La Villita closed Memorial Day 2020
La Villita is closed on Memorial Day because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

As small business owners at historic La Villita and Market Square prepare to reopen in early June, some are looking to the city for financial relief.

They've been told that rent for April and May, when the two historic districts have closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been suspended. Many, however, are confused and don't know whether they will be required to pay rent for those months.

"We all, as tenants, kind of thought that since the city chose to close their properties until June ... the rent wouldn’t pick up again until (June) 1 as well," said Barry Clark, who co-owns La Villita Café and the Scentchips shop. "But we haven’t heard ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I think (the city’s) biggest concern has been figuring out how to open safely. They want to make sure they’re demonstrating best practices."

The La Villita Tenants Association has requested rent abatement through July.

John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO), declined to be interviewed for this report.

When asked via email if the rent payments are deferred (to be paid back later) or cancelled entirely, Jacks said, "Recognizing the immense challenges resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, (CCDO) worked with Market Square and La Villita tenants to temporarily suspend rent payments for April and May. Additional rent relief options are also under consideration as part of a larger plan to assist small businesses affected by Covid-19."

As a form of crisis relief, his department has proposed that the annual base rent increase of 2% and common area maintenance fee increase of 2.5%, at La Villita, at least, be put on hold for the next 12 months.

Market Plaza closed Memorial Day 2020
The Market Plaza at Market Square is closed during Memorial Day. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

'Soft opening'

The downtown shopping districts are city-owned properties that were temporarily closed March 24. Combined, they lease to more than 100 tenants. Some restaurants are open for take-out and limited dine-in service, such as Guadalajara Grill at La Villita and Mi Tierra at Market Square. Some shops, such as Texas Hats at Market Square, are open because they operate in privately-owned buildings. But the vast majority of vendors at both locations have had their doors closed to customers for weeks.

Market Square will reopen June 3, and La Villita on June 4, city officials confirmed. At La Villita, the shops will be open limited hours, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday through Monday, tenants said.

"Once La Villita and Market Square reopen to the public, individual tenants may choose to operate their shops as they feel safe to do so," Kelly Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO), said in an email.

Tenants such as Deborah Sibley, owner Capistrano Soap Company at La Villita, say they won't be fully staffed until they see foot traffic return to the area. They are preparing for a vastly different commercial landscape than the one they're used to. So are small business owners are Market Square.

“We rely a lot on tourism and conventions, and that business is not where it used to be,” said Yvette Ramirez, president of the San Antonio Farmers Market Plaza Association. “We were counting on Fiesta week and the Tejano Music Awards Fan Fair to really push up business, but unfortunately we were not able to have those two festivals."

According to a recent report by the San Antonio Express-News, 23 citywide conventions and 28 smaller programs have been cancelled. The city had estimated $60.9 million in revenue from hotel occupancy from March to September, but now expects $20.3 million during the same timeframe, according to the Express-News.

It is unclear how much revenue the city has lost from La Villita and Market Square, and how many retail locations the city owns, because city officials declined to provide those figures.

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A safe return

Returning to their stores also poses a risk for certain tenants, especially those who are more at risk of infection.

“There’s a lot of fear, because a lot of the tenants are older and considered more high-risk,” Clark said. “So now they have to consider what’s going on with the virus, and whether they want to put themselves in that precarious situation.”

Beyond the financial challenges, tenants are also preparing for new in-store policies to keep customers safe during the pandemic. These measures include facemask requirements, social distancing policies, and consistent decontamination of surfaces and products.

“We’ll be doing everything we can to do everything mandated of us,” Ramirez said. “We’re training business owners to be wiping things down to disinfect them, especially when customers are picking up items to look at them.”

The impact of the closures has forced business owners into a new normal. With such sudden shifts, many tenants are looking for ways to adapt and update their businesses to new formats, potentially changing the landscape of downtown commerce in San Antonio.

“I think the tourism business is forever changed,” Ramirez said. “This has opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that everything can change at a moment’s notice. The majority of tenants at Market Square have been there for over 20 years, and so we’ve done it the ‘mom-and-pop’ store way and realized that may need to change.”

