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

David Nisivoccia, the San Antonio Housing Authority's (SAHA) CEO and President since 2015, is expected to be named as the Denver Housing Authority's executive director today.

In recent weeks, the Denver Housing Authority named Nisivoccia as its sole finalist after conducting a national search for a chief executive.

Nisivoccia submitted a resignation letter to the SAHA board last week and will remain in his current role until the first week of January, SAHA confirmed.

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Since Nisivoccia arrived at SAHA, the agency has ramped up housing production considerably, often partnering with for-sale developers in exchange for percentages of subsidized housing that seemed unusually small for a housing authority.

Currently, SAHA has more than 8,800 apartments in the planning stage, or it is finishing in terms of construction, across San Antonio. By comparison, from 2008 to 2018, the agency produced 3,500 units.

The projects under development, Nisivoccia has argued, will generate revenue to subsidize more deeply affordable housing in the future. The strategy has been harshly rebuked by SAHA's most outspoken critics, many of whom are SAHA residents, for more than a year.

Nisivoccia joined SAHA in 2013 as chief operating officer, and took over as SAHA's interim CEO in 2015 when former president and CEO Lourdes Castro-Ramirez left to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Public and Indian Housing. His role became official in 2016.

Previously, Nisivoccia served as the executive director of housing authorities in Fort Pierce, Florida; and Morgan City, Louisiana. The SAHA Board of Commissioners will discuss the transition process during Thursday's regularly-scheduled meeting.

Read more about the San Antonio Housing Authority's strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How rent limits work?

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

2020 rent limits

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

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

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

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

There are, however, exceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About AMI

Yes, but how are HUD rent limits calculated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is completely worth unpacking for another day.

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

victoria commons site may 2020
Townhomes are planned for this swath of land in the Lavaca neighborhood. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) has chosen Catellus of Oakland, Calif., to begin the master planning process for the final phase of Victoria Commons, the multiphase development that's been ongoing since the former Victoria Courts public housing complex was demolished in 2001.

So far, 503 homes, mostly mixed-income apartments, have been built on the 36-acre property cluster southeast of I-37 and East César E. Chávez Boulevard, and south of Hemisfair.

In 1-2 months, construction on a 220-unit mixed-income apartment building known as 100 Labor Street is expected to begin, according to SAHA officials. SAHA has partnered with local developer Franklin Companies on the project.

Details are scarce on the final phase because Catellus still has about a year's worth of due diligence to do on the roughly 9 acres of remaining vacant land—surveying, a traffic study, a market study, rezoning, etc. SAHA and Catellus officials said the new housing will likely be townhomes and maybe apartments. The price points are also unknown.

"We recognize that SAHA has affordable housing across the city," Tim Alcott, SAHA's real estate and legal services officer, said Tuesday during a Lavaca Neighborhood Association meeting held via web conferencing. "We want to make sure we develop funds here so we can provide affordable housing, not just at this site but across the city."

victoria commons site map
HERON | GOOGLE

During the meeting, Greg Weaver, Catellus executive vice president, told community members the year-long assessment will strive for a diversity of building types, explore ways to repurpose the adjacent and vacant SAHA administrative building, and look to potentially add more park space to the area.

From 2007 to 2008, SAHA build Artisan Park on the property, 22 for-sale townhomes—three were priced as affordable housing. Now all 22 homes are market rate, Alcott said. The remaining lots were platted, had utility lines installed and streets paved, for 100 townhomes, but the project was scrapped amid the 2007-2008 recession.

In 2015, SAHA sold 26 of the lots on Leigh Street, which separate Victoria Commons from the rest of Lavaca, to single-family developers. All but two of those homes have been completed, according to Lavaca neighbors.

Also on the site are the 210-unit Refugio Place (completed in 2004) and the 245-unit Hemisview Village (2020) apartments.

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During the meeting, Lavaca residents mostly applauded the new development. Some, however, aired concerns via chat about traffic congestion and that a nearby park be kept intact.

Before the meeting via email, Refugio Place resident Maureen Galindo, a housing advocate who's part of a committee that advises the city on its rental and mortgage assistance program, told Alcott and other public officials the residents of the adjacent apartments, many of whom rent affordable housing units, should have been invited to the meeting.

