Icon Apartments is located at 1300 Patricia Ave., San Antonio, Texas 78213.
Icon Apartments is located at 1300 Patricia Ave. in District 9. Photo by Ramon Barrera | Heron contributor

This story was updated at 7:57 a.m. Thursday.

The City of San Antonio has opened an investigation into a Northside apartment complex for submitting potentially fraudulent applications to the emergency housing assistance program, which helps keep tenants and homeowners whose incomes have been impacted by Covid-19 from being evicted.

Icon Apartments, which is located in District 9, behind Winston Churchill High School, is owned by a California real estate firm called Bellaire Partners.

In September, city staff noticed "abnormalities" in some applications coming from Icon Apartments, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston wrote in an email to City Manager Erik Walsh, which included Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the City Council, yesterday.

The City Auditor and City Attorney's offices were soon notified and they determined the irregularities weren't originating from the Neighborhood & Housing Services Department, which oversees the program.

"The property is the Icon Apartments and staff confirmed that several of the applications were legitimate but several applications seemed to have falsified documentation," Houston wrote.

Houston said the San Antonio Police Department has been notified, and that an investigation has been opened. It's unclear whether the investigation is being conducted by the Neighborhood & Housing Services Department (NHSD) or the police department.

It's also unclear how many applications from Icon Apartments are thought to have fraudulent information.

According to city records obtained by the Heron, properties with some variation of "Icon" at the beginning of the name have received funding for at least 87 applications submitted into the city's program. On average, $2,752 has been doled out per household, according to city data.

In a text to the Heron, Houston said she cannot comment on an open investigation.

"The investigation is limited to one property and all pending applications remain on hold until the investigation is complete," Houston wrote in the email to city leadership.

The emergency housing assistance program, also known as EHAP, helps San Antonio households pay rent or their mortgage, along with other cost-of-living expenses. Since late April, when the City Council approved the program, $58.8 million has been disbursed to 21,384 household impacted by Covid-19.

[ View the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program dashboard for more data. ]

By the city's count, 57,411 people have been assisted by the program. The vast majority—85%—are renters.

NEED ASSISTANCE?
» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance and right to counsel programs, click here
» Call the St. Mary's University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse the city's other Covid-19 relief options

The program is designed to pay debt owed by the tenant or homeowner—whether than be rent paid directly to the landlord, a mortgage payment paid directly to the bank, or a utility bill paid directly to the agency or company. Those eligible also receive up to $500 in direct cash assistance.

In a follow-up email Tuesday, Houston said the city is working with two apartment complexes to recover funds from two separate cases—and in both cases "the landlord has agreed to refund the City."

When asked about what the city is doing to prevent bad actors from abusing the system, Houston said, "

The City has established policies that require documentation to be provided to determine eligibility and ensure assistance is provided appropriately. The City requires every applicant to provide identification, proof of COVID related hardship, income documentation, current lease or mortgage statement. The City staff reviewing documents are trained to review all documents in the application package if staff has any concern with what is submitted supervisors are available on-site to review and provide guidance."

...

'This is the first I'm hearing about it'

Bellaire Partners owns six properties in San Antonio. Its portfolio is composed of Texas apartment complexes with the exception of one property in Milwaukee.

Bellaire Partners president George Lintz did not respond to an interview request Tuesday via email.

On Tuesday, a woman working at Icon Apartments said she was unaware of the investigation by the city.

"We don't know anything about it," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "This is the first I'm hearing about it."

She said "a lot of residents" use the city's housing assistance program. "We get them set up, they can use the computers back there (to apply)," she said.

Shortly after our visit to Icon Apartments, a woman named Gloria Garcia called the Heron from a blocked number and said she was a regional manager for the company that owns Icon Apartments, but declined to give the name of the company. She said she couldn't answer questions, but was calling to gather information.

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District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who's been the program's biggest champion on the council, declined to give a statement on Tuesday because he was still gathering details.

"However, this is yet another example why things like the Renter’s Commission and Direct Cash Assistance are so vital for housing stability," Treviño said via text. "We need to ensure that we are being diligent in providing the funds and support directly to those who need it and eliminate inexcusable abuse of a system meant to help our community."

District 9 Councilman John Courage did not respond to interview requests on Tuesday.

Treviño has argued more local dollars be allocated for housing assistance, because the city has more flexibility on how those dollars can be spent, as opposed to restrictions on federal funding. The assistance program is predominately funded using federal coronavirus relief funds, although city officials are finding more local dollars, such as another $500,000 that was recently approved by the San Antonio Housing Trust.

Some housing advocates say the checks should go directly to the tenant, rather than to the landlord—which the city determined it cannot do with federal funding.

Since it was launch in late April, the program has had hiccups.

According to NHSD, an emergency housing assistance applicant recently called the city to check on the status of their check. NHSD admits the check was sent in error to the Chase Hill Apartments, when it should have been made to Chase Bank's home lending division.

"Upon further review, the City determined it was an administrative error unique to this application," NHSD Director Veronica Soto said in a statement. "A new check was issued to Chase Mortgage. The City contacted Chase Hill Apartments to rectify the issue and they are refunding the City."

In July, the Heron reported some recipients waited several weeks for their landlords to receive assistance checks. Since then, NHSD appears to have streamlined the process.

According to an Oct. 12 audit of the housing assistance program, the average number of days between receiving an application and when a decision is made by NHSD has decreased from 51 to 11 days. The City Auditor attributes the more streamlined process to larger staff processing applications, among other factors.

WOAI-TV's Jaie Avila recently reported that some checks for back-rent were being sent to the wrong address, putting both tenants and landlords in a bind. The city told the station that of 16,390 housing assistance checks disbursed, 599 failed to reach their correct destination.

After reading this Heron article, Houston followed up via email with this clarification:

"The WOAI-TV report was referring to returned checks that the City has received," Houston said. "Checks can be returned for various reasons including apartment leasing offices being closed during the pandemic and mail returned to the City as sender, landlords returning because tenants have moved out or they would like verification on which unit to apply a credit and checks sent to incorrect leasing address."

Soto told the TV station the city doing its best to improve customer service given the fact that it's using temporary employees and re-positioned library staff for such a large-scale social program.

In August, sociologist Matthew Desmond, author of "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," wrote in The New York Times about a San Antonio couple who moved from their home despite being approved under EHAP. The landlord, Ricardo Acosta, allegedly cashed the $3,000 check the city had issued, even as the couple moved out.

At the time, a city spokeswoman said the funding was for back-rent owed, which prevented the couple from having an eviction on their record. Should the funding have been for future rent, the city would have recovered those funds, the spokeswoman said.

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Related
» San Antonio’s housing aid program surpasses 20K families served
» City Council adds $24M to housing relief, but lessens benefits per San Antonio household
» Online dashboard shows housing relief spending, number of households assisted

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

Apartment stock photo San Antonio, Texas, taken Oct. 14, 2020.
The city's housing assistance program has helped 20,000 households. Photo by Stephanie Marquez | Heron contributor

The City of San Antonio's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program has served 20,317 households since the program launched in late April, according to the city's online dashboard. The program helps renters and homeowners, whose employment has been impacted by the coronavirus, stay housed, and has doled out an average of $2,808 in aid per household, of which more than 85% are renters, according to the city.

