Weston Urban has purchased an historic building on the River Walk that once housed the famous Navy Club nightclub in order to provide river access to the adjacent Milam Building, which it plans to refurbish.
The one-story building, 123 E. Travis St., sits on 0.19 acres of land beside the Milam and immediately south of the firm's Weston Centre office tower. It is a block east of where the firm plans to build a 32-story apartment tower, downtown's first residential high-rise.
"As we think about the future of the Milam, the fact that it can now enjoy direct access to the river, that was the driving force, clearly, behind the acquisition," said Randy Smith, Weston Urban's president. "What a beautiful stretch of the river right there—we think we can do something really special. But it's too early to know exactly what that will look like."
The firm still isn't sure what it will do with the 21-story Milam, which it purchased in 2016. Smith said the building wouldn't work as office space because of its low ceilings and other features that don't jive with modern office trends.
"We're still working on that," he said. "It has not been an easy one. I know that it has a bright future, but I would be being less than forthright if I told you I knew exactly what it was."
He declined to say how much the firm paid for the Travis Street building, which it purchased as two parcels from separate sellers on Jan. 14.
The parcels were purchased from the estate of Phillip Sfair, who had operated the Navy Club, county deed records show. Open from 1954 into the 1980s, the Navy Club was a "legendary" after-hours club which hosted Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Sfair died of a heart attack in 2011 at age 91.
With the purchase, Weston Urban now owns roughly 13.5 acres of property in west downtown, county property records show. Under a deal it reached with the city of San Antonio and Frost Bank in 2015—which resulted in its construction of the new Frost Tower in 2019—the firm is also set to acquire 8.8 acres from Frost and 1.9 acres from the city. Those properties will change hands after the city moves into the old Frost headquarters at 100 W. Houston St., which it is currently renovating at a cost of $141 million.
Weston Urban is also under contract with the city to buy the old Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street and an adjacent parking lot encompassing about 1.1 acres.
All in all, when the deals go through, the firm will own nearly 26 acres, making it downtown's largest private landowner by a long shot. (On the southern side of East Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, just outside downtown's limits, H-E-B's corporate campus occupies nearly 30 acres).
Weston Urban is still tinkering with the design for the 32-story, 351-unit apartment tower on Soledad, which received initial approval from the city's Historic and Design Review Commission in December. Nothing like it has been built downtown—to date, the tallest residential building in the district is the 14-story Vistana. Yet Smith said he is confident in its success, even as the Covid-19 pandemic has roiled real estate markets.
"In the throes of Covid, there aren't many things about real estate that aren't challenging," Smith said. "We believe those challenges to be temporary in nature, and we think that there's a lot of opportunity lying in those challenges … Our strategy and optimism for downtown have not wavered in the least."
He added, "One thing we believe we have going for us is there's just nothing like it in San Antonio, and that can be seen as a challenge or that can be seen as an opportunity. And it is clearly the latter."
The tower "has no competition," he said. "As downtown continues to grow, and continues to thrive, and attracts great jobs, we intend to create that competition."
The Continental Hotel property will cater toward students, faculty and staff from the mini-campus that the University of Texas at San Antonio plans to build nearby, along the course of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, Smith said. Weston Urban plans to give the development an affordability component, he said.
Even as the pandemic rages on, Smith said he is "bullish" on the future of the office market. Some businesses, such as call centers, might transition to having their employees work from home, but fast-growing companies will always value office space because of the importance of forming trusting relationships with new employees, which can't easily be done via Zoom calls, he said. And there will always be companies aiming to form a culture among their employees, which requires common working space.
"We don't see it, and we don't feel it, that the pandemic has been brutal to the office market, especially not in cities like San Antonio," he said.
Metairie, La.-based developer Beau Baudier plans to renovate a circa-1914, three-story commercial building on East Travis Street that has been largely unused in recent memory.
The developer plans to convert the former office space into 16 short-term rental "guest rooms" along with two retail spaces presumably on the ground level, according to documents filed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The filing describes the units as "transient, short-term rentals."
Baudier of Design Engineering Inc. did not respond to an interview request. Welty Architecture LLC, also based in Metairie, which is part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, is listed as the architect.
The building was built in 1914 and designed by Atlee B. Ayers for the San Antonio Light newspaper, according to city records. Baudier purchased the building from San Antonio developer James Lifshutz last year.
The renovation is expected to cost $3.5 million. According to the filing, work was expected to begin this month and be finished by September 2021.
For the longest time, a sign that read "Beauty College" still hung on the facade, a specter of one of the historic structure's former tenant.
The Baudier-Welty team recently renovated a structure similar in size in downtown New Orleans into apartments.
This year, the Bexar Appraisal District assessed the building, which is listed as a local landmark, at $1.4 million.
Weston Urban has submitted plans to the city to build a 32-story apartment tower with ground-floor retail a block from Geekdom and the Frost Tower.
The $107 million tower, 305 Soledad St., would include 351 apartment units, 7,250 square feet of retail space and a six-level parking garage with 456 spaces, according to the Planning Commission agenda for Wednesday's meeting.
"We absolutely have exciting plans on Soledad, but all still extremely premature to comment on,” Weston Urban president Randy Smith said in a text message last week, before the agenda was posted.
He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The commission will vote on whether to adjust the property line on Soledad Street and abandon the city’s right-of-way on aerial space above North Main Avenue so that Weston Urban can build a cantilevered parking garage, which is a “necessary component” of the development.
Construction is expected to begin in mid-2021 and last for two years, the agenda says. The 0.87-acre building site is currently a parking lot.
It’s unclear how tall the tower will be, but at 32 stories, it would likely rise higher than the 24- story Frost Tower that Weston Urban completed last year. The only downtown buildings with more than 32 stories are Convention Center hotels: the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, with 38, and the Grand Hyatt San Antonio, with 34.
Weston Urban’s Weston Centre office building, a block east of the proposed tower, also has 32 stories.
The company’s executives have long said they wanted to build housing in west downtown, where they have worked closely with the city to create a busy urban district with a tech flavor centered around their Geekdom co-working space in the Rand building.
The proposed tower would be across the street from the 21-story historic Milam Building, which the company owns and intends to renovate.
In 2015, Weston Urban reached a deal with the city that gave rise to the new Frost Tower and made the company owner of several properties in the area, ranging from the stately Municipal Plaza Building where City Council meets to several run-down parking lots. The agreement required the company to build at least 265 housing units.
Since then, the company has frequently bought up property in west downtown, where the construction of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park and the University of Texas at San Antonio's (UTSA) plans to expand its downtown campus are expected to draw in even more businesses and residents. Last year, for example it bought two low-rise office buildings at 601 and 800 Dolorosa, occupying a total of 2.7 acres, deed records show.
Another notable development the planned restoration of the Continental Hotel on West Commerce Street into house meant to complement UTSA's expansion.
The 305 Soledad property was not among the properties Weston Urban acquired through its deal with the city. Entities linked to Graham Weston have owned it since 1997, according to deed records from the Bexar County Clerk.
Randy Smith, Weston Urban’s president, told the Heron last year that the company planned to far exceed the 265 units it promised to the city.
“We will build multifamily down here until the market tells us to stop,” he said. “We have the land. We have the development pipeline.”
The company plans to build a mix of housing types at different rent levels, Smith said at the time. It will seek partners and incentives for some of its projects, he said.
“We are going to deliver across product points and price points, because we can’t deliver 500 of one type of thing and expect that to be a success,” Smith said. “Capital is going to find the most efficient return—to us, as part of our mission, we just will not waiver off that, that we know we have to deliver across product types and price points."
» UTSA downtown expansion expected to begin in December
» A glimpse at west downtown in 10 years
» West Commerce likely to become San Antonio’s next nightlife destination
» Continental Hotel sold to Weston Urban for mixed-use project
» Weston Urban purchases iconic Toudouze building, eyes synergy with UTSA expansion
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
By Ben Olivo & Michelle Del Rey
Before temperatures dropped, Delilah Oyervides sat on her stoop at the Refugio Place apartments south of downtown and watched her three kids play on the Labor Street Park playground across the street. The apartments also face the park's basketball court, which attracts seemingly every kid in the Lavaca neighborhood. The day was winding down and people of all socio-economic backgrounds were getting in their daily rituals before dark. People walked their dogs. A couple of high school-aged runners made laps around the grounds. Over on the diamond, a daughter took softball pitches from her old man.
