those in the for-profit market. In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 20, SAHA evicted 177 households, which was down from the previous fiscal year's figure of 247, according to SAHA records. At Alazan-Apache Courts on the near West Side, where there are 741 units, there were 44 evictions the last fiscal year compared to 55 in 2018, 21 in 2017, and 38 in 2016, according to SAHA.

This year, San Antonio's risk mitigation fund, a program the City Council approved in May that helps families on the verge of displacement stay in their homes, or with moving costs should they be uprooted, paid back-rent for 15 families living in SAHA communities.

One of those individuals was Francisco "Pancho" Perez, a semi-retired mariachi who recently performed with the surviving members of Las Tesoros de San Antonio, and who had lived at the Alazan-Apache Courts for 13 years. The city paid $3,500 to help square Perez's debt, which included violations for an unregistered chihuahua, Chiquito, and other alleged infractions and issues.

A few months ago, Perez's family was on a path toward eviction when Leticia Sanchez of the Historic Westside Resident Association got involved and called Councilwoman Gonzales' office on their behalf. The councilwoman's staff negotiated that the family move from a three-bedroom apartment at Alazan to a two-bedroom at Mirasol Homes. Perez's son, Panchito, had recently been incarcerated, and the family of three had one bedroom too many, which, for SAHA and HUD, was one of the issues.

Vero Soto, director of the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, which oversees the anti-displacement program, said anyone with a debt related to an eviction is eligible for the assistance, as long as they make below 80 percent of the area median income. They don't look at the specifics of the case to see which side might have been at fault in the dispute—the landlord or tenant.

What's AMI?
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) is $71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $56,800
» 70% - $49,700
» 60% - $42,600
» 50% - $35,500
» 40% - $28,400
» 30% - $21,300

"We're not here to judge," Soto said. "We're not here to say, 'Oh, they're going to do it again.' That's not our job. Our job is to get assistance (to the tenant) in the situation ... and do it with compassion."

However, Soto and her staff said if they find a landlord was at fault, if they were acting in bad faith, they'd help the resident relocate to another home rather than pay off the landlord. Between May, when the program began, and the end of September, the program helped 237 households avoid or deal with displacement. Of that total, 30 were evictions.

Soto said she and her staff have spoken to the irate Alazan-Apache residents as well as Nisivoccia about the issue.

"I think they do have a lenient process," Soto said of SAHA's appeal process. "They probably have to do better communications about their process. It seems to me people were more customer service dissatisfied. They just misunderstood what the process was."

When asked about some of the residents' chief complaint, that they're being targeted with unjust lease violations, Soto said she couldn't comment without knowing the specifics of the cases.

[ Editor's note: SAMMinistries has a similar program that's more robust, and that's been around much longer. It's one we'll write about at a later date.

[et_bloom_inline optin_id="optin_1"]

Next month, the city, as part of its risk mitigation fund, will begin a "right to counsel" program, which will offer free eviction defense. The $100,000 allocation, a pilot program spearheaded by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, is estimated to serve between 50 to 100 people a year.

"We have to go the extra mile, and this program is really about creating a representation, or a right to that representation," said Treviño, who traveled to New York City on Thursday to learn more about its $200 million right-to-counsel eviction defense program. "The stats show that usually things are settled more often than not when somebody has counsel than not."

The city is close to a partnership with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRGLA), an organization that already offers free eviction defense to tenants, to fulfill the service.

TRGLA was eventually connected with Miranda, who, last month, lost her defense in eviction court at Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2. Judge Roberto A. Vazquez shaved off some of Miranda's debt when she presented receipts for some of the rent paid. When she tried to broach the pet fee, Vazquez stopped the hearing abruptly, and ruled in SAHA's favor.

In an interview weeks later, while summarizing Texas's property statute, Vazquez said the scope of the matters he's allowed to consider in eviction cases is narrow: back rent.

"About 90 percent (of tenants) have a decision that's going to go against them if they tell the court, 'Yes, I owe rent'," Vazquez said before throwing up his hands. "There's nothing left hear."

"Unfortunately (non-rent factors have) no bearing, because the property code is so heavily-weighted toward the landlord that a lot of it is not relevant in the final decision," Vazquez said.

In the weeks after the hearing, Miranda, with TRGLA by her side, said she's close to settling her debt with SAHA. A TRGLA spokeswoman declined to comment or shed any light on whether the organization is helping other public housing tenants.