NEED ASSISTANCE?
» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance and right to counsel programs, click here
» Call the St. Mary's University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse the city's other Covid-19 relief options

Earlier this week, a City Council committee approved a measure that will allow more San Antonio college students to benefit from the program. Students whose parents either signed or co-signed a lease will now be eligible to receive rental assistance. Previously, these students were not eligible because they weren't the sole signers of the lease. Eligible students would be those who rent apartments in the private sector, rather than on-campus housing. Under the program, the landlord is paid directly.

"We want people to stay in their homes, but we also want them to continue in school," District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said during the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting on Monday.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told council members that the student's family has to qualify, just as any San Antonio family must qualify, by making at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI), which is $57,600 for a family of four in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region. It's unclear whether the family must meet the AMI threshold in the city they live in, should they live outside San Antonio.

The family also has to prove their income was negatively impacted by the coronavirus.

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The majority of recipients make an average of 30% AMI, or an annual income of $21,600 for a family of four in the San Antonio area, according to the city data that spans from April 23 (when City Council approved the program) through Oct. 31.

[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]

If they qualify, households making 50% AMI or less receive full benefits the first two months, which includes rental or mortgage assistance; utility and internet bills paid; and a cash grant up to $300. The third month, the household would get a $500 grant.

TOTAL ASSISTANCE
So far, San Antonio has disbursed $55.2 million in cost of living assistance.
» $45.6M — rent or mortgage
» $3.9M — CPS Energy
» $600K — SAWS
» $200K — internet bill
» $4.9M — cash assistance

Residents making between 51% and 80% AMI would receive rental or mortgage assistance only during the first two months, then $250 the third month.

Treviño, who's taken the lead in augmenting the program's coffers throughout the year, wants the income eligibility requirement to be raised to 100% AMI, which was the eligibility threshold until the council scaled it back recently.

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During the council meeting on Monday, Vero Soto, director of the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, said her the city recommends keeping the income requirement at 80% AMI or below, and cited what she described as a low number of people served between the 81% to 100% AMI range—or 694 families since the program started in late April.

Treviño, referencing the same figure, said families in those income ranges shouldn't be left out of the program going forward.

[ View the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program dashboard for more data. ]

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran wanted more information on where college students in need of assistance are living in San Antonio. She's concerned about opening up the program to more college students, who may be from elsewhere, while San Antonio families still need assistance.

"We're trying to assist as many families here in San Antonio as possible," Viagran said. "Now we're going to open it up to college students whose name is not on the lease, but their parents are—but their parents don't necessarily live in San Antonio."

To date, $76.7 million has been allocated for the program, and there's another $19.8 million remaining. The city estimates the funding to last through mid-February.

The City of San Antonio also received $600,000 from the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, a statewide rental assistance program, which was created by Gov. Greg Abbott in late September.

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Related
» City Council adds $24M to housing relief, but lessens benefits per San Antonio household
» Online dashboard shows housing relief spending, number of households assisted
» San Antonio earmarks $21.9M for housing relief, but Treviño says city’s not doing enough
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent

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

VIA will begin receiving a 1/8 sales tax in four years. Courtesy VIA Metropolitan Transit

San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved three sales tax measures Tuesday that will augment a training program designed to help people who lost jobs during the pandemic, boost revenue for mass transit and renew Pre-K 4 SA.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg's workforce training program, called SA: Ready to Work, was approved by 76.9% of voters. By this morning, the Bexar County Elections Department had counted all ballots at its 302 voting centers.

The $154 million, four-year workforce assistance program is expected to train 40,000 residents and be funded by an existing 1/8-cent sales tax. The city estimates more than 140,000 San Antonians have jobs due to the pandemic.

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Opponents, some of whom are progressives, called the plan half-baked, pointing out that Nirenberg has promised to iron out many details after the election. For example, participants aren't guaranteed to land jobs after completing the program, although some of San Antonio's largest employers — USAA and H-E-B among them — said they will prioritize hiring SA: Ready to Work graduates.

Critics also said the program was crafted without adequate public input.

Those arguments first emerged in early June, when council approved $75 million — part of a $190.9 million federal COVID-19 emergency relief package — toward a similar workforce training program.

Some of the same critics of the measure maintain that San Antonio should prioritize keeping residents in their homes by investing the funds in the city's housing assistance program.

SA: Ready to Work is scheduled to start September 2021.

The 1/8-cent sales tax allocated to the program had been paying for aquifer protection and linear parks. In September, council approved another source of city dollars to protect the aquifer, but that won't fully replace the funding, the San Antonio Express-News reports. The newspaper also reported that Bexar County commissioners have committed to building 26.2 miles of parkway trails.

The transportation measure on Tuesday's ballot also received pushback prior to the election. Critics said the allocation lacked details on how VIA would spend the money, adding that priorities could change for San Antonio's transit needs over the next few years.

Under the VIA proposal, once Nirenberg's training program runs its four-year course, the same 1/8-cent sales tax would shift into the transit system's coffers for an indefinite amount of time.

Despite the criticism, the transportation measure received 67.7% approval from San Antonio voters.

VIA officials and backers say the additional funding will allow the agency to increase frequency and service, while adding new technologies that enable it to meet the city's growing transportation needs.

The proposition to renew the popular Pre-K 4 SA program for another eight years passed with 73.3% of the vote.

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

HERON FILE PHOTO

If you're quarantined in the time of Covid-19 and still want to give the City Council and other public servants a piece of your mind, you can do so via the City of San Antonio's new eComment platform.

Visit the city's council, boards and commissions meetings page and find the "eComment" link next to the applicable meeting. Once opened, create a profile or sign in, then leave a comment on any agenda item on the platform. For the City Council meeting on Thursday, there are already two comments from citizens railing against council members under the 2021 operating and capital budget agenda item.

"I hope that the new virtual participation options will increase participation in our City Council meetings," City Manager Erik Walsh said in a press release.

You can also sign up to speak or request a live callback during the meeting and speak directly to the council members by phone.

You can also text "COMMENT" to 55000 for a link, or click here.

For now, the eComment option only applies to City Council's primary meetings held Thursday mornings, the citizens to be heard session Wednesday evenings, the council's Economic and Workforce Development Committee and the council's Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee.

The city says it's working on making eComment available for other city boards and commissions.

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

New online dashboard from the City of San Antonio tracks Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program spending.
The City of San Antonio recently launched a dashboard for its Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program last week.
Photo: City of San Antonio

Since the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program launched in late April, roughly $30 million has been committed to helping San Antonians pay rent, their mortgages or other living expenses, according to a new online dashboard.

[ View the Covid-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program dashboard. ]

Last week, the City of San Antonio launched the dashboard at the request of District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño. The city has other coronavirus-related dashboards, which track trends such as total cases, deaths, cases by race, cases by ZIP code, among other metrics.

The housing assistance dashboard is updated daily and currently shows 15,373 total applications received since April 23, when the City Council approved the program. Doing the math, the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) is fielding roughly 175 applications a day from people seeking rental or mortgage help.