Related
Shop owners at Market Square want upgrades, but not at their expense

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

The Parlour Salon in San Marcos is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
The Parlour Salon in San Marcos is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

By Clare Proctor | The Texas Tribune

Texas is running out of money to pay the growing number of people lining up for unemployment relief, economic experts say.

If you just lost your job, don’t worry. State officials say you’ll get your check.

But if you’re an employer, you might see taxes hike in the future because the state will have to borrow federal money to plug the hole.

More than 1 million Texans lost their jobs and filed claims from March 15 to April 11 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas Workforce Commission has paid out more than $400 million in benefits so far and is expected to pay hundreds of millions more based on the mounting claims filed.

Unemployment benefits are paid out of the state’s unemployment insurance compensation trust fund, which is funded by unemployment insurance taxes and payroll taxes paid by businesses.

Texas is among the states in the worst position to continue to pay out claims, according to a report by the Tax Foundation released last week. Jared Walczak, director of the foundation's state tax policy, told The Texas Tribune that based on the most recent unemployment data released Thursday morning, the state will only be able to pay out about three weeks of additional benefits.

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Only four states had unemployment trusts in weaker shape than Texas, according to the report, with California and New York ranked the two worst off in the nation.

The Wall Street Journal also reported last month that Texas was among only six states that had less than six months of payouts available for unemployment claims, falling far short of being “recession ready,” a designation that requires at least 12 months worth of benefits.

Cisco Gamez, Texas Workforce Commission spokesman, said the agency estimates it won’t run out of money until May or early June, depending on the “level and timing” of unemployment benefit payments.

But he stressed that everyone who qualifies for unemployment insurance will receive benefits.

[ We want to tell your story. Have you been furloughed or let go from the hospitality industry because of coronavirus? We'd like to interview you for a potential article. Will you email us? ]

If the state runs out of funding and borrows money from the federal government in the form of a Title XII loan, businesses could see a “very substantial increase” in their unemployment taxes if the state can’t pay back the federal loan within two years, Walczak said.

Typically, this system makes sense, Walczak said. Businesses pay higher tax rates if they have a history of laying off workers and are incentivized with lower tax burdens to retain employees.

But because Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that all workers providing nonessential services stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, businesses large and small have had to cut employees’ hours, furlough workers or lay off staffers. Unemployment is inevitable, Walczak said, so it doesn’t make sense to punish businesses by having them pay a higher unemployment insurance tax rate.

Walczak said the state is “woefully unprepared” to pay off debt from the federal loan. The implications will be “very serious” for the state’s finances, he added.

Texas’ unpreparedness comes from past economic downturns, Walczak said.

“Unfortunately, Texas has been backward-looking, paying off the debt of the Great Recession rather than looking forward to the next crisis,” he said. “It becomes a vicious cycle.”

During the Great Recession just over a decade ago, the Texas Workforce Commission borrowed about $1.8 billion from the federal government, Gamez said. To cover the loan, the commission had to raise employer taxes, he added.

As a part of the federal coronavirus relief bill, Title XII loans are interest-free through the end of this year. But Walczak said Texas will “almost certainly” still be paying off federal loans next year, when interest will start accruing.

The health of a state’s unemployment insurance compensation trust fund is formed by the tax rate and generosity of benefits, Walczak said. Historically, Texas has had lower unemployment insurance tax rates and “fairly generous” benefit payments, Walczak said, which “don’t work together very well.”

Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston, said this will cause future businesses to have to pay for current unemployment costs if tax rates increase.

“This kind of situation shows why you do have to be prepared for the future,” Craig said. “You don’t want to tax future firms for benefits they aren’t getting.”

If taxes had been higher in the past, more funding would be saved. But having too high of unemployment insurance taxes in the past would have put a damper on the economy, Craig said, so policymakers are looking to find the tax rate that’s “just right.”