"It would be entirely inequitable for the Lavaca (Neighborhood Association) to be accessing Victoria Commons plans before SAHA did the outreach effort for my neighbors here at Victoria Commons," Galindo wrote.

In response, Alcott said SAHA had been invited to Lavaca's monthly neighborhood meeting, and that SAHA would eventually host community outreach meetings when public orders related to Covid-19 allow it.

Built in 1940, the Victoria Courts, which were demolished nearly 20 years ago, was composed of 796 public housing units.

Among Catellus' notable master developments is the Mueller project in Austin, the 700-acre former municipal airport site.

The partnership between SAHA and Catellus, which has an office in Austin, is not yet final. By year's end, it is expected to be formalized via a master development agreement.

[ Setting it straight: An earlier version of this article misstated that Victoria Commons and the Lavaca neighborhood are separate communities. Lavaca's boundaries encompass Victoria Commons.]

Related
» SAHA’s Labor Street apartments get final design approval
» SAHA plans to add fourth development between Hemisfair and Lavaca

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

Inside San Antonio's downtown bubble, where rents are on par with Austin's at $2 a square foot and beyond, the cost of living may seem justifiable. As more lofts and condos are built, it all seems normal. Studio apartments priced at $1,000 a month. Topo Chicos for $5. It's not anyone's fault. It's just market forces. It is what it is.

San Antonians who live in other parts of the city, however, are not exactly joining in on the development boom. And make no mistake, not since the years leading up to the stock market crash of 1929 have there been so many buildings going up in downtown San Antonio at the same time.

The Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), a Mayor Julián Castro-era mechanism from 2012, is the reason this market exists today. City incentives have yielded 6,238 completed or planned units, mostly in the downtown area.

In December, Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced his intention to place a moratorium on CCHIP. Why? Because the policy has resulted in the construction of mostly luxury apartments — or market-rate — of late, Nirenberg said. His charge to city officials at the time: Revise CCHIP so that it assists in the creation of more affordable housing in the downtown area.

As a place for entertainment, family activities and recreation, downtown is becoming more accessible with events such as the summertime movies at Travis Park and Hemisfair's Yanaguana Garden. To live downtown? If you're working class or poor, don't bother trying. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are infinitesimal.

So when Nirenberg benched CCHIP in December, it was the first time a public official so openly put the city-backed downtown growth into context with the economic segregation of the rest of the city.

"Those are case in points of a policy created with [the] great intention of revitalizing downtown, but that left out affordability so that only certain portions of our community can actually benefit from that revitalization," Nirenberg told me when I was reporting for nonprofit Folo Media. "That's not what we want. We want downtown to be a place for all San Antonians, especially, when its (growth is) coming with public dollars."

On Tuesday, city officials will unveil the new policy to the Economic and Workforce Development Committee.

Backstory: Before CCHIP, the city handed out incentives, but each deal was unique. City officials and the developer negotiated. Cash was sometimes included in the package. Then the agreement would go to the City Council for a vote. This took time and it raised ethical questions about city officials and developers negotiating behind closed doors.

In 2012, the city created CCHIP with the intent of aiding in getting as many people living downtown as possible while adding transparency and brevity to the incentives process. No longer, did the Council vote on each deal.

What went right: It worked. CCHIP has resulted in 6,238 housing units that have either been built or that are in the works. More and more developments are coming into the core. At the beginning of CCHIP, the development pattern took on the shape of a donut — affecting downtown's surrounding neighborhoods more than the actual center city.

make the point about increased tax revenue from

It had consequences.

What went wrong: Simply put, Mission Trails. Early on, the CCHIP boundaries extended into parts of the city clearly not the central business district. A kind of gerrymandering.

In late 2014 and early 2015, more than 100 mostly low-income households, living in the Mission Trails mobile home park along the San Antonio River on the South Side, were displaced by a luxury apartments that received a CCHIP package.