"The park's right there. Whenever they want to play, I sit out here and keep an eye on them. It's pretty easy, it's simple," said Oyervides, 38, who's lived here in a public housing apartment for four years. "I love it here."
Refugio is the name of these apartments and this street, but the larger development is called Victoria Commons, a collection of predominately market-priced apartments interspersed with subsidized units and public housing. For the past 20 years, this community, which includes townhomes and houses, has taken shape on 36 acres that's technically part of the Lavaca neighborhood, where the Victoria Courts once stood.
The transformation has been ongoing since the Clinton administration.
In 1998, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) received a Hope VI grant, a program designed to replace concentrations of public housing with newly-built mixed-income communities. San Antonio's own Henry Cisneros served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the time. In subsequent years, demolition began on the 660 public housing units that comprised the circa-1940 Victoria Courts south of what was then Durango Boulevard, across from the Institute of Texan Cultures.
The completion of Refugio Place followed in 2004, then the Artisan Park townhomes in 2007, and the Hemisview Village apartments in 2010—a community of more than 500 units, apartments mostly, for diverse income levels that's hard to miss from Interstate 37 as drivers enter or leave downtown over East César E. Chávez Boulevard (formerly Durango). The redevelopment was spearheaded by a second Hope VI grant, worth $18.7 million. But plans for more townhomes, more housing, were halted by the Great Recession, which left fields platted for dozens of skinny townhomes vacant for years, utility lines sprouting from the ground unfinished.
Now, SAHA is revving up development in the area once again, hoping to bring this master development to a close in the coming years.
However, neighborhood groups in Lavaca are pushing back on nearly every aspect of the complex plan, and say SAHA is deviating from promises it's made in the past.
For example, a group of townhome owners has hinted at litigation should SAHA not de-concentrate subsidized and public housing in one of four new apartment buildings the agency is proposing.
The larger Lavaca Neighborhood Association is advocating for more housing that's below market-rate than what the agency is currently proposing.
Another concern is density. Adjacent property owners, as well as the LNA, signed off on aspects of the Victoria Commons conceptual plan several years ago. But property SAHA has deemed in play for new construction has caught some nearby homeowners by surprise. Proposed apartment buildings on two triangular stormwater basins next to I-37, and at the sites of the Victoria Courts' former administrative building and a YMCA child daycare center, have property owners concerned SAHA is overpopulating the area.
By SAHA's count, the 901 housing units in Victoria Commons, which the housing authority either controls or instigated, will grow to 1,555 after the master plan is completed in the next 3-4 years.
The pushback is not new. A debate over the right mix of affordability at Victoria Commons has been ongoing in Lavaca for years.
If Joe Biden defeats President Trump on Tuesday, Victoria Commons will have spanned five U.S. presidential administrations, potentially a sixth.
Victoria Commons is composed of the aforementioned Refugio Place and Hemisview Village complexes, which total 455 apartments, and the 22 multi-story townhomes that comprise Artisan Park. Then there's the 26 single-family homes that were privately built on Leigh Street on lots SAHA sold in recent years for a combined $1.5 million, and the 185-unit Victoria Plaza, an older nine-story building for seniors and disabled residents the agency is currently renovating, and expects to finish in February or March.
It also includes a 213-unit, $53.7 million apartment project at Labor Street and Chavez Boulevard, known as 100 Labor, which is scheduled to begin construction this year.
Here's a chart provided by SAHA that shows the affordability breakdown of these projects, and future development at Victoria Commons:
Future phases would add another 654 units, a mix of apartments and townhomes, to the 901 that are either built, being rehabbed or soon-to-be under construction at Victoria Commons.
By SAHA's projections, the new development would lower the amount of below market-rate apartments and public housing at Victoria Commons from 45%, the current ratio, to 39% after the master plan is completed.
The Lavaca Neighborhood Association (LNA) informed SAHA recently that it cannot support the decrease in the proportion of units considered affordable, or below market-rate.
"To better serve the specific needs of the San Antonio community, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association recommends maintaining 45% affordable housing units to be distributed throughout Victoria Commons," the LNA wrote in a letter to SAHA dated Oct. 23.
The LNA cites Lavaca's 130-year history as a diverse and mixed-income community, even as property values continue to increase, as a reason SAHA should keep current affordability levels consistent.
"Lavaca was home to artisans and craftsmen who built the grand mansions of neighboring King William," the LNA wrote in a letter that also addresses a reduction in park space, traffic congestion, among other concerns. "Victoria Commons was once the Baptist Settlement, home to many Latino and Black residents who worked in the nearby railroad depots and lumberyards before making way for Victoria Courts."
In a recent interview, Tim Alcott, SAHA's real estate and legal services officer, said the Victoria Commons master plan is a work in progress. SAHA has hired Catellus, a California firm with a strong presence in Austin, and whose Victoria Commons team has multiple San Antonio ties, to begin the master planning process.
"We proposed 39% based on what we believe the community wanted, but if there's pushback and they want more affordability, we will be happy to have that conversation," Alcott said recently in an interview, alluding to conversations SAHA had with the Lavaca neighborhood several years ago, when SAHA and Lavaca were under different leadership.
Since the interview, SAHA has heard from the LNA, as well as the Artisan Park Townhome Homeowners Association and a group of homeowners on Leigh Street.
"Meetings are being held with representatives of the neighborhood groups, as well as other interested residents, to determine the nature of their concerns, provide additional information and work on modifications of the plan," SAHA spokesman Michael Reyes said in a follow-up email.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño shares some of the LNA's concerns.
"My office does share the neighborhood's concerns with reductions in affordable units, green space, historic buildings, and park amenities," Treviño said in a statement.
In a virtual meeting SAHA and Catellus held in September, the last public gathering, attendees were asked in a survey to opine on the "affordable housing" ratio going from 45% to 39%. Forty people responded. It should be noted that SAHA said it invited residents of Lavaca, including renters at Refugio Place and Hemisview Village; it also sent save-the-date postcards to King William residents.
"What are your thoughts on this mix of income?"
» 35% said they were happy with the proposed mixed-income options
» 25% said they preferred more affordable homes
» 35% said they preferred fewer affordable homes
» 5% said they have no opinion
Among the Artisan Park Townhome Homeowners Association's (HOA) objections is SAHA and Catellus' plan to place 85% subsidized and public housing units in the 180-unit apartment building being planned for the north stormwater basin, which abuts Refugio Place and the townhomes.
The townhomes were built next to Refugio Place, and six of the 22 were priced for lower-income families. But those homeowners were eventually priced out by rising property taxes.
The Artisan Park Townhome HOA called the conceptual plan incongruent with the current distribution of below market-rate apartments at Refugio Place (50%), Hemisview (25%) and 100 Labor (21%). It wants the affordable apartments more evenly distributed among the four multi-family buildings SAHA is planning.
"Our members moved into the neighborhood knowing that it is a mixed-income neighborhood," Artisan Park homeowners wrote in a letter to SAHA on Oct. 2. "We strive to maintain a healthy mix of diverse incomes, backgrounds, races, and occupations."
The Artisan Park Townhome HOA points out that of the 204 new "affordable" units SAHA has planned, 153—or 75%—are slated for the north basin building. Artisan Park Townhome HOA said SAHA should stick to the original plan of building townhomes on land where roads were paved and lots platted and prepared for homebuilding—and tackle any additional apartments later.
In an email to the Heron, Artisan Park Townhome HOA President Selsa Gonzalez expanded on the HOA's position with her own.
"SAHA has been successful thus far in creating a harmonious mixed-income community," Gonzalez said. "Our main worry is that this many affordable units in one building will throw off this delicate balance. We want to maintain the integrity of our community."
At the September meeting, Alcott said public funding sources dictate the 85% subsidized housing planned for the north stormwater basin apartments. For example, apartments built from equity generated from the sale of 9% low-income housing tax credits could only be contained in one building, and not be distributed to other buildings within the master plan, as regulated by the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs.
"Each development is going to stand on its own, and what sort of financing you use will determine the income (levels)," Alcott said in the interview.
SAHA and the Artisan Park Townhome HOA, which has met in recent weeks, disagree on whether spreading out the affordability mix would lead to less or equal amounts of affordability.
SAHA contends spreading out subsidized and public housing units would result in less total affordability at Victoria Commons, "since most of the affordable housing is in the units."
