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Historic Neighborhoods Balance Preservation And Development

The Alamo City is known for preserving historic sites like the San Antonio Missions. But there are also 27 designated historic neighborhoods where the desire to preserve is being challenged by the development of new condos and townhomes. 

This week our Growing Pains project is looking at how population growth and the economy are affecting housing.  For this report we visited one San Antonio neighborhood where development is bringing some welcome improvements but threatening tradition and raising taxes.   

Jessica Gemmell is taking me on a tour of her neighborhood, Lavaca. Some homes have been converted into multi-units, then converted back to single-families. Her neighbors are trying to create a community garden. 

Just south of downtown San Antonio, this is one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, built in the 1870s for working class families. Now it’s a designated historic district.

While the quality of these properties varies a lot - market values range from about $40,000 to $600,000 in Lavaca -  Gemmell’s home looks a little different. 

Credit Virginia Alvino / Texas Public Radio News
Texas Public Radio News
Lavaca resident Jessica Gemmell loves her modern home, built in an historic district.

“It’s very modern, very square, lots of functional outdoor space," says Gemmell. 

Gemmell and her fiancé bought this house about two years ago. They love it. It was built in 2008. She says a historic renovation is just too much to take on.

“Where I can appreciate what other people do, I don’t have the wherewithal , nor does my fiancé," says Gemmell. "So we wanted to buy something newer, and we were super excited to find something newer in the older neighborhood that we wanted to be a part of." She says older neighborhoods just have more character. 

Gemmell agrees withthe City’s plan for the area – improve the housing stock, add more mixed development, and balance that with the existing historic charm. And to help, the City's Office of Historic Preservation has a number of financial incentives and other programs to help people who are up for a renovation.

But Dolores Martinez is afraid the existing homes and residents around here, won’t last long. The retired school teacher is showing me the Lone Star area near South Flores, where her family has lived for generations.

She says demand to live in the area is leading to higher property values, resulting in higher property taxes. But Martinez says her neighbors are elderly, some don’t speak English, and they’re having a hard enough time just keeping up with their old homes.

Martinez pulls up to Benny Cantu's house. He's a retired law enforcement officer. 

"A lot of these houses have clay sewer lines, and I’m just praying, praying mine doesn’t give out," says Cantu. 

Cantu says there’s no way he could cover the cost of that job. Still, his assessed property value is rising.

Credit Virginia Alvino / Texas Public Radio News
Texas Public Radio News

After remaining flat following the mortgage crisis, San Antonio property values started creeping up after 2012. Last year, a lot of homes in this area saw 30 to 50 percent increases. Plenty of people are noticing that value, too.

“What they’re trying to do is buy up these old houses and get us out of here," says Cantu. "That’s what they did to King William."

A lot of people in this area says they’re constantly solicited by people wanting to buy their homes. 

Dolores Martinez calls a woman over from the sidewalk to ask what she's passing out at each house. "Anyone who’s interested in selling their house, or if there’s any that are vacant or anything like that," says the woman. 

This woman is distributing door hangers for a private company. The "Want to sell fast? We pay cash!” kind.

In addition to tons of renovations and flips, all sorts of development is happening around here. Old factories are converted to lofts. Demolished gas stations are turned into townhomes. While living in these newer options is not cheap, Dolores Martinez understands the demand. Young professionals and millennials are moving to San Antonio. And across the country, more people just want to live in city centers.

"We welcome new people, we just don’t welcome higher taxes," says Martinez. 

Mary Kiekie says that’s a tough balance to strike. She’s the Deputy Appraiser for the Bexar County Appraisal District.

“When an area gets hot, people will pay a lot of money for those houses," says Kieke. "It can be hard for people to stay where they are, and I don’t know that anyone has found a solution yet."

Kieke says appraisers don’t look at trends, they look at home sales. So, the market largely decides your home appraisal value.  But she says some of the panic in the neighborhood may be misplaced.

“Your value increase is capped at 10 percent per year," says Kieke. "If you’re over 65 the amount is frozen at the point you turn 65.”

Kieke says those circuit breakers help control a lot of people’s payments, plus there are all sorts of exemptions for things like disabled veterans and historic properties.

Still, residents are worried if value keeps going up exponentially, even a 10 percent increase year over year could really add up.  But for Dolores, it’s a double edged sword.

We drive by a pretty dilapidated property. "Do we prefer buildings like that, to the developments?" asks Martinez. "Absolutely not. Look at that, vandalized, and broken down."

While there are some protections in place for homes in historically designated neighborhoods, old surrounding properties can always be rezoned. Most residents and folks at the city predict a lot more preservation, and a lot more development. But ultimately the future landscape of housing in San Antonio will come to be one renovation, or one demolition at a time.

Virginia joined Texas Public Radio in September, 2015. Prior to hosting and producing Fronteras for TPR, she worked at WBOI in Indiana to report on often overlooked stories in the community. Virginia began her reporting career at the Statehouse in Salem, OR, and has reported for the Northwest News Network and Oregon Public Broadcasting.