Related
» As eviction lawsuits dwindle, tenants may get 60 extra days to resolve overdue rent during coronavirus crisis
» Number of people seeking housing assistance in San Antonio soared 6,700% last two weeks
» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Evictions, property tax foreclosures in Bexar County suspended due to COVID-19 concerns
» Map: Where to pick up free breakfast and lunch while schools are closed for coronavirus
» How San Antonio’s taquerias are hurting during coronavirus outbreak
» Retailers close in compliance with coronavirus order, leaving downtown nearly lifeless
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

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

Disclosure: The University of Houston 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.

The Texas T Pub on Broadway is closed Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
BEN OLIVO | HERON

By Naomi Andu | The Texas Tribune

The number of Texans applying for unemployment relief continues to climb as more workers are laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, 275,597 Texans applied — a 1,604% increase over the 16,176 Texans who filed in the week ending March 14.

The week ending March 21 saw the first spike of the pandemic, with 155,657 out-of-work Texans applying for relief. Both numbers are miles higher than the worst week of the Great Recession, which saw 49,398 Texans file for benefits, and the 63,788 who filed after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area. In the last year, the Texas Workforce Commission has typically fielded 13,600 individuals applying each week.

Those numbers are expected to rise, as Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a statewide stay-at-home order, which allows only essential businesses to operate through April 30. Previously, many cities and counties had announced similar orders.

Meanwhile, many Texans who have been trying to apply for unemployment relief for days or weeks say they can't get through. The crush of people filing has overwhelmed the Texas Workforce Commission's capacity, leading to busy phone lines and website outages.

Both the commission and Abbott have assured worried Texans that all who need relief will get it.

"Just know that you're not going to be denied your claim just because you're having a hard time getting through," Abbott said at a press conference Tuesday.

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Last Thursday, TWC Executive Director Ed Serna asked Texans to "have a little patience with us." The commission is hiring additional staff, extending operating hours and beefing up server capacity to address the increased need. So far, the commission has hired 700 new employees, Abbott told KSAT-TV on Thursday.

But state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, said in a tweet that Texas' insufficient unemployment resources aren't unique to the pandemic.

"This isn’t a case of a good system overwhelmed by unprecedented demand," he tweeted. "This is a *bad* system overwhelmed by unprecedented demand. Even in good times, only 1/3 of unemployed Texans get unemployment benefits."

Talarico cited underfunding and the exclusion of gig and part-time workers.

"This pandemic will continue to expose broken state policies that were designed to hurt some of us, but really hurt ALL of us," he added.

State unemployment agencies may be getting federal help soon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a press call Thursday.

"Some are much better prepared than others or just have a different timetable," Pelosi said. "So one of the things that we may have to do is to get more resources to the state agencies that do this. Again, though, we want this done as soon as possible, and we won't have another bill for a few weeks at least because we're not [in Washington]. But again, we can give some hope to people that that would be a priority."

Already, some requirements for unemployment benefits have been relaxed: There is no longer a work search requirement, and anyone who was previously overpaid while receiving unemployment won't see benefits reduced. But other Texans still fall through the cracks. Gig workers and those who are self-employed remain ineligible for state unemployment benefits, but they may be covered by the recently passed federal stimulus package.

Nationally, the employment situation is just as dire: 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, doubling the previous week when 3.3 million Americans filed and again setting a record, previously held by the 1982 recession.

[ We want to tell your story. Have you been furloughed or let go from the hospitality industry because of coronavirus? We'd like to interview you for a potential article. Will you email us? ]

Related
» Map: Where to pick up free breakfast and lunch while schools are closed for coronavirus
» Evictions, property tax foreclosures in Bexar County suspended due to COVID-19 concerns
» How San Antonio’s taquerias are hurting during coronavirus outbreak
» Retailers close in compliance with coronavirus order, leaving downtown nearly lifeless
» Looking back: The week downtown San Antonio became a ghost town

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune. Read the original post here.