In response, Gonzalez said, "If SAHA/Catellus commits to spreading out the affordability between their new projects, then there is no reason (for) the affordability percentage to go down."
Of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association's wish to maintain 45% affordability throughout Victoria Commons, Gonzalez said, "If SAHA could find a way to maintain 45% affordable in the entire project without placing it all in one building, we would be supportive of this."
Alcott explained that the development on the north basin, the one that would be 85% affordable, would work best as housing for the elderly, while a 200-unit building on the south basin, adjacent to Leigh Street and Lavaca's other single-family homes, would primarily be market-rate with 15% affordability.
Alcott's explanation for one apartment building (north basin) having substantially more affordability than the other (south basin) hint at the urban phenomenon known as Not In My Backyard, or NIMBYism.
About the south basin apartments, "It's closer to the neighborhood. So we thought we did the market-rate one as a small affordability percentage. We thought the neighborhood would like that better, if the market-rate was closer to where folks live, because the neighborhood is all market-rate essentially," Alcott said at the September meeting.
This isn't the first time SAHA has received pushback from the LNA and Artisan Park homeowners.
In 2013, Artisan Park threatened to sue SAHA if it proceeded with a plan to build apartments, 80% of which would have been considered affordable, on the land slated for townhomes. At the time, the LNA supported Artisan Park's arguments of flipping the market-rate-to-affordable ratio from 20%-80% to 80%-20%, respectfully.
"If demand for rental units is satisfactorily proven, the market rate allocation on any developed rental units must be no less than 80%," the LNA wrote at the time. It should be noted that Artisan Park, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association, as well as SAHA, leadership has changed since.
It's worth revisiting here because SAHA officials have said those conversations have colored the current conceptual plan.
Over the summer, during a SAHA board meeting, former commissioner Sofia Lopez questioned why the percentage of subsidized and public housing was so low at 100 Labor, the development facing Chavez that's scheduled to break ground this year. At 100 Labor, 21% of the apartments will be considered affordable—or 44 units compared to 169 market-rate units
"We initially approached the community in 2013," said Ryan Wilson, executive vice president of development for Franklin Companies, the developer of 100 Labor. "It took us a year and a half to go through all the arguments you're presenting now." At the time, Lourdes Castro Ramirez served as CEO, and Ramiro Cavazos as chairman of the SAHA board—both of whom have moved onto prominent positions outside of San Antonio.
"'You promised us to provide a certain amount of market-rate housing'," Wilson recalls the neighborhood saying. "'We don't want it to turn into 100% affordable housing like it was before.' That was when the decision was made."
SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia said Lavaca and Artisan Park residents, at the time, feared more affordable housing would lower their property values, concerns that seem to have shifted given the LNA's current support for maintaining total Victoria Commons affordability at 45%.
Lopez's argument during the meeting in June was that more affluent residents in the neighborhood shouldn't dictate affordability levels at SAHA developments, especially on land SAHA owns. But SAHA officials said they needed Lavaca's buy-in before it could proceed.
"We're listening to a much wealthier community about what it is they want to keep lower income people out," Lopez said during the meeting. "This doesn't sit well with me at all. To me that seems like a compromise on the wrong thing."
Wilson referenced a 2011 updated master plan by Boston firm Goody Clancy that assumed 20% of the newly-built units would be priced for people making up to 30% of the area median income, or the most needy households. The rest would be market-rate.
During the meeting, SAHA officials defended the affordability ratio with an argument they've been articulating for more than a year: SAHA needs to build or support predominately market-rate developments to be able to generate revenue to subsidize deeply affordable housing down the road.
During the meeting, Nisivoccia described housing authorities as being "cash poor industries."
"If we continue business operations ... we would rarely generate new affordable housing," he said. "You would just have what you have. Physically, over time, that's going to fail."
It's an argument many housing advocates aren't buying, and have said as much about SAHA's plans to demolish the Alazan Courts and replacement them with mixed-income apartments on the near West Side.
"Every single bit of that property is precious because we own it," said Lopez, who resigned from the board this summer for personal reasons. "I don't see the benefit of constructing this ratio of affordability ... given the climate is in a fundamentally different place than it was in 2014."
Gonzalez, who's married to Omar Gonzalez, Hemisfair's director of real estate, said SAHA and Catellus have been receptive to their current concerns, and are not considering litigation at this time. The couple bought their townhome in 2012, and say they didn't expect to stay in the neighborhood this long.
"Neighbors look out for each other," Gonzalez said. "Labor Street Park is a great gathering place. Our kids often play with kids who live at the apartments across the street (well, pre-Covid at least). I love that the 'hood is mixed-income as it teaches our kids to be grateful for what they have. ... So, I don’t want to leave, which is why we are very attentive to what SAHA is planning."
The owners of the houses on the north side of Leigh Street, which sit on the lots SAHA sold in 2016, submitted their own list of concerns to the LNA, which the neighborhood association shares.
They're concerned about density and the stresses more residents could have on traffic, parking, and the ingress and egress of emergency vehicles. "We are alarmed that an additional 650 units will cause considerable traffic and safety issues," the Leigh Street residents said in a letter to the LNA board of directors in early October.
They're also concerned about building height. The Victoria Commons master plan once showed the height of buildings gradually decreasing as they moved from Chavez Boulevard south to Lavaca's one-story homes. Contradicting the philosophy, the current plan shows a five-story building (the south basin) next to those homes.
"My personal questions is: Why do we need to build great big buildings, most of which are market-rate, at the end of a cul-de-sac at the end of our neighborhood, where there are much more market-rate apartments going up around downtown that don't mess with the integrity of existing neighborhoods?" said Walt Wilson, who lives in one of the new homes on Leigh Street with his wife and two kids.
The groups also question how SAHA intends to build apartments on two stormwater basins, a process SAHA and Catellus have yet to explain. Alcott said the idea for this particular site was generated by the Urban Land Institute. "SAHA is putting some serious dollars into this to be able to move that water correctly, but it is a great use of the land as we redo that site," he said without giving cost estimates.
SAHA plans to demolish the former Victoria Commons administrative building on Labor Street and build a 108-unit apartment building with 133 parking spaces and 19,000-square-feet of retail space. It has asbestos and costs more to rehab than to rebuild, SAHA says.
The YMCA child daycare center, SAHA says, isn't used as much by the residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village. There are "five or less families total that are in our housing or taking advantage of our programs that are using this facility," Alcott said. SAHA wants to build a 102-unit apartment building with 110 parking spaces, and leave some room for a new daycare center within the new building.
Zoning is another concern, as SAHA and Catellus have said they will pursue a broader form of infill development zoning for the vacant properties, which would give them more options. That's exactly what concerns homeowners. "This designation is virtually unlimited and while we appreciate that promises can be made relative to building sizes, parking, etc., unforeseen things happen," the Leigh Street homeowners wrote. "Projects get delayed and participants change."
Catellus' role as master planner has yet to be formally approved by the SAHA board. Assuming Catellus is chosen long-term, the firm will take the plan from concept to something more concrete, a blueprint for the overall development. Other entities would actually build out the remaining townhomes and apartments.
One concern from all of the neighborhood groups was what appears to be the removal of the Labor Street Park basketball court, which is highly popular with Lavaca's youth. SAHA has since said it intends to reincorporate a basketball court into the master plan.
The final conceptual plan and master plan agreement with Catellus is expected to be reviewed by the SAHA board before the year ends. Infrastructure construction is expected to begin May 2021, and take a year to complete. SAHA and Catellus have not revealed cost estimates.
Originally built in 1940 as a whites-only housing project, Victoria Courts provided low-income homes to hundreds of families for decades until its demise in 2000. Within that time frame, it also developed a reputation for being a volatile neighborhood.
“You’d hear about crime incidents, shootings,” said Darryl Ohlenbusch, who bought his property on Labor Street in 1998, when the Victoria Courts were still standing. “A lot of that was probably overhyped.”
Soon after, Ohlenbusch got involved in the LNA during the critical years in the early 2000s when SAHA was planning the redevelopment. He currently serves as the LNA's zoning and historic preservation director.
"The idea was you don’t warehouse poor people," said Ohlenbusch, who is a lecturer at UTSA's College of Architecture, Construction and Planning. "You should integrate them into a community of mixed incomes so they’re not stigmatized. And that was the whole premise for the redevelopment generally."