NEED ASSISTANCE?
» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance program, click here or call 210-207-5910 or 311. You can also call the Guadalupe Community Center at 210-226-6178
» More info on the housing assistance program
» To ask about Bexar County's temporary rental assistance measure, call 210-940-1180
» Find out if your property is protected from eviction under the CARES Act, visit covid19.sanantonio.gov.
» To ask about the city's right to counsel program, call 210-212-3702.
» Call the St. Mary's University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse other housing resources

The program also helps pay for past-due utility and internet bills, groceries and medicine, and also offers families up to $300 cash to help make ends meet during the pandemic.

As of today, $25.4 million has helped 8,954 households in San Antonio; another $4.2 million is earmarked for those pending approval—which total $29.6 million or 57% of the program's overall budget of $51.6 million, a combination of federal and local dollars.

Nearly a third, or 5,000 applications, have been denied. The city says many of those applications are from people living outside the city limits. Some are duplicate applications. Many others either were non-responsive when asked for additional information or documentation, or no longer needed the aid.

Earlier this month, the Heron examined some of the issues some renters are having with the program's online application process, which has been described as burdensome to the tech untrained. The city admitted some applicants who qualify for the aid may be falling through the cracks, but also defended its multi-pronged strategy to help prevent that from happening. The city also said its 93-member staff dedicated to processing applications is large enough to handle the load.

[ Read the article from July 2, 2019: "For some renters, housing assistance from city taking more than a month to receive" ]

From the $25.4 million already spent, $21.9 million has helped families pay rent or their mortgage. Nearly $1.9 million in $300 or less cash grants has been distributed to needy families through a partnership with local foundations and the Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit that provides grants to help people lift themselves out of poverty. The smallest expenditure is $4,675 to restore internet service.

Applicants can also check the status of their applications on the dashboard using their name and date of birth.

Missing from the dashboard is a breakdown of the basic information, such as stats on applicants or recipients by ZIP code, gender, race, household size, education, income level, reason for assistance—some of the metrics collected during the application process. These are some of the same stats included in the city's other Covid-19 dashboards.

WE WANT TO TELL YOUR STORY
Have you applied for rental assistance from the city? We'd like to hear from you, whether you received the aid or not, for a potential article. Will you email us?

Treviño, who has taken the lead on the council in reinforcing the city's housing assistance program budget to more than $50 million, said the dashboard "still needs lots more work."

"Ultimately, it will be shaped by community input and will hopefully help to shape policy in order to make the biggest impact," Treviño told the Heron via text.

Edith Merla, NHSD's public relations manager, said she wasn't aware of any upgrades to the dashboard.

On May 12, the Heron submitted an open records request asking for a greater breakdown of data than what was being provided to the media at the time. Our request included total number of inquiries and applications for assistance by week (to track the demand), a breakdown of rental and mortgage assistance (rather than lumping them together), list of recipients by ZIP codes, among data points.

So far, the city has not released the data.

In an interview on June 25, Merla and NHSD Assistant Director Edward Gonzales said the department was too swamped with processing applications to calculate such requests.

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Related
» For some renters, housing assistance from city taking more than a month to receive
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

Disclaimer: Heron Editor Ben Olivo was recently hired as a part-time consult for H.E. Butt Foundation regarding Family Independence Initiative's marketing plan in San Antonio.

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

Housing file art San Antonio Texas.
Photo by Gonzalo E. Pozo | Heron contributor

The median income in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region increased slightly from $71,000 to $72,000 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The uptick represents a 1.4% increase, which is lower than the 6.3% increase the year before.

For the past five years, the area median income has climbed steadily, even if you haven't seen the growth reflected in your bank account. The stat might seem trivial, but it's not for three very important reasons.

INCOME GROWTH
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) has steadily increased the past five years:
» 2020 — $72,000
» 2019 — $71,000
» 2018 — $66,800
» 2017 — $63,500
» 2016 — $62,100
» 2015 — $63,400
» 2014 — $58,800
» 2013 — $61,300
» 2012 — $60,800
» 2011 — $59,900
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

For one, apartment buildings that receive subsidies from the federal government must adhere to a set of rent limits for units offered below market-rate, or, what are termed "affordable." HUD sets those rent limits based on the area median income, or AMI. Many incentive programs at the local level, such as the city's downtown housing incentive policy, and the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp., also set their "affordable" rents based on the HUD standard, they say.

The majority, if not all, of housing programs in this country are based on HUD's standard.

Secondly, by understanding the area AMI, you're better equipped to follow complex discussions about development, not just downtown, but throughout San Antonio. There are examples myriad of "affordable housing" developments proposed for neighborhoods in San Antonio that are met with resistance because the community doesn't fully understand the AMI rent levels being offered, or the developer fails to explain those gradations.

And third, jargon is thrown around so freely by city officials, developers and housing advocates when debating the cost-benefit of an incentive package's value versus the affordability mix and volume of housing a developer is producing in return. It's easy to loose track of what they're talking about. Incentive policies are made, and can be unmade, by elected officials. As voters, learning AMI better arms you with the information you need when deciding whether to support politicians who support or don't support such policies.

Still with me? Let's dive a little deeper.

...

[ Editor's note: When we talk about subsidies or incentives, we're mostly talking about tax breaks developers receive from various levels of government. They also include federal low-income housing tax credits, which developers sell to investors in exchange for cash to build "affordable housing," and city and SAWS fee waivers at the municipal level. ]

...

AMI breakdown

In June, HUD released the latest area median income data for regions across the country. Here they are for the San Antonio-New Braunfels area for 2020.

[table id=14 /]

This AMI chart is the guidepost for how we talk about affordable housing in San Antonio. When a developer or city official talks about a development including apartments priced for people making 60% AMI, for example, they're saying a couple making $34,560 should be able to afford the rent. Or, an apartment at 80% AMI should be affordable to a single person making $40,310, for example.

The row labeled "area median income" is supposed to represent the middle income in the San Antonio-New Braunfels area if you were to plot all the wages on a spectrum from the poorest household in the area to the richest.

...

The great AMI debate

First things first: The San Antonio-New Braunfels region is defined as Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties. This is important to know because those who criticize HUD's AMI say the figures don't truly represent San Antonio's income levels, because they include affluent communities such as those in the Hill Country. The better AMI for San Antonio, they argue, is the one provided by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, otherwise known as the 5-year median income estimate, which was $50,980 in 2018. This more accurately reflects the average San Antonian's paycheck, they say. In its report released in August 2018, the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force makes the same point.

REST OF TEXAS
The San Antonio-New Braunfels region has the lowest AMI of the major Texas markets for 2020:
» Austin-Round Rock — $97,600
» Dallas — $86,200
» Fort Worth-Arlington — $81,500
» Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land — $78,800
» San Antonio-New Braunfels — $72,000
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

[ Editor's note: For the sake of your sanity and keeping things on track, we won't explore how these numbers are produced at this time. If you're curious about HUD's methodology, visit huduser.gov, scroll to the bottom and select "San Antonio-New Braunfels" from the dropdown menu labeled "Or select a FY 2020 HUD Metropolitan FMR Area's Median Family Income." OK, let's proceed. ]

Supporters say HUD's higher AMI means more San Antonians can take advantage of housing programs, such as the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program. To qualify for the program, you have to make the area median income or less. Therefore, more people will qualify if the benchmark is $72,000 rather than if it's $50,980.