In June 2016, the City Council revised the program — scaling back its footprint and extending it until June 2018.

hays street bridge

What's to come: CCHIP works for all types of housing — from market-rate to workforce to affordable housing — but units the working class and poor can afford are rarely built in the downtown area. Last week, we reported that the Museum Reach Lofts, an almost completely affordable project by Alamo Community Group near the Pearl, is getting closer to securing all of its financing. (Ironically, the project is taking shape during the CCHIP hiatus, and therefore is not currently due to receive city incentives.)

Conversely, another project called The Durango, 421 S. Flores St., is due to receive a CCHIP package worth $3.3 million — including an estimated $2.4 million in city tax rebates over 15 years — while commanding rents at about $3 a square foot. To give you an idea, a studio apartment (typically 400 square feet; a room with a bathroom) would cost you $1,200 a month.

Construction costs, the cost of land, and other factors, drive up development costs and therefore rents. If you want to build affordable housing in the downtown area, you need help, such as low-income housing tax credits, city incentives.

Every multifamily project that receives an incentive will either include affordable housing or pay a kind of fee that will go into a fund that assists in the creation of affordable housing, says people who have seen the recommendations and, to a lesser degree, CCDO director John Jacks. What we'll be looking for, more importantly, is if the incentives policy will actually encourage developers to add affordable units themselves.

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

Government Hill is one of the fastest-changing neighborhoods in the downtown area. Photo by V. Finster | Heron contributor

The Bexar Appraisal District wants to freeze property values, and therefore property taxes, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but will first ask Gov. Greg Abbott for permission to do so.

The measure was discussed during an emergency meeting of the Bexar Appraisal District Board of Directors Friday morning. During the meeting, the board decided to delay in the mailing of 625,000 property appraisal notices to April 18—a process that typically begins April 1—in an effort to buy more time as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in San Antonio.

The board also decided to close the appraisal district's offices to the public beginning Monday at the recommendation of Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita, who said the building on North Frio Street sees between 1,200 to 1,500 tax payers a day this time of the year.

Contact the Bexar Appraisal District
» 210-224-2432
» bcad.org

He said property owners still have the right to protest their values either by May 15 or 30 days after they receive the notice, and can do so mail, phone or electronically.

The delay gives the Bexar Appraisal District more time to figure out its actions going forward, said District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who serves as the appraisal district board's chairman. On Thursday, Metro Health reported the first community transmitted cases of COVID-19 in San Antonio—six of the total number of 29—meaning public health investigators couldn't determine from where they contracted the disease.

The appraisal district board ultimately wants to roll over property values in Bexar County from 2019, which would essentially freeze property taxes for a year.

"We think it's the most responsible thing to do in light on what's going on," Treviño said. There's "so much stress on our community right now and we want to provide some level of certainty."

The Bexar Appraisal District Board of Directors meets on Friday, March 20, 2020, to discuss what actions to take amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Bexar Appraisal District Board of Directors mets Friday morning to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Later today, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County will send a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking for permission to roll over valuations, a measure his office rebuked earlier this week when the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts requested the same thing. Amezquita's understanding is that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff will ask the mayors of the other municipalities in the county to also lobby Gov. Abbott.

During the meeting, Amezquita said he believes, under state law, he has the ability to roll over property values without approval from Gov. Abbott.

People would still have to pay property taxes, he said. And that they can—and should—still protest them. If a decision was made to roll over taxes, Amezquita said his office would simply not send out new notices.

"If I can avoid sending out 625,000 notices to a panicked community, I think that would be best," Amezquita. "If I were a tax payer, which I am, I would think it would be insensitive, if not callous, if not irresponsible to send these out."

Amezquita said property value rollover would not apply to new construction, properties that have a new owner and any property that experiences a change positively or negatively for an exemption. He said he expects property values to increase across the county by an average of 7% to 8%.

Treviño said he wants to protect San Antonio renters during this time—which compose 47% of the population, according to a recent study of U.S. Bureau Census data by housing advocacy group Texas Housers. If property values remained the same, in theory, rents would remain the same. If property values increase, which the "vast majority" did this year, Amezquita said, rents would increase, too. Unless the owner of a property has a homestead exemption, which would require the owner live on the property, there is no cap for the percentage the valuation can increase year to year.

"Renters are subjected to the full onslaught (of the property tax increase)," Amezquita said.