SAHA still hasn't fulfilled its obligations under the Hope VI grant—the agency has yet to build 40 public housing units it's obligated to replace from Victoria Courts. Those units will go into 100 Labor and in The Legacy at Alazan, a new development breaking ground this week next to the Alazan Courts on the near West Side, the agency says.
On multiple occasions Heron reporters walked around Victoria Commons to gauge how residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village feel about SAHA's plans. Most didn't know about them.
One resident, Maureen Galindo, who lives at Hemisview Village, and who's one of SAHA's most outspoken critics, didn't attend the September meeting. But she questions SAHA's willingness to include lower-income families in the master plan discussion. When asked, SAHA said it has repeatedly informed residents of Refugio Place and Hemisview Village throughout the process, and said save-the-date postcards were sent to those residents notifying them about the September meeting.
Catrina Rivera, who rents a market-rate apartment at Hemisview Village, said she welcomes more affordable housing at Victoria Commons.
"To be honest (more) affordable housing would be great because it's super highly expensive to live here downtown," said Rivera, who works at a hotel downtown. "So affordable housing would actually be good, because it would help out a lot of those people who do need help."
Oyervides, the mother of three who lives in a public housing unit at Refugio Place, described a vibrant and, for the most part, safe neighborhood that has some issues specific to downtown living. Her kids attend nearby Bonham Academy, which is recognized as one of the San Antonio Independent School District's better K-8 schools.
"The only think I don't like: there's a lot of homeless people," Oyervides said. "Sometimes they walk here. And I don't like to sit right here because I'm right here and they know where I live. I don't like that. (But) nobody's messed with me."
Although recently, her apartment window was busted and had to be replaced. For the most part, "crime is not an issue," she said.
"It's a good place to be. I like it."
» SAHA plans to add fourth development between Hemisfair and Lavaca (Dec. 20, 2018)
» Catellus chosen to finish building on old Victoria Courts site (May 21, 2020)
» SAHA’s Labor Street apartments get final design approval (Aug. 8, 2019)
Michelle Del Rey is a freelance journalist who recently lived in San Antonio. Follow her at @meeshdelrey on Twitter.
By Carson Bolding & Ben Olivo
When you hear someone talk about "workforce housing," what image do you conjure? What do workforce apartments, or renters, even look like?
It's been described as housing for nurses and teachers, and for people who work in the hospitality industry. Workforce housing is not deeply subsidized housing, for low-income tenants, nor is it market-rate. It's the upper echelon of subsidized housing—which is housing built with the help from some sort of government incentive—for people making somewhere at or below 80% of the area median income, or AMI. For a single person in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region, that's $40,310. Workforce housing is also close to where people work, which lends itself to shorter, cheaper commutes.
This is workforce housing.
Of course, it's not that simple.
Lately, projected "workforce" rents at apartments either under construction or in development seem to be unaffordable for the San Antonians they're supposed to serve. At the Friedrich Lofts on the East Side, which is anticipated to begin construction early next year, an 80% AMI or below rent for a studio is projected to be $1,100, and around $1,400 for a one-bedroom. You don't need to be a housing expert to understand that most San Antonians can't afford to pay that much for an apartment. How can subsidized housing be so expensive? Two reasons: 1) It has to do with how federal rent limits are applied (or not) in San Antonio, and 2) how rent limits are inflated by the federal government's definition of area median income locally—two topics we took big swings at recently.
It's not just that certain subsidized rents are high. Here, we're exploring the term "workforce housing" as jargon and why it's misleading. Developers and housing officials eager to redevelop the downtown area often pitch "workforce housing" as housing for downtown hospitality workers when seeking approval from various boards and commissions. We'd like to know: What hotel housekeeper can afford $1,100 for an efficiency, or $1,400 for a one-bedroom? Or, what restaurant server?
"Working a little over minimum wage, that would be impossible," said Ashanti Williams, a bartender at Boxcar Bar on the near East Side.
The term has become so ambiguous, it's hard to tell if anyone really knows what they're talking about when they talk about workforce housing.
On May 27, when the Planning Commission heard a proposal to change the property at 538 Everest Street near Alamo Heights from a mixed-use land use to high density, residents of nearby neighborhoods called in to express their opposition to “low-income housing” being built in their backyard. But a representative with developer Vickrey & Associates was adamant that this development was not low-income housing, but workforce housing. Confused, R. Joy McGhee, who serves on the Planning Commission, asked the question that seemed to hang over the teleconference: What’s the difference between low-income and workforce housing?
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The City of San Antonio defines workforce housing as housing reserved for people making between 61% and 80% AMI, which is roughly between $30,240 and $40,310 for a single person, respectively. "Affordable housing" is housing for people making anything up to 60% AMI, according to the city.
Two years ago, the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force defined workforce housing as housing in the price range for those earning between 80% and 120% AMI.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing 2020 AMI levels. ]
The biggest problem with using "workforce housing" is that it implies people earning less than the threshold being used don't work. But people who are in those lower income ranges are often exactly who you think about when describing the workforce.
Of the $48.8 million the City of San Antonio doled out to people under its emergency housing assistance program, from late April to the end of September, 59% of renters made less than 30% AMI, which is $15,120 for a single person. Recipients had to prove their incomes were impacted by the loss of a job, or reduced hours, due to Covid-19.
"Let's just use a different term: let's call it middle-income housing, but don't call it workforce," said Heather K. Way, director of the Entrepreneurship & Community Development Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law. "There is a push ... to move away from that term because of the way it creates a stigma for other types of subsidized housing, serving those other renters."
Way recently completed a study that exposed flaws in public facility corporations, or PFCs, which are government-run nonprofits that offer developers a full property tax exemption in exchange for offering half the units to renters who make 80% AMI or less—or, workforce housing. One example is the Friedrich Lofts, which is a partnership between the city's San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corporation (PFC), Dallas developer Provident Realty Advisors, and Atlanta-based investor American South Real Estate Fund. Five City Council members serve on the Housing Trust PFC board, and often approve "workforce housing" developments citywide.
These kind of public-private partnerships are always touted as mechanisms for creating workforce housing. Sometimes, developers and housing officials go so far as to describe them as affordable housing.
To be fair, the Housing Trust PFC, at least, has shifted to providing more affordable units, for tenants making 60% AMI or less, even if the percentages of total units is small, typically 10%. It's also fair and accurate to say that the shift has happened because the San Antonio Express-News and Heron has shown more light on PFC deals—their complexities, how they work, etc.—in recent years.
According to the city's 2019 Status of Poverty in San Antonio report, 9.3% of people living in poverty in San Antonio are employed, a larger proportion than Texas and the United States. And downtown San Antonio in particular is fueled by the service industry. But the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force report notes that these workers—who often include hotel staff, restaurant workers and security guards—rarely make more than $15 an hour, which is approximately 60% AMI, or what was $40,080 for a family of four, at the time. Today, 60% AMI is $43,200 for the same family size.
The City of San Antonio's "Affordability Guide" lists food prep workers, cashiers, and customer service representatives as all earning between 30% and 80% AMI.
But can food prep workers, or hotel housekeepers, or any other worker in the lower rungs of the hospitality industry, afford to pay more than $1,000 for an efficiency, or around $1,400 for a one-bedroom, which is what the 61%-to-80% AMI apartments at the Friedrich are projected to go for? For household making up to 60% AMI, or $30,240 for a single person, the Friedrich is also setting aside studios for $767, one-bedrooms for $822, and two-bedrooms for $987.
[ Editor's note: The Friedrich is a rabbit hole we must sidestep here for the sake of keeping this thing on track. If you want to go down it, read "Why some subsidized housing is beyond reach for many San Antonians." ]
"What makes workforce housing true workforce housing is its proximity to employment centers," said Pete Alanis, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust. "Putting housing and transportation together is the right type of fit."
Jim Bailey, associate principal at Alamo Architects and a member of the task force, explained recently that the labels applied by the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force aren't necessarily perfect. The terminology people use shifts over time. Workforce housing, especially, is a moving target. "I think we're in a different place than we were in two years ago," Bailey told the Heron over the summer. In the midst of a nationwide housing crisis and a global pandemic, Bailey thinks that the existing definition of workforce housing might be too narrow.