HUD AMI defenders also say their figure is more practical, because it's broken down by family size as opposed to the lone American Community Survey number.

There are more pros and cons, but let's stop here for now.

...

The definition of things

You may hear terms like "market rate housing" or "market rate rents" from time to time. What does it mean relative to "affordable housing?" How does AMI factor in?

Market rate housing is simply housing a landlord can charge whatever they want for. Or, whatever the free market will bear. They are apartments build without government subsidies therefore developers are not bound to HUD's rent limits.

This is where things may get confusing; I'll try not to drag you farther down the rabbit hole than we already are.

In my more than 10 years reporting on this topic, I've heard market rate described as housing affordable to people making between 80% and 120% AMI. Whatever prices an apartment complex demands—because we're mostly talking about apartments, or multifamily housing, when AMI is conjured—depends on its location. (Sounds familiar, right?) Market-rate apartments in or near the Pearl, for example, will command much higher rents than market-rate apartments in some obscure part of San Antonio. You could say the Pearl, but really anything built on the San Antonio River north or south of downtown will command higher rents because of the area's aesthetic, proximity to running trails, etc.

Anything above 120% AMI experts characterize as luxury housing, meaning the developer has found a great location and is deliberately charging above market value by offering fancy amenities like granite countertops or infinity pools with killer views of the downtown skyline or party rooms lined with big-screen TVs. You get the idea.

Below 80% AMI? This is where vigorous debate ensues.

For some, below 80% AMI rents constitute "affordable housing." But this definition has changed and is almost obsolete in San Antonio because rents for those apartments are typically seen as out of the price range for someone making 80% AMI. Lately, I've heard developers agree with this argument. ***

Let's talk specifics, because AMI doesn't mean anything unless you compare it to actual rents.

Here are HUD's rent limits for the San Antonio-New Braunfels area. (Granted, HUD doesn't provide a breakdown at every AMI level. We're working on doing HUD's job for them by expanding the table. Until then ... )

2020 Rent Limits for San Antonio-New Braunfels Metro Area

[table id=15 /]

This table, while incomplete, illustrates the situation and the source of consternation for many.

If you're a single person making 50% AMI, or $25,200, according to HUD, you should be able to afford $675 monthly for a one bedroom. HUD's AMI figures are gross, so before taxes. After taxes (say 12% for this tax bracket), assuming the renter is spending 30% of their net income on rent (the most widely-accepted definition of "affordable housing"), they'd be able to afford $554.40 a month. Something's not adding up if the rent limit is $675. You'd also have to factor in additional fees apartment buildings often impose on tenants for services such as garbage and recycle pick up, or for upkeep of communal spaces.

I told you this was confusing. We'll explore the words we use to describe "affordable housing," as well as how rents are calculated, in another post very soon. For now, some closing thoughts:

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Why AMI matters

It's up to you to consider what's affordable and what's not when using HUD's AMI. Understanding AMI allows you to call bullshit if you don't agree when an agency or developer says they're building "affordable housing," or when a news outlet regurgitates in a headline a bureaucrat's talking point (which the Heron has been guilty of before). On the other hand, you may agree with the talking point. Understanding AMI makes this stuff less esoteric.

It helps each time the "affordable housing" debate reemerges, as it did in fall of 2018.

Then, the City Council, city officials, and housing experts and advocates debated the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, or CCHIP, which is the Mayor Julián Castro-era program that spurred the downtown area's housing boom of the past decade. How much in subsidies should developers receive for the affordability mix and volume of housing they're producing in return? Supporters regard CCHIP as the vital first step toward truly revitalizing downtown, while opponents blame it for sparking gentrification in some inner city neighborhoods.

Housing advocacy groups such as COPS Metro and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center have pushed hard for developers who receive incentives to produce more units at 60% AMI and below.

During those discussions in 2018, the City Council decided to offer less in tax breaks, while also adopting HUD's rent limits and an additional 30% income cap rent restriction. They also upped the affordability requirement for developers who build on downtown's outskirts.

The revised CCHIP expires at the end of 2020, so the City Council was set to debate the program—and AMI—once again. But since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, CCHIP has been suspended. Incentive packages are still being considered, but on a case by case basis, according to the city's Center City Development and Operations department. It's unclear whether the City Council will take up the issue later this year.

CCHIP is just one program. There are others. Public facility corporations, or PFCs, for example, are incentive mechanisms the Heron and the San Antonio Express-News have written about many times. Under state law, PFCs, which are government nonprofits, offer a full property tax exemption to developers in exchange for half the units priced at 80% AMI or lower. It's described as an "affordable housing" tool, but—again—many don't consider 80% AMI to be affordable, and many argue developers are saving a lot of money not paying property taxes when they're not producing true "affordable housing." Local entities with PFCs: City of San Antonio, San Antonio Housing Authority, Hemisfair, and the Alamo Colleges District.

One quick sobering stat that got lost recently:

From the city's emergency housing assistance program, which has become critical as many tenants struggle to pay rent during the pandemic: Roughly 56% of people who received help paying rent make less than 10% AMI. If $72,000 a year represents a family of four in the San Antonio region, 10% is $7,200.

*** — More and more developers, it seems, agree that 80% AMI rent are not affordable. We'll share those perspectives with you in an upcoming post very soon.

Related
» June 13, 2019: The San Antonio area median wage rises to $71,000

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

For information on the Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program, call 210-207-5910. Photo by Isaiah Alonzo

The morning after Father's Day, Kevin Gandy, 60, a father and grandparent himself, was due to appear in eviction court. The Air Force veteran had seen his hours as a Google fiber technician dwindle to near nothing at the start of the pandemic. Since March, he and his wife, Margie, had not paid the $1,160 rent on their two bedroom apartment at the Las Cimas Apartments on Fredericksburg Road. The night before, he couldn't slept. To top things off, that morning his truck wouldn't start until a neighbor gave him a jump.

This was Monday, June 22, six weeks after Gandy applied for the city’s Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program, which the City Council approved on April 23. He hadn't heard from the city whether he was approved for the aid.

"Waiting for that court date ... knowing that you're about to be evicted and that you have no funds at all, it plays on your mind," Gandy said. "You're stressed straight out."

Kevin Gandy, US Air Force Veteran, waits to talk with an employee at the American GI Forum June 30 at 206 San Pedro Ave. Gandy received paperwork to fill out for housing to see if approved.
Kevin Gandy waits to talk to an employee on Tuesday at the American G.I. Forum, where he received additional housing assistance. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

It wasn’t until he received a call early that morning from Joleen Garcia, a community organizer with Texas Organizing Project, who had been hounding her City Hall contacts in the weeks leading up to Gandy’s court date, trying to get answers on the status of his application, that Gandy's worries subsided to a degree.

Garcia told Gandy the city had informed her via email that his rent was going to be squared away. He wondered why the city didn't tell him directly. When he finally arrived at the Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2, off Bandera Road, Gandy was met by Garcia and other supporters holding up protest signs, and by a couple of TV news crews and other media, which Garcia had arranged to be there.