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The delay buys his staff more time to assess what a property value freeze would have on the various taxing entities, especially school districts.

During the meeting, Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti said a roll over may hurt those property owners who may see a decrease in the value of their homes and businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amezquita agreed that property values are likely to decline—in the second and third quarter of this year, he predicted—but those won't affect this year's tax rolls, because state law dictates properties must be assessed from Jan. 1.

"If you're the owner of the home Jan. 1, and it burns down Jan. 2, you own taxes for the whole year," he said. "That's not my rule, that's state law."

The Bexar Appraisal District's board's next meeting is scheduled for April 8.

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

Roughly 200 people attended a town hall on the possibility of a renters commission, which is being proposed by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at San Antonio College.
Roughly 200 people attended a town hall on Saturday at San Antonio College to discuss a proposed renters commission, which is being led by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

A city commission to address renters issues will be formed, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said Saturday during a town hall meeting at San Antonio College. Who will serve on the commission, what issues it should tackle, and what it should be called were some of the myriad questions that were discussed during the three-hour community meeting.

"The renters commission in San Antonio is going to happen. I'm positive of that," Treviño told the audience of about 200, who were predominately landlords and property owners. "How it happens ... it's up to us on how we help shape that."

The idea seems to have support from many council members, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, based on feedback they gave during a Governance Committee meeting last month.

[ Related: "A commission of renters? In San Antonio, the debate rages early on" ]

Since mid-January, when the concept of a renters commission was first publicly debated, Treviño has said renters need a stronger voice in local government on issues that are unique to them. There are approximately 597,100 renters living in San Antonio, compared to 841,900 property owners, according to data pulled by Texas Housers, an Austin-based housing advocacy group, from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

Treviño argues such a commission would hone in on tenant-landlord issues, and that it would work in concert with existing boards and commissioners, especially the Housing Commission, which addresses a wider spectrum of issues.

Landlords and property owners, on the other hand, say a renters commission would be redundant, because the Housing Commission already exists. That body, which Nirenberg formed in early 2019, has addresses issues of displacement.

To buttress the point, during the meeting Saturday, Erika Hizel, managing partner at Kimeaux Investments, LLC, quoted from the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force report of 2018, which city officials are using to shape housing policy going forward:

"Through the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force process, a strong conviction surfaced regarding the presence of an oversight body in San Antonio: that is, that too many new commissions and oversight boards would simply muddy the waters," Hizel said.

Treviño said he was aware of the paragraph in the task force's report.

"What we're trying to do is not create more red tape, but simply help to align some of these issues so we can provide a better focus," Treviño said.

Treviño has pointed to the example of the right-to-counsel program, a budding piece of local policy that offers an attorney to tenants who are being evicted. That policy was created by his office, outside the parameters of the Housing Commission. A renters commission could also provide direct input on the agenda the city pushes during session of the Texas Legislature.

Also, in his 2019 council request to start a renters commission, Treviño mentions the Seattle's Renters' Commission as a possible model for San Antonio, which has drawn the ire of landlords because it bans evictions during winter months, among other regulations.

...

Lively debate

For rent sign in Government Hill taken January 2020.
There are approximately 597,100 renters living in San Antonio, according to data pulled by Austin-based Texas Housers, a housing advocacy group, from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

During the three-hour meeting, a few themes emerged. Most of the people who spoke, mostly landlords, argued that the commission should include landlords and property owners, as well as property managers on the commission.

The conversation began somewhat heatedly as landlords pressed Treviño for answers. After opening remarks and a Q&A, the audience split into groups to discuss how a renters commission should be formed. Most tables had one renter represented—some had none. In other moments, the tone was more amicable, as the two sides—renters and landlords—talked about the importance of working together to find solutions.

Educating tenants on their rights and about the system emerged as the main point of emphasis for both renters and landlords at the meeting.

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

One attendee, Molly, spoke of the economic segregation that has enveloped San Antonio.

"The only way you can resolve economic segregation is by providing real impactful rent control," said Molly, who declined to give her last name. Her suggestion was met by a few groans. She said San Antonio needs to provide more housing at 30% of the area median income, which is $21,300 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shortly after Molly's remarks, another attendee, a landlord named Robert, said rent control would only create slums because the property owner wouldn't have the funds to reinvest into the property.