In recent days, Nisivoccia reached out to the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association for a meeting, which could happen as early as this week. Sanchez, who has most helped the residents organize, said their goal is to get SAHA to place a moratorium on evictions until Nisivoccia can talk with his staff and find the source of the "trumped up fees."

"If he's not in favor of doing that," Sanchez said, "we're thinking of filing an injunction to keep them from evicting any future evictions. That's our goal right now."

On Wednesday, Nisivoccia is scheduled to address the complaints to the Housing Commission, the city board Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed to tackle San Antonio's affordable housing issue. Last month, Sanchez and about a dozen residents spent almost an hour airing their concerns to the commissioners at the last meeting. They plan to attend Wednesday's meeting as well.

Artwork decorates the wall of Miranda's daughters' room. Photo by V. Finster | Heron contributor

What the future holds

Before this phase of her life, Miranda held a variety of jobs, including as a 7-Eleven manager, but quit work to help take care of her autistic son, among other factors in which she needed to focus on her kids. One of her two brothers, who is mentally handicapped, used to watch the kids, but he was placed in a group home by their father, who is now estranged from the family.

This all happened in late 2015, and it took Miranda two and a half years to finally get into public housing. For a time, they lived in a motel, and with family members before that.

I asked her a question that had been on my mind as I interviewed Miranda over several weeks: Why don't you get a part-time job?

"That's a good question, and that's a question that can be answered about our broken system," says Miranda, who said she was evicted when she was 19, back when she was ignorant about how to contest it. "I can get a part-time job that adds income ... Say I get a part-time job. My rent goes up. Food stamps go down, and the help I get with the kids—I lose a lot of that."

Aside from the recent problems she faces at Alazan-Apache, Miranda says what's most important is that her kids are doing well in school. In their rooms, their various accolades are proudly displayed from the charter school IDEA Eastside, which they attend.

"If you can be careful and not hit my awards," Nadia, 14, told our photographer, V. Finster, as she tried to maneuver inside one of the cramped bedrooms where the kids were hanging out recently after school.

Miranda is optimistic her situation will be resolved with the help of the TRGLA attorney, and that her current life, which includes taking online courses in business management at the University of the People, will go on. Eventually, maybe in four years, she estimates she'll be in a better position to improve her family's situation.

For now, the lives of her kids are stable, relatively speaking, in an unideal situation.

"That's the most important thing for me right now," Miranda said. "They're young, and it's my responsibility as a parent to give them the best chance."

* — Miranda's rent, like all public housing residents', fluctuates depending on their income. She says she used to pay $51 a month, but it went up when she'd bring in an additional $400 a month for donating plasma. She hasn't donated since February, but Alazan-Apache management hasn't lowered her rent as it should, she says. It remains at $168. [ Back to the top. ]

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

This patch of land on the northwest corner of South Colorado and El Paso streets—adjacent to the Alazan Courts—is being eyed for a 98-unit, mixed-income development called Alazan Lofts.
This patch of land on the northwest corner of South Colorado and El Paso streets, adjacent to the Alazan Courts, is being eyed for a mixed-income development. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

After five quiet months, the ongoing debate on the West Side about how best to improve the aging Alazan Courts quickly came to a head at Tuesday's Zoning Commission meeting.

In an 8-2 vote, commissioners rezoned five tracts of land comprising 2.9 acres just south of the courts for the Alazan Lofts, an 88-unit, mixed-income housing development by a partnership of the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and developer NRP Group.

Several commissioners said they felt pressured by the partnership to approve the rezoning despite roughly two dozen community members who voiced strong opposition to the plan. A denial of the rezoning, or postponement of a decision, according to SAHA and NRP Group officials, would jeopardize the federal tax credit funding the lofts project is likely to receive at the end of this month.

What's AMI?
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) is $71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here's how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% - $56,800
» 70% - $49,700
» 60% - $42,600
» 50% - $35,500
» 40% - $28,400
» 30% - $21,300

In the $18 million project, the public-private partnership is expected to reserve at least half of the units as public housing; 40 percent of units for households making 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), or less; and 10 percent at market-rate rents.

SAHA envisions the four-story complex as the first phase of the redevelopment of the Alazan Courts area. The plan, simply put, is to build, in phases, affordable housing near the courts, move residents of the courts into the new housing, then gradually demolish the circa-1939, cinder-block structures.