When he entered the building, an employee with the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) informed him his back rent and fees, close to $5,000, would be covered, Gandy said. Moments later, Judge Roberto A. Vasquez, informed about the aid from the city, reset the court date to late July. Gandy was safe, for now.

It's unclear what held up Gandy's application, whether the city dropped the ball, or whether Gandy didn't submit the proper paperwork, which he said he did in a timely fashion. Either way, he was left in the dark, he said, with no word from the city on the status of his application.

Another question is whether others applying for housing assistance are falling through the cracks. Of the 12,528 applications submitted (from late April, when the program started, to June 29), 31%, or 3,861, were marked denied. Among the reasons: the applicant lived outside the city limits or they submitted duplicate applications. They also may have made above the area median income (AMI) and therefore didn't qualify. Or, they no longer needed the help. The program's administrators also say if an applicant is non-responsive to their calls and emails, they'll be marked denied. However, if they were to reconnect with city, their application would be put back into the queue.

The city admits it may be culpable in qualified renters not receiving aid.

"We recognize that people could fall through the cracks," said Edith Merla, NHSD public relations manager. "That is why we have so many protections in place and are making every effort to keep people from being evicted. That begins with people knowing about the program before they fall behind and ends with our court team who are present for those last-minute interventions."

NEED ASSISTANCE?
» To apply for the City of San Antonio's emergency housing assistance program, click here or call 210-207-5910 or 311. You can also call the Guadalupe Community Center at 210-226-6178
» More info on the housing assistance program
» To ask about Bexar County's temporary rental assistance measure, call 210-940-1180
» Find out if your property is protected from eviction under the CARES Act, visit covid19.sanantonio.gov.
» To ask about the city's right to counsel program, call 210-212-3702.
» Call the St. Mary's University hotline at 210-570-6135 if you need legal advice.
» Browse other housing resources

The online application portal has been called unfriendly to seniors or other people who may not be tech savvy by people familiar with the process.

The city acknowledges the long wait issues and says it has shortened those durations—from when a person submits the proper documents to when the assistance is granted—to 15 days. It's also partnering with grassroots groups to help promulgate the program, and help people apply for it.

In Gandy's case, the city contends, the system worked: he got his assistance. As a kind of safety net of last resort, city staff have been allowed to post up at the four Justice of the Peace precincts, on hand to counsel people being evicted about their options, an unprecedented measure the city is taking during the crisis.

Gandy's main beef with the city is the lack of communication, and the emotional toll that takes on someone, especially during a time when many people are in self-quarantine.

"I'm grateful to the city for organizing and trying to take care of folks," Gandy said, "but then again ... I would expect that the larger metro areas would have some kind of safety net or something that would be implemented pretty quick during a pandemic like this. ... I'm very grateful. I'm not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, and I'm not in any way trying to dirty mouth the city. But I will be honest with you and tell you it took a really long time and was very, very stressful."

Incoming tidal wave?

In June, eviction court in Texas started up again after the Texas Supreme Court's moratorium expired in late May. Filings by landlords show the numbers are starting to creep back to their pre-Covid-19 totals. That's the half of it: On July 25, the federal moratorium on evictions for properties backed by federal subsidies is set to expire. When this happens, the city estimates half of the rental units in San Antonio, or rather those who live in them, will no longer be shielded from displacement, and those landlords can give tenants a notice to vacate, the first step in the eviction process.

Properties with Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed mortgages, however, have an eviction and foreclosure moratorium through Aug. 31.

Unless the moratoriums are extended, housing advocates fear a tidal wave of evictions will crash over San Antonio at a time when the precarious nature of the economy appears to be the new norm for the foreseeable future. This puts a strain on landlords, as well, who must find tenants to to maintain their properties, and pay insurance and property taxes.

Like other social services during the crisis, the city's housing assistance program has become inundated with applications, fielding as many as 100 a day, city officials said. They said the system can bear the weight of the demand—93 staffers are processing applications, a figure that has increase by 45 employees over the last month.

Since the City Council approved the program on April 23, about 5,500 families have been helped with rental and mortgage aid, as well as utility bills and cash for groceries, medicine and gas, as of June 29. The city says if you qualify, you get the assistance.

The program has $51.6 million allocated. So far, $15.1 million has been spent on the 5,000-plus households. Another $8.7 million is reserved for 3,100 families as their applications are being processed, the city says. Assuming those applications are approved, the city will have $28 million remaining in the program.

One sobering stat: the majority of the recipients, some 56%, make 10% of the area median income or less, Edward Gonzales, NHSD assistant director, said last week. The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the San Antonio region is $72,000. Ten percent of that is $7,200 a year.

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Waiting

Gandy was already two months behind on rent, owing more than $2,000 to Las Cimas, when he saw information about the housing assistance program flash on the TV. On May 5, Gandy applied for the support, but he needed help from his 20-year-old granddaughter to fill out the application and upload documents to the online platform.

Gandy's income shrank from roughly $1,750 every two weeks to between $250 and $500. His wife not able to work and he with sporadic hours, the Gandys spent their money on food and transportation. The other essential, the roof over their heads, had to give.

A week later, on May 12, he received an email from NHSD, telling him he needed to submit more information, but wasn't specific. He had to click a link, which is now broken. Gandy said he immediately uploaded the additional documents, again with the help of his granddaughter, and waited. He can't remember exactly what information or documents were missing from the initial application. Unsigned leases or illegible documents are two examples of paperwork that may need to be resubmitted, according to the city. The next day, he did hear some good news: another city department was settling his CPS Energy debt.

Weeks went by, as back rent continued to compound. Gandy began calling other resources he found on TV via the city, such as the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that offers pro bono representation to people being evicted. The group connected Gandy to Garcia, the community organizer. Around the same time, his landlord issued him a notice to vacate, which gives the renter three days before a landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.

BY THE NUMBERS
Here are figures for the city's Covid-19 emergency housing assistance program as of June 29:
» Total applications — 12,528
» Processed — 9,706
      approved—5,507
      pending approval—338
» Denied — 3,861
      Outside city limits—1,492
      Duplicates—817
      Over income—79
      Other***—1,473
» In progress—2,822
      incomplete—1,112
» Under review—1,710
***—Non-responsive, resident no longer needs assistance, or applied for only utility assistance only (referred to the Department of Human Services)
Source: City of San Antonio

Gandy's wait pales in comparison to that of Michael Luna, 39, an electrical supervisor for a fracking company in the Eagle Ford Shale, whose hours were dramatically reduced when Covid-19 hit. When that happened, Luna, who lives with his wife and kids in an apartment just inside the city limits near Loop 1604 and Bandera Road, went from making $2,700 a week to $800.

He signed up immediately after the council approved the program in late April, and spent weeks working with city staff on his application. However, he didn't receive confirmation from the city that his application had been approved until June 22, the same day Gandy went to court.

"You have to make sure you have all your documents," Luna said. "I had to provide (the documents) multiple times because of the way the system is, through the hyperlinks. ... I had to send it three or four times."

"The system if definitely flawed in that it's not going to be immediate help," he said.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said NHSD has trimmed the wait times considerably since the early days of the program.

"We were telling people initially it would take up to 30 days from the day you submitted a complete application," Houston told the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee on Monday. "We have got that down to 15 days now."