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

Commerce Street is nearly empty amid coronavirus on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Commerce Street is nearly empty Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

After a gloomy weekend, the sky finally opened up Tuesday and the sun shone on a near-empty downtown. So few people walking around, so few businesses open in broad daylight at a time when downtown should be bustling with tourists, office workers and traffic during lunchtime on a Tuesday in March.

This was before the City of San Antonio and Bexar County's "stay home, stay safe" order took affect today—the latest measure by local officials to contain the spread of the coronavirus in San Antonio.

Some restaurants are selling meals to go, but most office workers now work from home and the tourist population has dwindled to an infinitesimal figure. Some hotels have closed, as has nearly every site and attraction.

We want to tell your story

Have you been furloughed or let go from the hospitality industry because of coronavirus? We'd like to interview you for a potential article. Will you email us?

Many notable retailers were already closed when the week started such as Paris Hatters and the Alamo Antique Mall on Broadway. Most souvenir shops on the Alamo Plaza. And The Shops at Rivercenter.

The big question: For how long must they stay closed? The answer will determine whether the shops, many of which are mom-and-pop-owned, reopen when this passes.

On Tuesday afternoon, there were four to five customers at Herwick's art supply on Broadway, a legacy business that dates back to the late 1940s. Some were stocking up on vinyl for their shirt printing side businesses. One employee said artists had been coming in to stock up on supplies.

Owner Scott Rote said Herwick's will continue to take online orders, but still has to solve some logistical issues with the store closed for now.

"We're hoping to be back and running normally in two or more weeks, and we have enough savings built up that we can weather that time period," said Rote, whose family bought the store in 1972.

"We've cut a few hours as far as pay, but for the most part we're paying everybody, which takes a chunk out of some saved up money. But at least everybody's taken care of."

...

'This is the best thing"

Priscilla Camareno and Christian Coronado wait for customers inside Matador Men's Grooming on Commerce Street on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the day before they were to shut down amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Priscilla Camareno (left) and Christian Coronado wait for customers inside Matador Men's Grooming on Commerce Street on Tuesday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Matador Men's Grooming on East Commerce Street has been receiving 1-2 customers a day of late, which is down from the normal steady flow of conventioneers, government workers and restaurant workers.

Christian Coronado, a barber who lives at the Maverick Apartments nearby, said she understands the "stay at home" order that came down from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday. She's been cutting Nirenberg's hair for three years.

"I know talking to him personally, he really has been very calculated, compared to what I've heard in other places in other states," Coronado said. "I see him really trying to put things in in order and give the city direction. I think this the best thing.

"It sucks. And as much as I hate it, as much as we all hate it—because we need to make money—this is the best thing."

Manager Priscilla Camareno understands the need for the city to go into partial shutdown, but she also expressed frustration over the financial difficulties that lay ahead.

"A lot of us have kids and we worry about sacrificing having to pay bills and maintain our household," she said.

Camareno said police officers have been dropping in, assuring them they'd be ramping up their patrols during the shutdown in regards to potential vandalism. Many bars and some restaurants have boarded up their windows and entrances.

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Around the plaza

The LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop
The LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop are empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Inside the conjoined LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop, manager Jordan Studer has seen activity on Alamo Plaza grind to a halt the past week. On a normal weekend, the shops combine for $15,000 in sales. Last weekend, they made $500.

"It used to be, this was wall to wall people," Studer said, referring to the foot traffic outside the shops up and down Alamo Street. "You couldn't walk outside without bumping into somebody."

The parent company is called Smoke To Live, which is based in San Antonio. It fulfills online orders across the country, and has 18 locations around the city—brick-and-mortars, mall kiosks—and two gift shops on the plaza. On Tuesday, they were the few gift shops open. Today, they're all closed.

"Myself and the owner, we've opened our doors, we've opened our homes to the employees of ours who need groceries, supplies," Studer said. "We're trying to take care of our employees the best we can considering the situation."

...