The phased approach differs from the one SAHA used five years ago when it simultaneously removed all 205 residents of the Wheatley Courts on the East Side before demolishing the structures for brand new East Meadows development.

Currently, the Alazan Courts is composed of 501 public housing units, in which residents pay 30 percent of their income on rent, on 26 acres just west of downtown. In SAHA's plan, courts residents could move into the Alazan Lofts, into another nearby gestating development called Tampico Lofts, or receive a relocation voucher to move to another part of the city.

This map shows the 2.9-acre footprint for the Alazan Lofts, a partnership between the San Antonio Housing Authority and developer NRP Group, on the near West Side. Just above it are the Alazan Courts.
COURTESY GOOGLE MAPS

The arguments

At the zoning meeting, activists and some residents lobbed a variety of concerns about the Alazan Lofts, which would occupy the four corners at the intersection of South Colorado and El Paso streets, if built. One of the chief criticisms was the project's four-story height. The critics want more affordable housing, but housing that's more congruent with the West Side's traditional one-story housing stock and occasional two-story commercial building.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which operates a cultural center in renovated homes a stone's throw from the proposed lofts, said a four-story development threatens the housing fabric of the historic West Side, including many of the casitas, or little homes.

"We want density, but horizontal, in a more historical way," Sanchez told commissioners after presenting the body with 302 signatures from nearby residents against the project gathered last week. She later added of the older housing stock, "We don't want that to disappear, because that is part of the essence and the culture."

Lorraine Robles, SAHA's director of development services and neighborhood revitalization, told commissioners the buildings' height was necessary in order to make the finances work. In the same rebuttal, she spoke of SAHA's housing strategy going forward—which is to abandon the creation of pure public housing and instead build mixed-income communities.

"In any neighborhood, we know the importance of diversifying our residents, making sure there are different levels of income," Robles said.

"In order to support those deeper subsidized units that are so desperately needed in our neighborhoods, we need the support of the affordable as well as the market rate units," she later said. "There's no way we can replace 501 units with another 501 units of public housing. That won't do anything for the neighborhood."

Jason Arechiga, NRP Group's vice president of development, then chimed in and described a 3-5 year timetable for the redevelopment of the entire Alazan Courts site.

Other concerns include traffic congestion from a denser development critics said will endanger pedestrians, especially kids from the courts who walk down South Brazos Street to nearby J.T. Brackenridge Elementary, in a heavily walked area; and the gentrification they say SAHA is aiding with its pivot toward mixed-income communities.

"I believe this process of gentrification is destroying the city and destroying the culture and destroying the economies," said Francisco Tavira, a member of Mi Barrio no se Vende, a coalition of West Side neighborhoods. "I can see right now how the city is going. We have the Pearl. We have the East Side. We have the South Side. And now (the West Side). So I just ask for time and for the developers to take into consideration the community and see the impact they are doing."

Several entities currently have plans to redevelop west downtown, which will presumably spill into the historically poorer West Side communities. The largest player is the University of Texas at San Antonio, which plans to quadruple the size of its west downtown campus in the next 10 years. VIA Metropolitan Transit is also getting into the development game, as well as developers both for-profit and nonprofit. The Alazan Lofts is part of SAHA's contribution.

The residents also aired concerns about the heat island they said SAHA and NRP Group would create with the loft's 133 surface parking spaces. The rezoning Tuesday from pure multifamily (MF-33) to high intensity infill (IDZ-3) gives the partnership the flexibility to create parking lots, lawyers with Brown & Ortiz, the law firm representing the partnership, said. Arechiga told commissioners NRP Group was willing to scale back its parking and add community gardens and greens pace.

Speaking in support of the project was Gabriel Velasquez, president of the Avenida Guadalupe Association; and Jannet Garcia, a mother of two children, and vice president of the Alazan Apache Resident Council.

"What worked back in the day for the 1940s doesn't work for us anymore—not for our families, not for our kids," said Garcia, who was the only resident of Alazan Courts who spoke at the meeting. "There is not central AC. We don't have outlets for our dryer. The infrastructure is out of date for the 21st Century and our children and our families are being brought up there."

...