She said the applicant is given up to seven days to respond to missing information. Once the application is completed, it takes another seven days for the city to process it, Houston said. Staffers make two phone calls and send an email outlining the steps before they're marked denied if there is no response.

Luna praised the staff for guiding him through the process, "I can say the representatives they have working there were God given. They were amazing in every which way you can imagine as far as making it very personal."

For Luna's family, the program covered $3,301 in rent (a month and half's worth), a $198.06 CPS Energy bill, and provided $300 from the Family Independence Initiative, a national organization the city has partnered with, along with the H.E. Butt Foundation and other local nonprofits, to provide small cash grants to families in need.

On the ground

The city has also partnered with community groups such as Domesticas Unidas, which empowers domestic workers, and COPS Metro to help get the word out and to help folks traverse the process.

"Let's face it, a lot of the people who do need assistance are people who are not familiar with how all that stuff works," Luna said.

But those groups don't cover the entire population, and people like Gandy, who applied for the assistance on his own, weeks before he met Garcia, didn't have a connection with one of the groups helping out.

So far, the city says outside of eviction court, no landlord has rejected the assistance. However, Garcia says otherwise.

"I'm speaking to someone right now (who is) not receiving assistance because the landlord says he just wants to evict her," Garcia said.

Even if renters are not able to benefit from the city's system, there are other services city officials can refer people to such as, in Gandy's case, the American G.I. Forum. Other options include SAMMinistries and St. Vincent de Paul.

"People are very desperate right now," Gonzales, NHSD's assistance director, said. "We are taking this very compassionate, expedited, accurate approach to processing these applications. We are making sure anything that gets denied is literally taking three touches (before a) manager is approving those denials."

For those who may not be comfortable around a computer, Gonzales said, they can approach some of the organizations the city has partnered with to help fill out applications.

The city also opened "financial and housing recovery centers" on Wednesday, where people can get help with housing assistance (which includes Bexar County's rental assistance program for folks who lives outside the city limits), financial counseling, small business aid, and other resources. The physical locations are:
» Central Library, 600 Soledad St.
» Claude W. Black Community Center, 2805 E. Commerce St.
» The Neighborhood Place, 3014 Rivas St.

Or, people can call 210-207-5910 and a city staff member will walk San Antonians through the process via phone, then create in-person, socially distanced meetings.

We want to tell your story
Have you applied for rental assistance from the city? We'd like to hear from you, whether you received the aid or not, for a potential article. Will you email us?

At the start of the year, the city launched a right to counsel program, in which lawyers with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid represent defendants at no cost. Later this month, landlords will be required to provide tenants with a notice of tenants rights, an ordinance City Council recently approved, which lists resources and other options, at the same time they give them a notice to vacate.

Linda Ortega, a COPS Metro member with Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the West Side, said she's helped maybe 100 people, mostly out of her home, navigate the various programs.

Most of them are referrals, “My comadre told me, or my friend told me,” she said.

She also acts as their spokesperson, contacting NHSD directly to nudge them if an applicant hasn’t heard from the staff in a while.

Most of the people she’s helped only speak Spanish. They work predominately in the restaurant industry, or they’re domestic workers or caregivers, she said.

BY THE NUMBERS
Here's how the $51.6 million is being spent:
» $33 million—federal funding
» $8.1 million—city funding
» $9 million—Family Independence Initiative (direct cash)
» $1.2 million—administrative costs

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, the most staunch housing advocate on the council, has requested an online dashboard, showing how the $51.6 million is being spent, to be made available for public use.

He also said he's concerned the city doesn't have enough local dollars, where the city can set the qualifications, as opposed to federal dollars, which are more stringent. Treviño specifically pointed to how undocumented families don't qualify for federal dollars, where $33 million has been allocated, as opposed to local dollars, where $8.1 million was set aside.

"As we move forward, we have to fill up both tanks," Treviño said. "We cannot only be thinking about one. ... I'm already making the call that we will have to come back for some support and help nonfederal dollars to balance out all the money we are getting for federal funding."

Eviction court

When Gandy entered the Justice of the Peace two Mondays ago, he was already running late and we walked past a desk where NHSD staffers were counseling defendants.

He sat down in the courtroom, and an NHSD staffer asked him for a word in the hall.

"The city at that point finally was trying to intervene, or just to let me know as I sat there waiting for the judge that somebody was coming to my aid," Gandy recalls. "That's like at a hangin'; they already put the damn hood on your head."

On the way out, Gandy spoke with the NHSD staffer, who guided him to the American G.I. Forum for additional rental assistance, for July, since he was maxed out on the amount allowed under the city's program.

"She was sorry it had taken that long," he said of the staffer.

Bexar County eviction lawsuit totals

[ninja_tables id="19169"]
Source: Bexar County Justice of the Peace

One of the judges, Judge Rogelio Lopez Jr. of Precinct 4, said the recent spike in cases has caused him to suspend in-person hearings to help curb the spread of Covid-19. The hearings at least in his courtroom, will be done virtually for the time being. For his part, Lopez has brought in the county's mediation services to help tenants and landlords work out some kind of arrangement.

He said his decision making when it comes to eviction cases hasn't been altered by Covid-19, because the law remains the same. Only now, he said, tenants have more options for assistance. He also added he can't force a landlord, under the state property code, to work with a tenant if that tenant has broken the lease because of unpaid rent.

"Before or now, the law is still what's written in the books," Lopez said. "The law is pretty clear: if you breech the lease ... then the law says (the landlord) is entitled to relief. I, as well as any other judge in the state of Texas, have upheld the law."

Lopez received some biting criticism from comedic talk show host Jaime Oliver on Sunday night during an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO. In a segment in which he predicted an imminent tidal wave of evictions across America, Oliver pointed out Lopez’s tactic to keep the justice system going coronavirus be damned.

"You know, it might be worth thinking twice about what you're taking part in if you're throwing people out of their homes via Zoom, a platform you're only using because it's not safe for people to leave their homes," Oliver said.

Lopez said he's just upholding the law.

"I will tell you it is not easy for me to close the doors to the court," Lopez said. "I've been a lawyer for 25 years, and I believe in our justice system. For me to restrict access is not a decision that is made lightly. It is a very, very difficult decision."

...

Bexar County Precinct 2 Constable's office, 7723 Guilbeau Rd #105.
Bexar County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Constable is located at 7723 Guilbeau Road, Suite 105. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

'That guy's ridiculous'

Gandy, who spent 14 years in the Air Force, seven of those years as a military training instruction at Lackland Air Force Base, was outside the nondescript Precinct 2 building, where he fielded questions from two TV reporters.

An older white man, pulling up from his car some 50 yards away, Gandy estimates, shouted, "Pay your damn rent and you won't get evicted."

"He said this while I was on camera," Gandy said.

He recalls saying to the journalists, "You see that guy over there? That guy's ridiculous. Years back, I probably put some of his kids through basic training. Why would he say that?"

"Of the situation people are in, of the pandemic and no work for some, and self-quarantining," Gandy said, "how can you hold them responsible or be angry with them because they are asking for assistance from the city? ... How can you even purse your lips to say something that stupid?"