"I understand we have to balance it out, but putting a cap on it is going to (create) more of a slumlord situation," said Robert, who declined to give his last name.

In San Antonio, rent control does exist, but it's rare. Rent caps are applied to people renting a subsidized housing in very specific developments built with the help of a full property tax exemption, which Texas law grants to development partnerships if they provide half of the units at below market-rate rents.

At The '68, the mixed-income apartments at Hemisfair, built by local developer David Adelman, rents in the subsidized units cannot exceed 25% of a tenant's income. At The Flats at River North, which is currently under construction at Broadway and Jones Avenue, rents cannot exceed 35% of the tenants' income if they are renting a subsidized unit.

...

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño talks with attendees of a town hall on the possibility of a renters commission on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at San Antonio College.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño talks with attendees of a town hall meeting Saturday at San Antonio College. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

What model?

During the meeting, most of the attendees said the renters commission should follow the rules of the city's Building Standards Board, which appoints its members based on expertise and background. For example, one spot is reserved for a veteran, another for a senior.

The idea, according to the feedback at the meeting, would be to assign commissioners who represents all facets of a lease agreement—from tenant to landlord to property manager.

By comparison, the Zoning Commission is composed of representatives appointed by each council office. The Historic and Design Review Commission is a hybrid; its members are appointed by council members, but many of them work at local architecture firms because the cases that come before them are highly technical.

Treviño said the next town hall meeting for the renters commission will be held April 4. He said he expects the renters commission to go to the full City Council for consideration in May.

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The area median income (AMI) levels shown here are for the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties), according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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

Experts say most rental housing construction is aimed at high-income renters — making it harder for low-income Texans to rent affordable homes.
Experts say most rental housing construction is aimed at high-income renters — making it harder for low-income Texans to rent affordable homes. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. | The Texas Tribune

By Juan Pablo Garnham • The Texas Tribune

The percentage of Texans who rent instead of own their homes is rising at a faster rate than the state’s population. So, too, is the number of households spending more than 30% of their income on rental housing costs.

According to a Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies analysis released late Thursday, by 2018, nearly half of Texas households that rent were considered moderately or severely cost burdened by 2018. Moderately cost burdened means people spend between 30% and 50% of their household income on rent. And severely cost burdened means they spend more than 50%.

“In terms of other states, this is kind of in the middle of the pack,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies. “But Texas is seeing affordability pressures grow maybe faster than the rest of the country.”

In 2008, 1.3 million Texas households that rent were moderately or severely cost burdened. By 2018, that number rose to 1.7 million.

Meanwhile, the number of renter households in Texas is growing at twice the rate of owner households, according to census data. Airgood-Obrycki said this can have long-term effects on families’ wealth.

“This decreases the number of people that are gaining equity through home ownership,” the researcher said. “Also tenants don't have as many protections in Texas as in other states. So it creates a greater percentage of folks in vulnerability.”

One of the problems that Texas has, according to experts, is that although housing is being built, almost none of it is affordable.

“New construction is almost entirely at the high end,” said Airgood-Obrycki.

The Dallas area is the most extreme example of this in Texas. There, the market added more than 199,000 units available for $1,400 per month or more between 2008 and 2018. But the number of units renting available for less than $800 decreased 73%. Similar trends happened in the Houston area and, to a lesser degree, in the Austin and San Antonio regions.

“In Dallas it seems there is a really strong growth in high-income households who can actually afford those units, and you do see new construction to be able to absorb the demand [for that segment],” said Airgood-Obrycki. “Hopefully over time, those units will filter down to low incomes, but that's going to take a long time. We need to think about different segments of renter households and what they each need in terms of supply.”

Texas as a whole has lost around 586,000 units under $800 a month in 10 years while gaining more than a million rental units costing $1,000 a month or more.

“Texas is very unaffordable for the lowest income households,” said Airgood-Obrycki. “This is true everywhere across the country, but when we look across the states, Texas does have one of the highest burden rates for low-income renters who are making less than $15,000.”