[ Editor's note: Do you live near downtown? We want to know your story—whether you're a homeowner or renter, whether you've lived in the neighborhood for 30 years or three months. Read more, or email us. ]

...

To raze or not to raze

The Westside Preservation Alliance, one of the groups in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, has long supported the renovation of the courts, rather than their demolition.

In a community meeting on Feb. 12, Robles told many of these same residents that renovating the 80-year-old structures was too costly; tearing them down and starting anew made more financial sense, she said.

Twice in the last four years, SAHA, which purchased the 2.9 acres for $1.2 million, has attempted to secure federal Choice Neighborhood funding for the redevelopment of the Alazan Courts area—but lost out to other cities both times.

This time around, SAHA has applied for 9 percent low-income housing tax credits—the sale of which is expected to cover most of the lofts' $18 million price tag.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the state agency that doles out the federal tax credits, will announce on July 25 the winners of the tax credits. Alazan Lofts is competing against other affordable housing projects in the region—only 2-3 projects of eight will be awarded and Alazan Lofts currently ranks in first place.

Arechiga explained to commissioners that the zoning for the project needed to be in place 30 days after the tax credits are awarded—so, late August. He said the partnership would have to forfeit the tax credits if the zoning wasn't in place.

Commissioner John Bustamante (District 5) described the commission's decision as a kind of checkmate situation.

"I certainly never like to make a decision where I feel that (I'm) sort of being forced into it," said Bustamante, who ultimately voted in favor of the zoning change. He said the land is already zoned for multifamily and any developer could come in and start building a denser development should SAHA be forced to sell the land. He was also satisfied with NRP Group's concession to reduce the parking footprint.

Still, those concessions didn't satisfy some of the commissioners.

"I understand the timeline ... I'm a proponent of affordable housing. I would love that in the area," said Commissioner Sarah Olivarez (District 1), who voted against the zoning request. But with so much opposition, "it just doesn't feel right in my stomach," she said.

Lack of public process?

After the meeting, Amelia Valdez, president of the Historic Westside Resident Association, scolded lawyers with Brown & Ortiz for not approaching the group for feedback.* She describes being blindsided by the zoning case suddenly appearing on Tuesday's agenda.

During the meeting, Valdez and others expressed frustration about what they described as a lack of a public process. They took issue with SAHA and NRP Group officials, and Brown & Ortiz lawyers, describing to commissioners that 17 public meetings had been held on the Alazan Lofts project.

By the activists' count, there had been only two meetings—one in January, another in February.

Robles said the two-year effort to revitalize the Alazan Courts area included 17 meetings. But activists chided that assertion, saying that little input was sought for this iteration of the plan.

Some of the commissioners agreed, pointing to the ironing out of issues during Tuesday's meeting, such as the heat island, for example, as evidence.

"It's just so much that was covered today, which seemed like it could have been covered in the two years," said Commission Chairwoman Joy McGhee (District 3), who voted against the rezoning. "We just came to a discussion right now about landscaping and the parking lot and the green area. I think the meetings should have been more comprehensive."

When asked after the meeting why the case was being brought to the Zoning Commission two weeks before the tax credits were to be awarded, Arechiga said the partnership's time was consumed traversing the arduous and highly competitive TDHCA tax credit process. There's no guarantee the project would get the credits, he said. There still isn't, which is why, in January, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales convinced her other council members to back San Antonio submitting a letter of support to TDHCA for a single project—for Alazan Lofts—which would boost its score and give it an advantage over other projects in this region.

Because SAHA owns the property, the partnership, including NRP Group, will receive a full property tax exemption for as long as SAHA owns the land. Arechiga said NRP Group isn't providing any equity—or, cash—to fund the rest of the project. Robles said she'd get back to the Heron on who the other equity providers were.

When asked what kind of profit NRP Group expects to make from the Alazan Lofts, Arechiga said, "I don't even know right now. That, I'll have to answer later."

The council is expected to vote on the rezoning Aug. 8.

* Setting It Straight: This article previously stated that Amelia Valdez, president of the Historic Westside Resident Association, had said her group and Brown & Ortiz lawyers had talked previously about Alazan Lofts. They'd talked about other West Side issues, but not about the lofts project.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

The Alazán-Apache Courts are San Antonio's oldest housing projects. V. FINSTER | SAN ANTONIO HERON

In 1941, the Alazán-Apache Courts opened as the first public housing project in San Antonio, bringing modern homes and amenities to nearly 5,000 Mexican-Americans. At the time, for hundreds of families, the courts were a step up from the slum conditions that defined the West Side. Nearly 80 years later, living conditions at the courts have declined, but generations of families continue to benefit from its resources and job opportunities.