Area median income

Here are the latest area median income (AMI) levels for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to know more about how AMI works? Click here.
[table id=14 /]

Related
» Gov. Greg Abbott orders Texans in most counties to wear masks in public
» San Antonio landlords now obligated to inform tenants of rights
» Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm
» Property owners asked to file appraisal protests online amid Covid-19
» City Council narrowly rejects proposal to give renters 60 extra days to pay overdue rent
» San Antonio Housing Authority chips in $350K for rental assistance
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

Disclaimer: Heron Editor Ben Olivo was recently hired as a part-time consult for H.E. Butt Foundation regarding Family Independence Initiative's marketing plan in San Antonio.

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

COPS Metro Alliance's Father Bill Kraus speaks to council about the need for jobs training.
COPS Metro Alliance's Father Bill Kraus speaks to council about the need for jobs training. Screen capture / TVSA

By Sanford Nowlin | San Antonio Current

In a resounding a win for COPS Metro Alliance, San Antonio City Council voted Thursday to allocate $75 million in its federal coronavirus recovery funds to workforce development.

COPS Metro, one of the city's most powerful community organizing groups, vigorously lobbied the council to use the federal dollars to help workers who lost jobs during the pandemic to receive retraining. Under the plan, the city would partner with Workforce Solutions Alamo and Project Quest, allowing residents to access weekly stipends of $450 and services such as childcare.

Council voted 10-1 to approve the plan, saying the training opportunities will allow the city to reshape is low-wage economy and residents to access work with better earnings, benefits and job security.

"It's time to stop changing out the Band-Aid," District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia said of the job-retraining component. "This is about the wound."

However, other community groups — including some frequently allied with COPS Metro — urged council to delay the vote, saying the city hadn't allowed enough time for community input on how to carve up the $380 million in federal aid.

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Activists argued that the $50 million allocation for housing security wasn't enough to stave off a looming eviction crisis.

"This is about balancing the emergency and the long term, but you're rushing through this without ample community input," said Michelle Tremillo, executive director of Texas Organizing Project.

That concern weighed on District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who asked staff to assure him that the city could shift more funds into housing protection if needed.

"In a couple weeks, I think we're going to see a high rate of evictions, and it's concerning," he said.

The sole council member to vote against the plan, District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, argued that federal funds — offered through the Covid-19 Community Recovery and Resiliency Plan — were intended as a short-term aid to small businesses not part of a long-term revamp of the city's economy.

"A lot of folks don't want to be retrained for a new job, they just want their old job back," he said.

Early in the meeting, activists from the Black Lives Matter movement filled the chamber, urging council to slash police funding. Nirenberg periodically struggled to maintain control of the meeting as audience members broke into chants of "Black lives matter" and occasionally shouted out grievances.

Speaker Jennifer Falcon called out council for approving the city's 2016 police union contract, which critics charge offers too much protection to cops who abuse the power of their position.

“You are complicit in the murder of black people,” she said.

"There will be accountability for police and for all of you."

This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.

The San Antonio Current, San Antonio's award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city's premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales asks about childcare funding during Thursday's council meeting.
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales asks about childcare funding during Thursday's council meeting. Photo by Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio

By Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio

The City of San Antonio is introducing more than a dozen proposed programs to boost economic recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city’s Community Resiliency and Recovery plan focuses on four pillars: workforce development, housing security, small business support and digital inclusion. It’s funded through federal coronavirus relief efforts like the CARES Act and the city’s general fund.

The City Council was briefed on the proposals Thursday, which still need to be formally approved next week. The introduction of the plan comes as the state continues staggered reopening of businesses as Covid-19 cases continue to climb.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the federal money used to fund this is not an insurance claim.

“A majority of people have been affected by this economic crisis and they’re teetering on the edge, they need action, they need relief, and these funds are certainly supposed to do that,” he said.

The plans are split with varying amounts of support:
» Workforce Development: $80 million
» Housing Security: $50.3 million
» Small Business Support: $33.1 million
» Digital Inclusion: $27.3 Million

Each pillar has its own initiatives. For instance, under Workforce Development the city plans to provide training services to benefit 10,000 people in high demand jobs that can withstand the pandemic. That is expected to cost about $70 million.

Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger says part of that would be providing support to people undergoing the training.

“They will receive a living subsidy so they have income coming in and can afford to pay their rent and buy their groceries,” Bridger said.

It also offers three months of temporary childcare support for families who can no longer afford it — that’s expected to assist about 4,000 children.

Under Housing Security, the city is proposing to provide rental and mortgage assistance, financial counseling services, leasing more than 300 rooms to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness, and expanding its existing domestic violence prevention efforts.

Small Businesses Support would provide access to grants ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 based on the number of employees; about $2.6 million is dedicated to small businesses related to the arts.

Bridger noted the arts funding would be available to a sole proprietor artist or a non-profit arts organization.

Through proposed Digital Inclusion measures, the city would try to bridge the gap of internet access and boost the capacities of distance learning. There would be a focus on 50 neighborhoods. Twenty-four of those neighborhoods would be in the San Antonio Independent School District; eight are in Edgewood ISD; nine in Harlandale ISD, two in South San Antonio ISD, three in Southwest ISD; nine in Judson ISD, one in Northeast ISD, and three in Northside ISD.

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The funding would be used to create fiber connections to students, giving them greater access to school resources.

Several council members praised the efforts being highlighted, and others wanted a deeper focus elsewhere. District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry said there was not enough emphasis on providing support to small businesses.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong in my eyes with this entire plan, we’re not focusing on getting this economy back on its feet, and stimulating those small businesses who hire the people that are struggling to pay their rents, food, gas and that kind of thing,” Perry said asking staff to reevaluate and pull more money into the small business portion.

The funding for the resiliency plan comes from two primary sources: the federal government’s coronavirus relief fund – that’s about $72 million and the city’s general fund, which is about $94 million. The rest is covered by several federal grants.

“Any city money you see dedicated to the resiliency and recovery plan all assumes that we’re going to balance our own budget using our own resources,” Walsh said.

The city itself is facing a massive budget crunch. It’s projected revenue loss from the Covid-19 crisis now stands at $198 million. The revenue decline stems from reduced sales and hotel tax revenue, lack of conventions, fewer airport trips, declining CPS Energy revenues and other areas.

Walsh said adjustments to this fiscal year’s budget — ending in October — have been made.

“I think that there’s still a lot of uncertainty, but I think it’s important to note that our budget this year is balanced. We made the cuts in our budget in order to stay balanced, I think we’re all going to keep an eye on fiscal year 2021,” said Walsh.

The city has offset some of this year’s budget crunch using the CARES Act and other grants like one targeted for airports. The city has also trimmed some of its budget by furloughing employees in multiple departments and suspending programs.

In total, the city received $270 million in coronavirus relief funds and could potentially get more depending on congressional action. The federal money can only be used for coronavirus response and can’t be used for other means like the tax revenue losses experienced by the city. What hasn’t been used for the resiliency plan is being used for response costs like payroll for first responders and testing

This article is republished with permission from Texas Public Radio. Read the original post here.