Another part of this issue is that HUD's AMI is rising faster than real incomes in San Antonio because it includes higher earners from more affluent nearby communities such as New Braunfels. If a family earning 80% AMI is charged a rent suitable for their income level one year, this unit may soon become unaffordable, as it is adjusted to a higher AMI the next year—while incomes true to San Antonio, and not New Braunfels, stagnate. These changes pose the risk of pushing this large portion of people out of the city and away from the communities in which they work.
Housing advocates prefer to use the median household income provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS) 2014-2018, which is $50,980, because it captures only San Antonio households. But the housing system operates by HUD's AMI, which lumps San Antonio and New Braunfels into the same statistical area.
"We sometimes are pigeoned-holed in these definitions because they are industry wide standards," Alanis said, "but they may not be appropriate in the community we live in."
Alanis also echoed a defense many developers use when defending rent prices: wages need to increase, too.
"Every works really hard," he said. "When they're not paid a wage that provides them the opportunity to live a decent life, that's a problem."
The Housing Trust PFC has also partnered with NRP Group, a national developer with a strong presence in San Antonio, on The Flats at River North, the monolithic structure currently under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue. Like other PFC deals, NRP Group will benefit from a full property tax exemption while providing half the units at market-rate, and the other half to people making 80% AMI or less. Almost equidistant to downtown and the Pearl, The Flats at River North is sitting on prime real estate, and the rents reflect that.
According to Debra Guerrero, Vice President of Government Affairs for the NRP Group, market-rate rents at this complex can reach up to $3,265. The reserved units at The Flats at River North are primarily studios and one bedrooms. A one bedroom subsidized unit will be priced as high as $1,340, she said.
"I don't know anybody who could afford that doing what we do," said Joe Saenz, a butcher, chef, and the founder of Swine House, which serves Texas pasture-raised meats at pop-ups and private events.
Until recently, Saenz ran a sandwich shop in downtown, which has temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Saenz said as a tenant, you have to factor in the cost of parking, internet, and other expenses not included in the rent.
"That's not out of the realm of possibilities in normal times, like for a bartender that does well," said Saenz, who rents a home in Monte Vista with multiple roommates. "But I don't know any cook that really could pay that, just as a base."
For Williams, rising rents in the downtown area have made it challenging to find an affordable place to live for someone on a bartender's budget.
He's lived and worked around downtown San Antonio for six years, and right now is renting a house near Woodlawn Avenue and Interstate 10 with a roommate. The two split the $700 rent and about $250 in other bills.
Those higher rents could work, he said, if it were a couple living together.
"Do I want to say $1,400's an affordable condition? Yes, if I have someone living there with me," he said. "Otherwise, it's completely unaffordable. I make good money as a bartender... But at $1,400 if it was a one-bed, one-bath, I wouldn't be able to live there, unless I had someone to sleep on the couch, paying rent with it. Or a partner, a romantic partner to live with me."
In 2016, the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force reported that “in much of San Antonio, rental housing priced at 80 percent of AMI ... is essentially market-rate housing." The opinion has only grown to near-consensus since then.
More and more developers we interview agree that 80% AMI housing, just because it's below market-rate, shouldn't be called affordable in San Antonio.
Victor Miramontes, whose Mission DG company is building the Tampico Apartments on the near West Side, in partnership with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), says those 80% rents are not necessarily for service workers.
But that's why at Tampico, which is located along Alazan and Apache creeks, near their confluence with San Pedro Creek southwest of downtown, Mission DG and SAHA are providing rents that hit every AMI level.
"If you are a service worker in downtown, you should have the right to live close to where you work, just as the office worker in the high-rise," Miramontes said.
Teri Castillo of the Historic Westside Residents Association paints a more drastic picture of un-affordability. If HUD's regional AMI, which is $72,000 for a family of four, is inflated when compared to only San Antonio incomes, then it's absurdly inflated when used to build housing in San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods.
"We have San Antonio's most economically poor zip code within our district," she said recently referring to 78207 in District 5 on the West Side. The 2016 American Community Survey found that the household median income in District 5 was $28,593, less than 40% of HUD's reported area median income for the San Antonio-New Braunfels region.
Castillo described a graphic shown at a Housing Commission meeting over the summer that demonstrates the mismatch between affordable housing and her community's needs.
The chart, shared at the meeting held on June 24, shows that the city has more than doubled its 10-year goal of building 1,165 units that are affordable to those making 60%-80% AMI. But it has only reached 14% of its goal for housing that's affordable to those in the 30%-50% AMI range, according to the presentation by Ian Benavidez, special projects manager for the City of San Antonio.
That range is equivalent to an annual income of $21,600 to $35,500, which is more in line with the AMI of the West Side.
While this 14% shows that they've met their 1-year goal for production, it still lags substantially behind the construction of other units.
"Where our need is, it's not being met," Castillo said. "Where our folks can't afford is being exceeded."
Housing is complicated. It's even more complex when we use the wrong words to describe it.
At the Heron, we have slowly stopped regurgitating these terms, slowly purging them from our articles. We have started to divide housing into two categories: market-rate and below market-rate. We're trying to steer away from terms like "workforce" or even "affordable," because, honestly, we just don't know what they mean anymore.
So, how do you describe subsidizing housing that's just below market-rate? You have to call it something, and we get that. Just don't call it "workforce."
Trinity University senior Carson Bolding was a Heron research intern this past summer through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. Bolding is studying economics and communications, and can be reached at @carsonautri on Twitter.
The year-long zoning battle being fought in Government Hill, over a plan to convert two acres of residential property into commercial at the Interstate 35 frontage road and North Walters Street, has caught the attention of neighborhoods outside this East Side community.
This became evident on Sept. 17 when the City Council made a zoning decision it rarely makes: It stymied the wishes of the council member from that district, which, in this case, is District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan. The councilwoman has sided with a trust managed by Frost Bank and a property owner named Sara Martinez who own adjacent lot clusters and are partnering to build a commercial development where eight homes currently stand.
At the front of the opposition's minds is the prospect of those homes being replaced by a commercial development, while those who support the plan advocate for more business growth, especially on a key thoroughfare such as North Walters, which leads into Fort Sam Houston.
What's been brewing for a solid year now is a vigorous debate over a property owner's right to capitalize their land to the fullest, versus a neighborhood's right to have a say in how their community evolves.
The majority of property owners within 200 feet who responded to the city's zoning survey oppose converting the properties from R-6, residential, to C-2, commercial.
On Aug. 20, the City Council rezoned the cluster owned by the trust that faces the I-35 frontage road from R-6 to C-2 NA, which prohibits the sale of alcohol.
But four council members expressed concern during the council meeting on Sept. 17, which focussed on Martinez's properties, either about the merits of the case itself, or because they had been bombarded with constituent emails who had been paying attention to the Government Hill case and were worried a precedent was being set.
For starters, there's the optics of eight homes, which were being rented to lower-income families, being demolished for commercial development at a time when the city has prioritized affordable housing under Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
If these eight homes are razed, which ones are next? Not just in Government Hill, but in any neighborhood, they contend.
Martinez has said she did not evict the residents, but simply did not extend their month-to-month leases. She said she gave them free rent during the months they looked for new housing, which took place over the summer, and refunded 100% of their deposit. Through her lawyer, she also says the homes are in poor condition and that she wants to get out of the landlord business.
Many who oppose C-2 have agreed to compromise to a lesser form of commercial, C-1; but say Andrews-Sullivan reneged on a promise to do so, and has since pushed for C-2 NA.
Andrews-Sullivan said she recognized her earlier commitment to C-1, "then the understanding of deed restrictions cannot be enforced by the city weighed on my heart. Do I put something in place that continuously leaves a community vulnerable or do I step up as a leader and put the best zoning in place for this community?," she said referring to the "no alcohol" restriction she backs. But the neighbors have said the sale of alcohol is not the sticking point, but rather the various large-scale uses allowed under C-2.
Martinez and the trust lately have not said which tenants would be leasing the prospective development. The owners, which are now represented by attorney Matt Badders, said they have agreed to place deed restrictions prohibiting a gas station (the neighbors' biggest fear), a tattoo parlor and a gun shop. Nothing has been put in writing, at least on the Martinez properties, stating as much, which has cast doubt in the minds of the neighbors that the restrictions will be followed.
"The applicant is saying it could be, it might be, but we don't know. You don't know," said Dora Lopez, 53, who inherited the house she grew up in on Sandmeyer Street, adjacent to the lots in question, during the council meeting two Thursdays ago. "I don't know the applicant even knows what's going to be developed."
Badders has used broad language to describe the kind of tenant the development partnership is pursuing.
"Both the councilwoman and the neighborhood association told us they don't want another fast food, unhealthy option," Badders said. "They want something first-class and name-brand that will bring amenities to this neighborhood it doesn't have."
At least one council member, Clayton Perry, has questioned the lack of a meeting mediated by Andrews-Sullivan where all parties were seated at the same virtual table for a compromise.
Because more than 20% of the property owners within 200 feet oppose the rezoning, a supermajority vote was required by the council at their last meeting. Andrews-Sullivan failed to gather the nine necessary votes when council members John Courage and Roberto Treviño voted against the rezoning, and council members Perry and Ana Sandoval abstained.
That's when Andrews-Sullivan made a motion for a continuance, and the council will now revisit the matter at its Oct. 1 meeting, which is Thursday.
The continuance triggered a community meeting via Webex, which was held last Tuesday. But many of the attendees said the meeting did little to resemble a mediation. For starters, Andrews-Sullivan did not attend and no one acted the role of mediator. Andrews-Sullivan's chief of staff, Lou Miller, ran the meeting, and higher-ups at the Development Services Department (DSD) explained nuances in the zoning code. At one point, some of the neighbors engaged Badders directly, and Badders made the statement that his clients have compromised with the aforementioned restrictions. This left the neighbors with a bad taste in their mouth, feeling like they're no better off now than what they were when the council voted for a continuance.
In a statement to the Heron, Andrews-Sullivan defended the meeting.
It "gave the community an opportunity to speak to one another rather than talking at each other," she said. "There have been several meetings in the past whose sole purpose was to negotiate and compromise. The biggest benefit was the fact that we invited all parties, in and outside of the affected area, that was concerned about this zoning case. It is our hope that the question and answer session was beneficial to all those concerned."
In January, those who oppose commercial development defeated a proposal by QuikTrip, on behalf of Martinez and the trust, to turn the properties into a mega gas station after the Zoning Commission denied the request. Six months later, the rezoning request resurfaced, this time with Badders representing Martinez pro bono, while the Jackson Cloma Living Trust represented itself. But without a known tenant.
At a Zoning Commission meeting in July, in the middle of his presentation, Badders caught commissioners off guard when he told them they were eyeing a Starbucks to lease the property. In the following weeks, after being pressed by some of the neighbors, a Starbucks executive told them directly the company had no intention of opening a shop in Government Hill.
Fast forward to hear and now.
Residents believe a carte blanche C-2 commercial zoning designation, meaning one without a known tenant, would leave residents powerless to oppose, should they feel the incoming business is inappropriate for their neighborhood. The Zoning Commission agreed saying rezoning without a known tenant would leave residents powerless to fight should they not agree with it, except with a lawsuit.
Supporters say the properties are a perfect place to build more retail and restaurants, because they're close to Fort Sam and they face a busy intersection, and they would give this historically low-income community an economic boost.
"What we're talking about is economic development," said Rose Hill, who is president of the longest active neighborhood group called Government Hill Alliance. "We have restaurants in our neighborhood that are closing. We have families that have lost income. We need jobs."
Badders has declined to say what tenants they're looking to fill the commercial space, nor will he shed light on the number of tenants. Badders said he's negotiating with a development partner, one that would bring capital to the project and a list of potential tenants, but that any deal hinges on how the council votes on Thursday.
"Here is the problem with answering your question: The last time they backed me up into a wall. Then they organized a protest and scared them away," Badders said, referring to the neighbors contacting Starbucks. "Their efforts are counter productive."
The C-2 NA designation, according to Andrews-Sullivan, would, in theory, kill any possibility for a gas station, because it prohibits alcohol. But the neighbors point out that a non-alcoholic business that pumps gas could still be placed there, as well as a convenience store that sells alcohol, allowed under C-1.
The neighbors have said they'll accept any business allowed under C-1, alcohol never being a dealbreaker.
In a recent interview, when asked why C-1 wasn't an option, Badders said it was still on the table, but that it limited his clients' options. They've never been shy about saying C-2 increases the value of the property, which is a good card to have during any real estate negotiation. During Tuesday's community meeting, Badders asked DSD officials whether a dentist office could work under C-1, and was told it would not.
"We have to bring something that brings the kind of jobs the people in the neighborhood want to have, such as dental offices," Badders said. "There's not a 24-hour Texas Med Clinic in the neighborhood. Those are specific categories that I don't get in C-1. This is the reason why so far we have been disinclined to accept C-1."
Badders said Martinez and the trust are willing to add deed restrictions that would prohibit a gas station, a tattoo parlor, or a gun shop, but neighbors doubt they will be enforced. Badders said the deed restrictions would be enforced by Martinez and the trust, and any tenant who leased the land and who violated the restrictions would lose control of the property.
"If I'm an evil gas station, why would I spend millions of dollars knowing the property owner can rip it out of my hands?" Badders said.
For weeks now, the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition, a group of neighborhoods largely within Loop 410, has spread the details of this case to its members. Though the coalition hasn't taken an official stance, members have been loud in the ears of their respective council members, most notable District 1's Treviño. They're worried a case such as this one, one without a known business, will set a precedent for commercial use invading neighborhoods unchecked.
Their efforts were enough to delay the vote at the last council meeting.
"It's called commercial creep," said Cosima Colvin, a member of the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition. "It's a well-known phenomenon. It continues to happen. The problem with that particular little area—if that property is successfully (zoned commercial), how do you deny the next one over? You cannot."
One of the main fears from neighboring residents is how far inward the development would come. If it were just the trust's property, which faces the frontage road, less residents would have an issue. In that scenario, the homes that face the neighborhood would back up to the development. With the trust and Martinez's proposal, homes across the site would face the development.
"It devalues our properties," said D'Ette Cole, one of the neighbors leading the charge against C-2, who lives on Reno Street with her husband Steve Versteeg, across from the site. "We would have never moved here if we were going to be facing the back of a possible gas station or convenience store and dumpsters."
Badders has argued the section of commercial property that faces the homes would be less intrusive, and contain some kind of barrier such as a stone or stucco fence that encloses the property, as well as retain the trees currently planted there.
"There are other things you can do to create sound and visibility barriers," Badders said.
Badders disagrees with the notion that successfully rezoning Martinez's properties C-2 would set a bad precedent.
"The fun part of real estate, every property is unique," he said. "So if this happens in Government Hill, is this going to happen in Beacon Hill? I mean, does Beacon Hill have a military base with the single largest economic incentive package in San Antonio's history? Does Beacon Hill have I-35 running through it? I can see a lot of ingredients that make this property at this location and this space different."
Government Hill is one of the fastest-changing of all inner city neighborhoods, mostly because of its proximity to the Pearl and the Broadway corridor. That end of the hill has seen the most gentrification in the form of rehabbed homes and some new construction. On the opposite end of Government Hill, up the hill some 20 blocks east of Broadway, is this pocket where the neighborhood's changing, but at a much slower pace. Over here, dozens of signs have gone up at homes that read, "Don't Kill Government Hill."
Managing change in Government Hill, what kind of philosophical stance this community should take toward incoming development, has resulted in three neighborhood associations, two formed in recent years.
During the summer, Carolina Davila, a teacher’s aid and a mother of three who lived in one of Martinez's homes on Edgar Avenue, told the Heron said she didn't want to move. She said Martinez gave her an ultimatum: leave by June 28, or start paying $1,1000 in rent, an increase of almost 70% of what she had been paying, Davila said.
Though Martinez has declined multiple interviews from the Heron, Badders vehemently denied last week any assertion that Martinez forced her tenants to move by pricing them out.
One Government Hill housing advocate, Marlene Hawkins, opposes a zoning change to any form of commercial, and feels the homes can be repaired through HUD's FHA 203K program, or moved to vacant lots elsewhere.
Badders has said Martinez is an older woman who wants to development her properties and lease the building to one or more tenants. He's said the homes are in such bad shape, they're beyond repair, and they will be demolished whether the land is rezoned or not.
A year ago, Cole moved her home goods store, GOOD|goods, from its spot in a retail strip on the southeast corner of Nolan and North Pine streets. A gun shop and tattoo parlor called Transfer Station opened next door at the start of the year, which caught many in adjacent Dignowity Hill off guard.