'We're not locking up'

The Original Mexican Restaurant
The Original Mexican Restaurant is one of the few River Walk restaurants still taking to-go orders. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The Original Mexican Restaurant, one of the very few kitchens that serves 24 hours downtown, has had to cut back its hours of operation. Of course, it's only doing to-go orders from its spot on the busiest stretch of the River Walk between North Presa and East Commerce streets. It's also now selling groceries such as milk, eggs, ground beef, chicken and toilet paper.

"We plan to be here until everything's over," Assistant General Manager Terry Landreth said. "We've been here 33 years. We're not locking up and going anywhere."

Landreth said the restaurant still sees tourists, though in fewer numbers.

"And locals," he said. "You've got people living in apartment (buildings). We're here for them. That's our main goal for the groceries, is to help people downtown. Plus our own employees."

Landreth said The Original, which opened in 1988 by River Walk restaurant godfather Bob Buchanan, had recently staffed up to more than 100 employees in anticipation of the peak season. As of Tuesday, he said he didn't know how many workers they'd have to let go.

"We haven't determined that yet; we are still in the process of doing that," he said.

...

'There's a lot of delusion'

Alta Vista Skateshop downtown San Antonio
Damien Sandoval opened Alta Vista Skateshop on Broadway in 2014. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Damien Sandoval, owner of Alta Vista Skateshop, saw sales start climb since January, the typical pattern as the weather starts to warm up. He was also looking forward to the summer, because skateboarding was going to make its Olympic debut at the summer games in Tokyo, which have been postponed due to coronavirus pandemic.

"The skate community was hoping we were going to get a big injection of popularity (with) people actually paying attention to what we are doing," said Sandoval, who had to lay off two employees recently. "In the past, (skateboarding's) really been demonized and has (had) this stigma of bad kids going around messing things up. That's really not the case."

Sandoval, who opened Alta Vista Skateshop on Broadway in 2014, said he's working to open an online store ASAP. That said, he's not optimistic the economy will simply pick up where it left off once the coronavirus is under control.

"There's a lot of delusion ... as soon as this goes through, oh we'll be fine," Sandoval said. "That's usually not the case. People have to start getting their confidence back into going out again and feeling like they're safe, and obviously to enjoy life in a particular way."

Sandoval said he can withstand the shutdown for the next two months, but "if it goes past April, there's probably very little chance we can keep alive."

Alamo Plaza is nearly empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Alamo Plaza is nearly empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

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

Closed sign.
TIM MOSSHOLDER | UNSPLASH

By Mitchell Ferman | The Texas Tribune

The unemployment rate in Texas is around 9%—up from the state’s recent record-low rate of 3.5% in January—as the new coronavirus spreads, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said Thursday.

Hegar said projections as recently as mid-March had unemployment rates rising to 6%.

"By the end of the week, no, this thing is worse than that," Hegar said, speaking on air to the Texas Standard. "It's up to probably 9%. And I have no doubt that people are going to start forecasting it's going to be slightly in the low double digits."

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Unemployment insurance claims filed with the Texas Workforce Commission reached 16,038 from March 8 through March 14, the agency said in its latest release, compared with 11,556 claims filed during the same week in 2019.

The record-high unemployment rate for a single month in Texas was 9.2% in November 1986, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This article is republished with permission from The Texas Tribune.

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

“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” says Barbie Hammond, pictured with her granddaughter Libby near the Artisan at Willow Springs Apartments in San Antonio.
“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” says Barbie Hammond, pictured with her granddaughter Libby near the Artisan at Willow Springs Apartments in San Antonio. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

By Juan Pablo Garnham • The Texas Tribune

In the 40-minute bus ride across San Antonio that Barbie Hammond takes to work, there’s one topic of conversation that keeps coming up: the cost of rent.

“A lady that I talk to on the bus told me she had to move because of the rent increases,” the 57-year-old said. “And I told her, ‘Well, when Christmastime came, I got a note saying that the next month there will be a $60 increase in my apartment.’”

Hammond isn't alone. According to census data compiled by the company Apartment List, between 2008 and 2018, median rents increased from $860 to $1,002 in the San Antonio area. That 16.5% jump was more than the increase in the New York City region and almost the same as in the Los Angeles area.