In the Austin region in particular, 91.2% of the households that earn under $15,000 a year spend at least half of their incomes on rent. This percentage of severely cost-burdened families is bigger than in any other metropolitan area in the country for that income bracket.

“Anyone who is that poor is probably having to work another job or work on the weekends just to be able to make ends meet,” said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin, a housing advocacy organization. “More than likely don't have health insurance, so it just takes one incident in which you go in the hole. And it also just takes one or two months where you don't pay your rent and then you could get kicked out.”

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Between 2008 and 2018, the Austin area had the third-highest growth rate of renter households in the country. That was fueled by a dramatic increase in upper-income renters.

“Part of the story is that there's pressure coming from these high-income renters, and that's filtering down through the market and affecting the middle income,” said Airgood-Obrycki. “The higher-income renters are pulling rents up.”

Advocates and researchers say that these conditions, added to the fact that Austin has the lowest vacancy rates and the lowest percentage of units under $600 per month of any metropolitan area in Texas, might be contributing to homelessness.

“When you [own] a home, you have the ability to go and work out some kind of payment process,” said Linares-Moeller. “But with renters, they can kick you out if you haven't paid your rent. So, yes, I absolutely think that's another reason why we are seeing people and families experiencing homelessness.”

Disclosure: HousingWorks Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Historic photos of the Alazan Courts are displayed throughout the community. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The San Antonio Housing Authority's (SAHA) controversial multi-year plan to redevelop the Alazan Courts from a barracks-style public housing community into a brand new mixed-income apartment complex took a big step last week.

On Thursday, SAHA's board of commissioners selected Cleveland-based developer NRP Group to build the apartments on the near West Side.

It's too early to determine the development's funding sources, what the rents will look like, among other aspects, SAHA officials said. Now that NRP Group has been selected as SAHA's partner on this project, the two entities will begin to hammer out those details, officials say.

Eventually, the 501 public housing units that comprise the Alazan Courts on 26 acres just west of Alazan Creek will be replaced by a larger community—potentially up around 700 units—said Tim Alcott, SAHA's real estate and legal services officer.

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The new development, which will likely be named something other than the Alazan Courts, will offer public housing units, but it's unclear how many. It will also include affordable housing at various income levels, as well as market-rate units.

The selection of NRP Group, one of San Antonio's largest builders of affordable housing in recent memory, almost drew unanimous support from the SAHA board.

The lone nay vote came from Commissioner Sofia Lopez. She said she wanted more of an assurance that the families who currently live at the Alazan Courts can return to the site, if they so choose. She also expressed some consternation over what will amount to a loss of public housing units in San Antonio.

"I consider public housing in this part of the city to be a precious resource, particularly as development just on the other side of the train tracks starts to take off," Lopez said, referring to the dozen-plus properties in west downtown slated for housing development.

In phases, SAHA will demolish the old tenements of Alazan Courts, a process which could take 5-8 years, Alcott said. In recent years, West Side preservationists have denounced SAHA's plan for Alazan Courts, saying the redevelopment will break up the existing community and scatter its residents throughout the city.

On multiple occasions, SAHA officials, including Alcott, have said Alazan Courts residents will be offered the chance to return to the near West Side—not necessarily the same streets they live now—at other developments SAHA plans to build. Or, if they choose, they can take a Section 8 voucher and move to another part of town. According to a survey of Alazan Courts families taken roughly two years ago, most said they'd take the voucher rather than stay on the near West Side, SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia said.

"We also understand the importance for clients to come back, whether it's directly to a public housing unit we’re going to be developing on a new property, or whether it's at Alazan Lofts, or Tampico (Lofts), (or) Artisan at Ruiz," Nisivoccia said while listing the developments SAHA is planning in the area. Alazan Lofts, in particular, is an 88-unit apartment complex under development next tot he Alazan Courts, which will offer up 40 public housing units.

He also said these projects would receive site-based vouchers, which work like Section 8 vouchers, but can only be used at specific locations.

Lopez said she looks forward to seeing a newer survey of Alazan Courts residents conducted. "Vouchers are not a perfect program, and landlords across the city are not required to accept them," she said.

"I'm just thinking about the scale of this redevelopment, the number of units that will be public housing units, and then what that means for other people who end up decided to take that voucher, and what that means for their ability to find housing elsewhere," she said.