“Never once did (they) mention (the gun shop),” Andrews-Sullivan told the San Antonio Report at the time. "They were not fully transparent with City Council and the neighborhood. That to me is not a community partner."
Cole asserts the situation happening across from her home is the same.
Andrews-Sullivan "mentions that 'I'm not going to be bamboozled again like I was the tattoo parlor and gun shop'," she said. "This is exactly how you get bamboozled, when you award someone rezoning without knowing what will go in there."
Badders says he wants the neighbors to give him an example of a C-2 use they wouldn't support that's not a gas station, a gun shop, nor tattoo parlor. Cole said there are plenty of uses they would opposed under C-2, saying it's too abrupt for a neighborhood.
"If the City Council allows this to happen, to rezone from R-6 to C-2 without any kind of project, just this blind rezoning, so that they can get the most money, that is allowing them to flip an entire neighborhood block. Really, we are going to open the door from the city to this kind of speculative real estate venture that's going to destroy neighborhoods like ours.
"You're going to have this whole culture of people flipping whole neighborhoods, instead of houses. That's what this is."
» City Council OKs rezoning residential land for commercial use in controversial Government Hill case
» Planning Commission recommends light commercial use for contentious Government Hill land
» Starbucks not opening on contentious Government Hill property
» Plans to demolish Government Hill homes for Starbucks denied
Setting It Straight: The name of D'Ette Cole's business was misidentified in an earlier version of this article. It's called GOOD|goods.
Editor's note: Marlene Hawkins and Steve Versteeg are monthly donors to the Heron. View a list of all donors here.
Pre-leasing has begun at the 323-unit Acero apartment complex on San Pedro Creek south of downtown. The first residents are expected to move in as soon as November.
The $56 million project is a partnership between Cleveland-based developer NRP Group, one of the most active builders in San Antonio, and the San Antonio Housing Trust, a City of San Antonio nonprofit that's governed by five council members. Cornerstone Holdings, a Colorado-based investment company, is providing an unknown amount of equity.
The complex consumes nine acres of land where West Cevallos Street meets San Pedro Creek. This farther-stretch of the multimillion creek transformation project, which is currently in the planning phase, is near where channel connects with Alazan and Apache creeks at Interstate 35.
Rents start at $1,080 for a one-bedroom unit and go as high as $2,150 for a two-bedroom. According to its website, there's a single three-bedroom going for $2,460.
Half of the units will be priced at market-rate, while the other half will be rented to people making 80% of the area median income (AMI) or less. Of those units, 32 will be rented to people making 60% AMI or less. NRP Group has contributed $250,000 of its own dollars to make the 60% AMI rents possible. The company, along with the rest of the partnership, is also benefitting from a full property tax exemption granted under state law to properties owned by public facility corporations, which the Housing Trust has and is using to own this land. In the partnership, NRP Group and Cornerstone Holdings own 85%, but their split of the 85% is unknown; the Housing Trust owns 15% of the development.
Under the partnership agreement, NRP Group can charge up to 35% of a household's income on rent.
In an email exchange, NRP Group declined to answer questions about profit. Pete Alanis, the trust's executive director, said the Housing Trust PFC will receive a $25,000 annual administrative rent and 15% of net cash flow from the project.
Assuming NRP Group holds the largest ownership stake, and assuming NRP Group sells its share in the near future, the Housing Trust PFC can choose between 15% of net proceeds from the sale or 15% net cash flow for the remainder of the lease.
In September 2019, NRP Group sold its majority stake in The Baldwin on the near East Side to a minority owner for a $10 million profit. The Housing Trust PFC is providing a property tax exemption for that project, as well.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
» Address: 419 W. Cevallos St.
» Development partnership: NRP Group (Cleveland), Cornerstone Holdings (Denver) 85% ownership; San Antonio Housing Trust, 15% ownership
» Property Owner: San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp.
» Occupancy: N/A
» Rent or Buy: Rent
» Height: 3-4 stories
» Land size: 9 acres
» Total units: 323
» Market rate: 161
» 80% AMI: 129
» 70% AMI: 0
» 60% AMI: 32
» 50% AMI: 0
» 40% AMI: 0
» 30% AMI: 0
» Student Units: N/A
» Section 8: Yes, accepts voucher
» Retail (s.f.): N/A
» Office (s.f.): N/A
» Parking: 502 spaces (garage and surface)
» Construction start date: Unknown
» End date: November 2020
» Architect: Davies Collaborative (Austin)
» Cost: $56 million
» Investors: Cornerstone Holdings (Denver); amount unknown
» Financing: BBVA (Birmingham, Ala.), construction lender; PGIM (Newark, N.J.), permanent debt
» San Antonio Incentives: $99,999 (at least)
» Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ):
» SAWS Fee Waivers: $99,999
» City Fee Waivers: Unknown amount
» City Loans: N/A
» Est. City Property Tax Rebate: N/A
» Bexar County Incentives: N/A
» Texas incentives: Property tax exemption; 75-year lease
» Federal incentives: N/A
» Other: N/A
» TOTAL PUBLIC SUBSIDY: $99,999, at least
» Return on investment: NRP Group declined to provide. Housing Trust PFC receives $25,000 annual administrative rent and 15% net cash flow.
March 20, 2020
The Acero receives design approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission. Read more.
The 200-unit Tampico Apartments on the near West Side received a key public subsidy from the City of San Antonio on Thursday.
The $33.6 million Tampico Apartments is a true mixed-income project by local developer Mission DG and the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) on 3.7 acres along Alazan Creek between San Fernando Cemetery No. 1 to the west, and I-10/I-35 and San Pedro Creek to the east.
The development received up to $328,341 from Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), which required City Council approval, to cover the cost of impact fees, building permits, and other city development fees. Under the city's old incentive policy for downtown housing, such fees were automatically waived for any housing development that met the requirements. Since the pandemic started, however, the city is handling each project on a case by case basis.
This may be the first time a TIRZ was used to cover such expenses. Traditionally, in a TIRZ, the tax revenue gained from the rise in property values was used to fund public upgrades within the zone. Recently, the city has been using the monies to fund affordable housing.
Demolition of an old SAHA-owned warehouse began in July, to make way for Tampico.
The 200 apartments are a true mix of affordability, offering apartments to households making each level below the area median income (AMI)—from 80% AMI to 60% AMI and under rents—as well as market-rate.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
However, the affordability mix has been criticized by some West Side activists who say it's tilted more toward the higher rents, rather than the lower rents that are more akin to the historically impoverished West Side.
[ Scroll down to the timeline for more arguments and counter arguments on the rent mix. ]
Source: San Antonio Housing Authority
» Address: 200 Tampico St.
» Development partnership: Mission DG (Victor Miramontes, managing partner; Henry Cisneros, partner; Mark Tolley, partner), San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA)
» Property Owner: SAHA, leasing to development partnership for 35 years
» Occupancy: N/A
» Rent or Buy: Rent
» Height: Four stories
» Land size: 3.7 acres
» Total units: 200
» Market rate: 64
» 80% AMI: 9
» 70% AMI: 20
» 60% AMI: 70
» 50% AMI: 18
» 40% AMI: 10
» 30% AMI: 9
» Student Units: N/A
» Section 8: Yes
» Retail (s.f.): N/A
» Office (s.f.): N/A
» Parking: 167 spaces, surface
» Construction start date: July 2020
» End date: August 2022
» Architect: GRG Architecture (San Antonio)
» Cost: $33.6 million
» Investors: $7.4 million via 42 Equity Partners LLC of New York purchasing 4% low-income housing tax credits awarded to project.
» Financing: $20.4 million loan via Bellwether Enterprise of Cleveland (Freddie Mac tax-exempt loan; serves as collateral for Multifamily Housing Revenue Bonds [see "Federal incentives"]); $22.9 IBC Bank taxable construction loan (pays Multifamily Housing Revenue Bonds in full once project is completed; partly serves as collateral for Bellwether/Freddie Mac loan)
» San Antonio Incentives: $662,805
» Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ): $328,341 (Westside TIRZ)
» SAWS Fee Waivers: $334,464
» City Fee Waivers: N/A
» City Loans: N/A
» Est. City Property Tax Rebate: N/A
» Bexar County Incentives: N/A
» Texas incentives: Developer to receive full property tax exemption via Las Vargas Public Facility Corporation (SAHA entity) for the duration of 35-year lease; under state law. Property valued at $19,097 in 2020.