Similar increases happened in the Dallas (18.7%) and Houston (16.1%) regions, but there’s something that makes the San Antonio area unique: While rents have been growing, wages have stagnated. Renters’ median incomes grew from $35,718 to $36,959 during the same period. That 3.5% increase was a third of the percentage growth seen in the Houston area and a fourth of the growth in the Dallas region. Those rent and wage figures were all adjusted for inflation.

The situation has people like Hammond, who is a certified assistant nurse, living paycheck to paycheck.

“I haven't seen a pay increase in … I can't even remember,” Hammond said. “Most of the jobs here are not gonna pay me more. San Antonio needs to catch up.”

Historically, rents in the United States grew hand-in-hand with wages. But after the Great Recession, housing prices started outpacing income. In Texas, the state's continued population growth has created more demand for housing, which has raised prices. And in San Antonio, a city with some of the worst poverty and segregation rates in the country, low-income households are having trouble keeping up with the cost of living.

"As a result of this growing gap, families are having to spend more of their already limited income,” said Lourdes Castro Ramírez, chair of the Housing Commission of the city of San Antonio.

According to data from the city, one in three households in the city spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, the threshold that traditionally has been used to define what is affordable.

“And when we look at renters, one out of every two renters are paying more than 30% of their income,” Castro Ramírez said.

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For her, the reasons are multiple and complex, but a primary factor is the kind of housing being built. According to a report from the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, there were 14,000 more units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket in 2005. But in 2016, the tables had turned and there were 2,400 fewer units considered affordable than there were households in that bracket.

“There's not enough housing for working individuals that are making $15 an hour or below,” said Castro Ramírez.

Some also point out the effects of urban revitalization. In 2010, then-Mayor Julián Castro promoted the so-called "Decade of Downtown," an initiative that spurred millions of dollars in development.

Current Mayor Ron Nirenberg told Folo Media in 2017 that the initiative “left out affordability so that only certain portions of our community can actually benefit from that revitalization.”

The increased property values in downtown San Antonio had a ripple effect, making the surrounding neighborhoods more attractive to investors and more expensive for people already living there.

“In San Antonio, some of the poorest areas of the city are the closest to downtown, so the places where you saw the fastest rates of real estate price appreciation were also where the lowest-income people live,” said Noel Poyo, executive director of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders. “This doesn't mean that investment policies are a bad idea. It means that we should be thinking about the impact that they could have on the back and on the front end.”

Housing providers say the city that once had a reputation for being affordable no longer is.

“There’s absolutely more demand,” said Jennifer González, executive director of the Alamo Community Group, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing. “Our occupancy is very high. If a unit becomes available, someone is right away looking to rent that unit.”

González said that people seeking their services now include middle-income residents and not just minimum-wage earners. A decade ago, her clients would make between $7 and $12 per hour. They were mainly single mothers, many of them without college degrees.

“Now it’s gone up to $15 per hour,” González said. “We are seeing two-headed households with fewer children, younger households. They have a four-year degree or a two-year degree where they’re nurses, medical assistants or dental hygienists. We’re seeing a more educated population.”

Falling behind

Melissa Romo, 36, has worked hard to find a comfortable home for her two kids. Five years ago, she was living in public housing. She earned a degree needed to become a dental assistant and found a job with a higher income. A bigger paycheck meant her federal housing subsidy was reduced. Then she experienced an unexpected health problem, and she couldn't work as many hours. That shrank her paycheck.

“I got behind and they evicted me pretty quickly,” she said.

Romo ended up in a transitional living facility for families for two years. There, she slowly managed to fix her credit score while studying to get a degree required to become a chemical dependency counselor.

Today, she’s able to afford the $850 monthly rent on a two-bedroom duplex northwest of downtown.

“It’s the lowest I could find for a two-bedroom in that area. It took me six months to find that place,” she said.

Five years ago, she was making $11 an hour as a dental assistant. Today, after several jobs and a new diploma, she earns $16.75.