[ Previously published: How best to revitalize Alazan Courts and the near West Side? It's complicated ]

Funding mechanisms

Lopez suggested SAHA wait a few years to see what new programs may emerge should American voters decide to elect one of President Trump's challengers next year.

"Call me naive, call me hopeful, but we have several presidential candidates who are campaigning on strong housing platforms that's going to be decided within the next two years," she said.

Lorraine Robles, SAHA’s director of development services and neighborhood revitalization, said SAHA may still take advantage of those programs given the fact that the project's first phase is two or three years away from breaking ground.

The Choice Neighborhood grant is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program that would address Lopez's concerns, as it requires a one-for-one replacement of public housing units in redevelopments, but SAHA's most recent attempt at procuring the award for the Alazan Courts fell short in early 2018. About four years ago, SAHA received the grant, worth approximately $30 million, which spearheaded the redevelopment of the Wheatley Courts into the East Meadows on the East Side.

SAHA officials said at the meeting they will explore all funding options, including 9 and 4 percent low-income housing tax credits, and private activity bonds, all programs of the Internal Revenue Service; as well as various HUD programs.

The larger strategy

The plan is part of SAHA's strategy in recent years to de-concentrate public housing for mixed-income apartments, like the Wheatley Courts on the East Side, or the old Victoria Courts across from Hemisfair.

Commissioner Marie R. McClure asked Nisivoccia to shed some light on SAHA's development goals. Currently, the agency is exploring a dozen or so developments across the city. If built, the three largest ones in the central core will have large amounts of market-rate units, typically half, with the other half offering various levels of affordable housing.

Nisivoccia said a "good year" for SAHA would be one in which it completes three developments, "up to about 200 units—maybe a little less or more."

"If we develop 600 to 700 units per year, is that going to solve the city of San Antonio's underutilized market for affordable housing? No," he said. "We're just a portion of the solution. There are other nonprofit developers who are going to fill that void."

Commissioner Charles Clack asked about how the reduction of affordable housing units will impact the number of Section 8 vouchers available to the public. Currently, there are 30,000 people waiting for a Section 8 voucher in San Antonio, officials said at a public meeting in August.

"Typically, when we do a redevelopment project, there are things called TPVs, Tenant Protection Vouchers," Nisivoccia said. "We applied for those vouchers, and typically we will receive them based upon the redevelopment application program.

San Antonio-based Franklin Development Properties and ITEX Development of Houston were the other developers who applied for the Alazan Courts project.

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

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston will present a $34.5 million affordable housing plan to the City Council on Wednesday. Heron file photo

Editor's note: This is the second analysis in a two-part series examining the city-lead $34.5 million affordable housing strategy. Read the first part here. On Wednesday, as part of the budget process, city staff will present the plan to the City Council for the first time.

Though it will formally be unveiled to the City Council on Wednesday, the city of San Antonio's $34.5 million affordable housing strategy has received some early mixed reviews from housing observers and elected officials with insight into the plan.

The plan, an ambitious endeavor that was sprung from the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force, involves agencies and nonprofits collaborating with the city to create and preserve affordable housing in San Antonio. The goal: 18,681 affordable units by 2029. The plan was first made public on July 31, at a regular meeting of the Housing Commission, which was attended by the city's top officials, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh. For a summary of the plan, click here.

The meeting was lead by Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, the city executive who oversaw the execution of the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, the program launched in 2012 at the direction of then-Mayor Julián Castro. It's the same policy that has spurred roughly 6,800 housing units—either completed or in the works—in the downtown area, and it's the same policy many blame for the gentrification of downtown's adjacent neighborhoods.

For Natalie Griffith, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity San Antonio, she was skeptical when Houston was put in charge of leading the effort to craft the affordable housing plan. Houston was thrust into overseeing the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD), the department in charge of the city's various housing programs, after former Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni left in recent months to head Corpus Christi's city government.

"This is the first time I've been working with the city for 20 years that somebody is trying to develop an actual strategy and tie the programs to that strategy," Griffith said.

Griffith sees the same type of focus and targeted approach that was placed on the production of downtown market-rate housing now being placed on affordable housing.