Texas Public Radio reporter Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

Folo Media file photo

After a passionate debate Thursday, the City Council voted 6-5 to reject District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño's proposal that would have given tenants an extra 60 days to resolve overdue rent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The vote was cast after dozens of landlords aired concerns about their properties going into foreclosure, or their businesses going bankrupt, should tenants get themselves in too big of a hole with overdue rent, or should some abuse the system and not pay at all. Council members who opposed the ordinance cited the prospect of lawsuits against the city, which City Attorney Andy Segovia warned was a possibility, as a primary argument against the ordinance.

In recent weeks, Treviño had been crafting the ordinance, saying it wouldn't absolve renters struggling with employment during the Covid-19 crisis of rent owned, but rather would grant them extra time to gather relief assistance from various sources, or find another job. On Thursday, the District 1 councilman quoted research by housing advocacy group Texas Housers that characterized 275,800 renters in 2018 in San Antonio as "working people," according its research of U.S. Census data.

"We are successfully flattening that curve, but the cost of that has been a peak to other curves: unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, the need for food supplies, digital divide, along with many other misfortunes," Treviño said.

Voting against the measure were council members Adriana Rocha-Garcia, Clayton Perry, Jada Andrews-Sullivan, Manny Pelaez, Rebecca Viagran, and Shirley Gonzales. Voting in favor was Mayor Ron Nirenberg and council members Treviño, Ana Sandoval, John Courage and Melissa Cabello-Havdra.

If passed, Treviño's "right to cure" ordinance would have essentially placed an eviction moratorium at the city level as far as through Aug. 14 by requiring landlords to provide tenants with a "notice of proposed eviction" before they could issue a "notice to vacate," the beginning of the eviction process according to Texas law.

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Landlords 'are also worried about their jobs'

Fifty five people signed up to speak at the City Council meeting Thursday—52 landlords and real estate group advocates who opposed the ordinance, and three people who supported it—but not everyone spoke because they either ceded their time to another or they left early.

Only one person, Molly, a housing advocate who goes only by her first name, spoke in favor of the statute.

"The unfortunate reality in this city is that corporate apartment complexes and other landlords are determined not to suffer business losses as other business owners have, even if it means cut throating people's safety and the opportunity to affordable housing," she said.

The landlords painted a different picture: Most are offering repayment agreements to tenants who have lost their job or who have had hours reduced during the crisis, among other measures, they said. Some told stories of renters deliberately avoiding rent payments because evictions proceedings in Bexar County are currently suspended through June 1.

City officials estimate half of San Antonio’s rental properties—roughly 130,000—are protected from eviction under the CARES Act through July 24, because the properties received federal financing or subsidies.

Courtney Rosen, chief operating officer at MHN Property Management, said 90% of the nearly 200 homes she manages are owned by middle class people with one or two homes.

"Landlords are people who depend on the rent in order to pay the mortgage, and if they can't pay their mortgage that house is going to be foreclosed on and your renter that you're trying to protect will also be out on the street and everyone will lose," Rosen said.

Treviño said he had found 13 banks and credit unions that are offering payment suspensions or extensions and late fee waivers to homeowners for mortgage payments or small business loans during the pandemic.

"Property owners, including those of investment properties, are offered assistance similar to that which I am requesting we consider today," said Treviño, who represents District 1.

Kim Bragman, the San Antonio Board of Realtors 2020 chairman, said many property owners do not quality for federal mortgage forbearance, the temporary postponement of payments; and they still are obligated to pay property taxes.

During the debate, Courage, who represents District 9, attempted to amend the ordinance so that it was enforceable as long as there was funding in the city's $25 million Covid-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program; and that both tenant and landlord should work together to apply for the assistance. If a tenant didn't qualify for the assistance—in other words, if they didn't lose their job—the 60-day protection wouldn't apply to them, Courage's amendment read.

"Please work with our city department, work with tenants (and) get what's due to you," Courage said, speaking directly to the landlords in the room. "Help people stay in their homes."

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said $13 million remains from the overall $25 million the council approved three weeks ago.

Cabello-Havdra, who represents District 6, made a motion to reduce the extension's timeframe from 60 to 30 days.

Both Courage's and Cabello-Havdra's amendments failed.

[ For background on Treviño's ordinance, read: "Council to consider giving renters 60 extra days to resolve delinquent rent" ]

Legal matters

During the meeting, Segovia all but said he had, in closed session, recommended against the council adopting the statute.

"There are a number of potential challenges. One of them is state preemption," he said meaning that the ordinance would interfere with a contract, i.e. a lease, under state law.

When addressing enforcement of the ordinance, he said the city doesn't have independent authority to intervene in the eviction process, which is outlined at the state level and executed by the county's justice of the peace courts.

"The city attorney essentially convinced many council members that this would result in a lawsuit, and that's where their hesitancy was," Treviño said after the meeting.

Courage doubted Segovia's warnings and pointed to Austin and Dallas, where similar ordinances were passed recently, and where it appears no lawsuits have been filed.

Councilman Pelaez's countered Courage's remark by reminding everyone that the Texas Supreme Court has placed a moratorium on evictions through May 18.

"There's no reason to file suit, yet," Pelaez said.

In an interview last week, David Fritsche, the San Antonio Apartment Association's lawyer, said Treviño's ordinance would violate a landlord's constitutional rights at the federal and state levels, but wouldn't go into detail.

Notice of tenant's rights

One proposed city ordinance everyone embraces is called a "notice of tenant's rights," which would outline their rights under eviction law and offer housing assistance resources. The notice would also encourage tenants to communicate with the landlord to resolve any issue of delinquency through a payment plan.

The ordinance, which has not been passed by the council, was crafted by San Antonio Apartment Association, community organizer COPS Metro, among other groups, in conjunction with city attorneys. Landlords, in theory, would issue the tenant's rights notice at the same time as a notice to vacate, or potentially the day before.

Last month, the Apartment Association urged its members, which manages roughly 160,000 units in San Antonio, to forgive 25% of rent for tenants who receive assistance from the city's emergency fund. Houston said the association's gesture has resulted in 300 households receiving the 25% forgiveness, which amounts to $125,000 in funds saved that can be used to assist other families.

After the meeting, Treviño said he wholeheartedly supports the notice of tenant's rights. It's a drum he's been beating since ramped up the formation of a renters commission earlier this year, and last year when he helped San Antonio Housing Authority residents during their fight to change the agency's eviction policy.

"That's exactly why we wanted a renters commission," he said. "We've been pushing tenants' rights for a long, long time."

Related
» San Antonio Housing Authority chips in $350K for rental assistance
» As eviction lawsuits dwindle, tenants may get 60 extra days to resolve overdue rent during coronavirus crisis
» Cost of living assistance balloons to $30M locally amid coronavirus
» As eviction lawsuits dwindle, tenants may get 60 extra days to resolve overdue rent during coronavirus crisis
» A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on
» Treviño: 'The renters commission is going to happen. I’m positive of that.'
» Number of people seeking housing assistance in San Antonio soared 6,700% last two weeks
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Evictions, property tax foreclosures in Bexar County suspended due to COVID-19 concerns
» Map: Where to pick up free breakfast and lunch while schools are closed for coronavirus
» How San Antonio’s taquerias are hurting during coronavirus outbreak
» Retailers close in compliance with coronavirus order, leaving downtown nearly lifeless
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

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

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