“It’s not a huge difference. I feel like I’m in the same position,” Romo said. “The thing that keeps me afloat is changing jobs every six months to a year. I utilize that experience and I use that as a negotiation tool. It’s been helpful, but it’s not very stable.”

According to experts, San Antonio’s lack of upward mobility affects residents' quality of life beyond just limiting their housing options.

“We’ve actually had to cut down a lot of expenses,” Romo said. “We can’t eat as much as we would like to. We eat less, believe it or not. We had to stop using higher-quality supplies. My utility bill is separate, and a lot of times I can’t pay the whole thing, which adds in fees.”

Melissa Romo lives with her children Mia and Zavier on San Antonio's West Side. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune
Melissa Romo lives with her children Mia and Zavier on San Antonio's West Side. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

Political will

Closing the gap between wages and rents is a bigger challenge in the San Antonio area than in the Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Houston regions.

“Rents are going up everywhere, and there are a lot of reasons for that,” said Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University. “The renter income is the interesting statistic here: We are eight times lower than a place like El Paso in renter income change, for example.”

The biomedical sector is the San Antonio region's biggest employer, but jobs in the high-paying areas of science, engineering, mathematics and information technology have remained flat between 2011 and 2017. Area residents still make 10% less than the average American worker, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

“Wages are connected to a broader economy,” said Poyo. “And then the other thing is that this is about matching skills and education with current day jobs. You can retrain people — we need to do that workforce development, and we need to be much better about it. But you just don't turn corners that fast on people's educations and capacities.”

College enrollment and the percentage of adults with college degrees haven’t increased significantly in Bexar County, according to the nonprofit SA2020.

In 2017, Nirenberg appointed a Housing Policy Task Force that recommended hiring a housing czar, building more affordable homes and safeguarding low-income renters from displacement. It also suggested preventing the demolition and mitigating the disrepair of existing affordable homes. In September last year, the City Council approved $34.4 million for these goals.

“There is political will to continue to support this,” said Castro Ramírez. “There are about 2,500 units that are in the production or rehabilitation pipeline, which is pretty significant. But we are still not producing enough units for lower income.”

Council member Roberto Treviño has been promoting several measures, including a program to defend low-income renters from evictions, which can lead to more expensive rents in the future or even homelessness. Between 2011 and 2018, evictions grew 80%, according to the San Antonio Express News.

Next month, the city is starting a pilot for a right-to-counsel program, in which tenants receive free legal assistance if they decide to go to court to fight their evictions.

“In San Antonio, only 1% of people in the process of eviction stay at home,” said Treviño. “We have an issue of affordable housing and wages, so we can’t exacerbate those with this amount of eviction that we see in San Antonio.”

But such initiatives might not be enough.

“Trying to get counsel for people who are in the eviction process is great and we need it, but that’s not systemic change,” said Drennon. “Systemic change would be trying to get more affordable units on the ground.”

San Antonio, by charter, can’t issue debt to produce affordable homes, which limits the city's ability to fund housing. But city leaders hope voters will approve a charter amendment next year to amend the rule.

Barbie Hammond, in the meantime, is calculating how she will manage the $60 increase in her rent. She normally receives two checks a month. The first goes to the rent; the second goes to her other expenses. But now rent will start taking part of her second check.

“Sixty dollars is a lot of money to me,” Hammond said. “I appreciate the help that I get, but you're raising it to a point where that's all I'm gonna be able to pay.”

[ Read the original story at TexasTribune.org. ]

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled a San Antonio City Council member's name, misstated the name of a task force, wrongly portrayed how certain low-income earners were classified, misstated how many affordable housing units existed for a specific income bracket in 2005 and misstated the existence of certain affordable housing units in 2016. The council member was Roberto Treviño. The Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force compiled the report referenced in the story. The affordability of housing units were determined by household income. In 2005, there were 14,000 more units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket. In 2016, there were 2,400 fewer units considered affordable for households making between $14,780 and $29,561 than there were households in that income bracket.

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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