"Quite frankly, that's why the downtown development was so successful. That's the approach they took with that, and it worked so well," Griffith said. "If we can do that with affordable housing, that would be awesome."

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

But for some, the city is putting the cart before the horse.

In recent weeks, Walsh announced the city would soon begin the process of hiring a chief housing executive—a person to lead what's being called a coordinated housing system. These were recommendations the task force made in its final report issued in August 2018.

Former Councilwoman Maria Berriozabal, who also served on the mayor's housing task force, said the chief housing officer should have already been in place. She also criticized the coordinated housing system for not being coordinated enough. It folds in other partners, such as the San Antonio Housing Authority. However, the departments within the city need to be better aligned and interconnected toward the housing goals, she said.

"I believe everything else falls from that," Berriozabal said. In a previous meeting, for example, Walsh said the chief housing officer would also oversee the city's homelessness efforts, but homelessness isn't address in Houston's presentation.

The task force's report was released a year ago this month, in the middle of the budget-making process. Jim Bailey, an associate principal at Alamo Architects, and former task force member, said the timing in 2018 of hardwiring the goals and ambitions of the task force's framework report into a city budget that was weeks away from being adopted wasn't ideal.

"We hadn't finished up the framework prior to last year's budget negotiations," said Bailey, who's supportive of this year's strategy. "We had kind of a wishlist and had to move around some existing pots of money. NHSD hadn’t organized yet. This was really the first opportunity to do that."

For his part, Nirenberg agreed with Berriozabal.

"There has been a whole level of anxiety because we hadn't had it, and stalled on that component," Nirenberg said. "You know, we're glad we're finally taking the significant action to do it. I'm glad it's now. I wish it would have been before, but it's 2019 not 2029."

At last week's City Council meeting, District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry questioned the use of tax increment reinvestment zone dollars, the revenue from which has been typically been used for infrastructure upgrades within a specified area in different parts of the city, for affordable housing.

"And now we're saying, let's use that for affordable housing," Perry said. "I don't agree with that either."

At the Housing Commission meeting two weeks ago, Chairwoman Lourdes Castro Ramirez, who also served as chair of the five-member housing task force, expressed some concern that the city wouldn't have enough staff and resources to be able to execute the plan. Might it be too ambitious?

Houston said the plan isn't NHSD's or the city's to bear. It's a collective effort between the city, other public entities and the nonprofits, she said.

For years, there has been a level of coordination between the city and other partners, such as SAHA. For East Meadows, the East Side mixed-income development that replaced the public housing Wheatley Courts, the city chipped in millions of dollars to repave streets and sidewalks, while SAHA raised the funds to build mixed0income apartments that replaced the old Wheatley Courts public housing complex.

In an email to the Heron, Houston said past coordination was specific to one project. She said the coordinated housing system will "clarify the roles and responsibilities of each entity as it pertains to the housing production targets and the other strategies outlined in the policy."

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

By Abby Livingston | The Texas Tribune

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks to supporters at a fundraiser at Native Hostel in Austin on May 8, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks to supporters at a fundraiser at Native Hostel in Austin on May 8, 2019. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON — Calling housing "a human right," Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro unveiled a series of new proposals Monday to address housing affordability issues that are mounting across the country.

Castro promised in a written statement that he will "end veteran, child and youth homelessness by the end of my first term, and will end chronic homelessness by the end of 2028."

Castro has a particular expertise in this field — he served as Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Obama administration. This is the latest in a series of proposals he has released over the course of his presidential campaign since January. Castro has also released plans to address immigration, education and police reform.

There three main tenets he underscored Monday for his housing proposal include focusing on federally funded vouchers to help disadvantaged Americans pay their rent, creating a refundable tax credit for Americans whose rent exceeds 30 percent of their income and expanding the supply of affordable housing units.

On Tuesday, Castro will shift focus to stop housing discrimination and address how gentrification and climate change affect housing affordability and availability. And on Wednesday, Castro will discuss how to move more Americans into homeownership while also regulating Wall Street's role in this sector of the economy.

While Castro has trailed behind most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, he qualified for next week's NBC debate.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them—about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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