» Federal incentives: Up to $23 million in tax-exempt Multifamily Housing Revenue Bonds issued by Las Vargas Public Facility Corporation (SAHA entity), pays for construction; $7.4 million via 42 Equity Partners LLC of New York purchasing 4% low-income housing tax credits awarded to project
» Other: $2.6 million developer fee (SAHA and Mission DG to pay fee in 50-50 split into the partnership over 10 years); $627,000 Moving to Work Demonstration funds (HUD)
» TOTAL PUBLIC SUBSIDY: $31 million (at least)
» Return on investment:
» Mission DG: $750,401.25 cash flow (15 years)
» SAHA: $750,401.25 cash flow (15 years)
» Bellwether Enterprise: Unknown
» IBC Bank: Unknown
» Editor's note: SAHA, which is a public tax-exempt entity, has owned the property since 1994. In recent years, SAHA issued a request for proposals for a developer to build mixed-income apartments on the property. That developer was Mission DG. In the Heron's analysis above, the taxable value of the land was not included in the total public subsidy because SAHA hasn't been paying taxes on the property since the agency purchased it 26 years ago.
June 29, 2020
The Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board approved $328,341 for the Tampico project to cover the cost of city fees.
The $33.6 million development will provide some of the most diverse rents of any project in the downtown area, from market rate to those priced at 30% of the area median income (AMI), which is $21,600 for a family of four. The price points, however, have been criticized by some West Side activists for not including a greater percentage at the lower rent levels. Only 4.5%, or nine of the 200 units, will be priced at 30% AMI or lower. Less than 20% of the total, or 38 units, will be priced for people making less than 50% AMI.
"I ask that you consider a more favorable ratio," Kayla Miranda, an Alazan-Apache Courts resident who's also a member of the Historic Westside Residents Association, said to the Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board, which met via video conference. "You cannot truly call the property mixed income if 90% of the tenants are required to make well above the current (West Side income) average. ... You should be blending into a community, not drawing a line in the sand."
Victor Miramontes, Mission DG's managing partner, agreed with Miranda's assessment, but justified Tampico's rent structure as one that would bridge the area's lower rents with those spurred by newer developments such as SAY Sí's new headquarters, which is due to open early 2021 nearby along Apache Creek.
"Do I agree with the comment that the West Side is impacted with much lower AMIs? We acknowledge that," Miramontes said. "We recognize the reality of what people who live on the West Side deal with."
"This project must be a part of a broader, bigger West Side affordable housing strategy," Miramontes said.
Miramontes told the Westside TIRZ board, which approved a $328,341 incentive to help cover SAWS and city fees, construction would begin in July. In a TIRZ, the revenue gained from the rise in property taxes is invested back into the zone in the form of public upgrades or affordable housing subsidies.
The Tampico Apartments project is benefitting from $23 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds, issued by SAHA entity Las Vargas Public Facility Corporation (PFC; see below), and $7.4 million revenue from the sale of 4% low-income housing tax credits, which New York company 42 Equity Partners LLC purchased from Mission DG and SAHA.
June 4, 2020
SAHA board unanimously approved Tampico Apartments project. During the meeting, Mark Tolley of Mission DG told the board the Tampico Apartments was redesigned to orient the buildings farther from I-10/I-35.
Mission DG and SAHA host a public meeting on the project. Read more.
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 /]
Here are the rent limits for most affordable apartments in housing properties in the San Antonio-New Braunfels region that received financing or subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Want to more about how rent limits work? Click here.
[table id=15 /]
The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) is talking to D.C.-based AFL-CIO, the owner of the Granada Homes, about renovating the 12-story low-income apartment building for seniors at the northwest intersection of South St. Mary’s and La Villita streets.
The housing authority wouldn't purchase the circa-1927 building, which is currently appraised at $22 million. Rather, SAHA would use its ability to issue tax-exempt bonds, in this case up to $30 million, to renovate the units, Tim Alcott, SAHA’s real estate and legal services officer, said in an interview this week.
The 12-story building, which was first opened in 1928 as the Plaza Hotel, now contains roughly 230 apartment units for tenants 62 and older.
Alcott said the residents hold vouchers issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they are expiring. SAHA would issue its own vouchers, thus keeping the current residents in place.
"We're trying to figure out a way we can continue to provide vouchers for those folks," Alcott said. "They're coming to an expiration. ... When this deal is done, it's going to be pure mission oriented. This is not a deal where there is revenue coming back to SAHA."
The apartments at Granada are predominately priced for people making 30% of the area median income, Alcott said—which is $15,120 for a single person, or $17,280 for a couple, in the greater San Antonio-New Braunfels area.
The Granada building is one of the few downtown apartment buildings reserved for seniors. Two others, which SAHA owns, are The Lofts at Marie McGuire Apartments, 211 N. Alamo St., and the Villa Hermosa Apartments, 327 N. Flores St. The former hotel, which was built by the same developer behind the Smith-Young Tower (now the Tower Life building across the street) was converted into a community for seniors in 1968.
The project is expected to be presented to SAHA's Board of Commissioners this month.
Heritage Plaza, the 343-unit apartment building a block south of the Bexar County Courthouse, is near completion and already has five new downtowners living there, according to a leasing agent.
The $57 million market-rate project is enclosed by Dwyer Avenue, Old Guilbeau Street, South Main Avenue and Stumberg Street. It's the second project in downtown San Antonio for Cypress Real Estate Advisors of Austin, which also completed the Rivera on Broadway in 2017 before recently selling it to The Barvin Group of Houston.
Heritage Plaza is significant because it's one of the few incentive-backed housing developments located in the downtown core. The five- and six-story buildings have gone up inside East César E. Chávez Boulevard in south downtown, adjacent to Encore SoFlo, which was completed June 2019 by Encore Enterprises of Dallas.
The only public incentives the project is receiving is a city property tax rebate worth an estimated $4.3 million over 15 years, and about $150,000 in city fee waivers. The subsidies were approved a week before Mayor Ron Nirenberg suspended the incentive program in December 2017 because it was helping to produce mostly market-rate apartments, like Heritage Plaza. City Council has since changed the policy to encourage more below-market-rate housing units.
Currently, crews are still finishing out some of the units, and roughly 5,000 square feet of retail space that faces Stumberg has yet to be leased.
Heritage Plaza the apartments replaces Heritage Plaza the city-owned four-story office building, which once stood on the southeast corner of Dwyer and Stumberg before it was demolished in 2017.
All that remains on the block is a 1910-built house at 315 Dwyer Ave. owned and occupied by George A. Scharmen and his law firm. Heritage Plaza has been erected around the two-story house a la Pixar/Disney's 2009 movie "Up."
» Address: 227 Dwyer Ave.
» Developer: Cypress Real Estate Advisors (Austin)
» Property owner: Cypress Real Estate Advisors (Austin)
» Status: Near completion
» Occupancy: N/A
» Rent or Buy: Rent
» Council District: 1
» Height: 5-6 stories
» Land size: 2.6 acres
» Total units: 343 units
» Market rate: 0
» 80% AMI: 0
» 70% AMI: 0
» 60% AMI: 0
» 50% AMI: 0
» 40% AMI: 0
» 30% AMI: 0
» Student Units: 0
» Section 8: Unknown
» Retail: 5,000 s.f.
» Office: N/A
» Parking: Unknown
» Construction start date: Late 2018
» End date: Unknown
» Architect: GFF Architects (Dallas)
» Cost: $57 million
» Investors: Undisclosed
» Financing: Undisclosed
» San Antonio Incentives: $4.4 million from Center City Housing Incentive Policy [view CCHIP agreement]
» SAWS Fee Waivers: N/A
» City Fee Waivers: $158,442
» City Loans: N/A
» Est. City Property Tax Rebate: $4.3 million [15 years]
» Rate of return on investment: Undisclosed
» Construction start date: Late 2018
» End date: May 2020
» Architects: GFF Architects [Dallas]
» Bexar County Incentives: Unknown
» Texas incentives: N/A
» Federal incentives: N/A
» Other: N/A
» TOTAL PUBLIC SUBSIDY: $4.4 million
» Return on investment: Undisclosed
July 6, 2018
The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) approves certain portions of the development to go up in height by a floor—from five to six. Read more.
May 17, 2017
HDRC grants Cypress Real Estate Advisors a certificate of appropriateness for its development. Read more.