The Westside Preservation Alliance and the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center explore that legacy in a new exhibit called “Los Courts,” which opens with a reception 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Alazán Community Room, 1011 S. Brazos St.

The exhibit highlights life on the West Side, from the 1920s to present-day, through historic photos, video, and recorded testimonies from past residents. Mexican-American families, who had struggled with high death rates linked to tuberculosis, benefited from housing that offered modern amenities and sanitary living conditions.

Despite local and federal efforts to segregate minorities via public housing, especially through the nationwide housing increase during the Great Depression, developments like Alazán-Apache allowed many residents to achieve new levels of upward mobility.

"[The Courts] gave people the stability they needed to be lifted out of poverty, and enormously changed the quality of life for so many people," exhibit curator Sarah Zenaida Gould said. "We need to be thinking about how we can do that again, because we still have so many people in need of quality food, shelter, education, and health care."

A cropped piece of a panel in the exhibit. COURTESY PHOTO

The exhibit is partially underwritten by the District 5 office and the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), which manages the courts.

"This community was the beginning of our efforts to increase affordable housing, and the history of the community is invaluable," said David Nisivoccia, president and CEO of SAHA, which was founded in 1937.

When construction of the Alazán-Apache Courts stalled in 1939, SAHA leaders wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who authorized the federal funds necessary to improve living conditions for West Side families. Today, the Courts are shaped by three properties: Alazán, Apache and Guadalupe Homes.

Public housing continues to reduce local poverty and homeless rates, but funding, and the living conditions of the dwellings, have plummeted in recent years. The Courts’ faded surfaces, concrete walls and outdated infrastructure, are problematic for a new generation of families. More than half of the Courts’ current residents are under 18, said Gould, who also serves as coordinator for the Westside Community Museum, a project slated to open next year in the old Ruben’s Icehouse at Guadalupe and South Colorado streets.

In a door-to-door survey last year, SAHA found the median household income at the Alazan Courts, north of Guadalupe Street, to be $10,242.

A newspaper clip dated April 12, 1941, announces the birth of the first baby at the Alazán Courts. IRMA ARELLANO CARREON

The courts' units remain largely unchanged since the 1940s. Last year, SAHA applied for up to $30 million from the Choice Neighborhood grant, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The plan was to demolish some of the existing Alazán Courts and replace them with market-rate housing in an attempt to revitalize the near West Side, and remove the Courts’ sketchy stigma, SAHA said at the time.

SAHA, which had secured Choice dollars to rebuild Wheatley Courts into the mixed-income East Meadows development on the East Side, did not receive the funding.

The courts were the first opportunity for many families to have access to "indoor plumbing, real linoleum floors and electricity," District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said. "We are looking to recreate this type of housing, with multigenerational families living together, (and) look forward to bringing back that type of living to the inner city."

SAHA plans to continue its effort to revitalize the Courts by applying for Choice Neighborhood grant dollars again in 2019, Nisivoccia said.

“We hope, as people tour (Los Courts), they can appreciate the growth and opportunities made possible through numerous organizations dedicated to empowering the West Side community,” he added.

N. Straus Nayfach, architect of the Alazán-Apache Courts. COURTESY RUTH FAGIN-WILEN

On the development end, SAHA has partnered with NRP Group for an 85-unit apartment project at the southwest corner of El Paso and South Colorado streets, but it will require low-income housing tax credits, which SAHA will apply for next year, to make it happen.

Despite its West Side roots, the courts have helped define the city’s present-day landscape and housing resources available to residents. Officials hope the show will travel to other communities throughout San Antonio.

“There’s so much more to tell here,” Gould said. “We hope that this is just the beginning of the story.”

"Los Courts" will be on view 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday at the Alazán Community Room through Oct. 26. For more information, call 210-228-0201.

Previously published
A look at the history of Alazan Courts

hello@saheron.com

Lea Thompson works as Communications Associate for LiftFund, a nonprofit small business lender headquartered in San Antonio. She freelances as a reporter and photographer for local and regional publications.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

Top linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram