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San Antonio Housing Bond Committee short on time and — for some — short on trust

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Paul Flahive
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Texas Public Radio
Housing Bond Committee Co-Chairs Katie Vela (left) and Shirley Gonzales watch presentations at Tuesday's meeting

The need for affordable housing in San Antonio outstrips the $150 million expected to be voted on in next year’s housing bond. The city has identified 95,000 homes that are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their monthly income on housing.

The 32-member Housing Bond Committee has just one more meeting to vote on what programs should be targeted and how much should go to them — things like fixing up existing housing stock to keep people in homes or new affordable construction. They need to decide what income level and sub groups should be prioritized.

The committee held its third of four meetings Tuesday night to determine the guidelines for spending — but for some, the process is short on time and community members are short on trust.

“I feel like it's just not as transparent as it should be. I think it's trying to come off as transparent. And sometimes that's worse than just outright, you know, I guess being dishonest,” said Stephanie McGowan, a committee chair from District 2.

McGowan was the sole member to decline to fill out a survey distributed by city staff intended to assist in determining what priorities committee members had, objecting to the predetermined options of multiple choice answers. She had hoped to express more opinions than simply filling in a letter. Nearly a half dozen others on the committee similarly voiced concern. One question ranking sub-populations to target upset committee members who felt they were pitting people who suffered from domestic violence over veterans or the homeless.

“I was worried that my comments would be either misconstrued or used to push some kind of narrative that I wasn't about,” she said.

With the survey results as well as comments from the public and committee discussion, the staff put together five possible funding areas and guidelines: Homeownership rehabilitation and preservation, rental housing rehabilitation and preservation, permanent supportive housing and rental housing new construction, homeownership new construction for households making up to 60% of Area Median income and, with all projects, need to commit to universal design criteria and sustainability when possible.

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Unlike any other bond committees for things like parks and drainage this one is not voting on specific projects. It is voting on guidelines and priorities, leaving the details to city staff to flesh out through requests for proposals that the council could vote on. This structure gives flexibility to the housing commission, city staff and council, but limits the power of this committee.

The results of this committee will link with the ongoing Strategic Housing Implementation Plan (SHIP) which has been in progress for two years and offered many opportunities for public comments.

Former councilwoman and committee co-chair Shirley Gonzales conceded this lack of specificity that a list of projects provides likely adds to community concern, but she said the survey did help them target what people thought.

“We have to try to get a place where we can have a discussion, and I think that it was a little bit. We didn't have enough information to really have a discussion around. But I didn't sense that there was a lot of disagreement about what was presented today,” Gonzales said.

She pointed to committee survey results that showed more than 60% wanted homeowners and renters make less than the 30% average median income, which is a family of four making roughly $22,000 a year or less. Additionally, the survey showed popularity for funding affordable housing programs that pump money into home rehabilitation and repair programs.

But there seems to be a sense from some on the committee that the outcomes are predetermined.

An air of suspicion permeates portions of the committee and community.

“Working people, poor people don’t win. We never win in this city,” said Rick Treviño, a community member who has spoken at several committee meetings.

This sentiment got applause from community organizers in the audience who are critical of San Antonio’s Decade of Downtown that funneled millions into private developers pockets to revamp center city living spaces, jumpstarting skyrocketing property values and tax burdens.

The report comes as the city continues to develop plans for a $150 million affordable housing bond.

A recent report from a University of Texas Law Professor linked those policies to the city’s “aggressive” use of code enforcement citations resulting in people being forced out of their homes. The report cited data showing the city was pushing people out at percentages 1000s of times higher than other major cities. The report pointed to this happening without required monetary compensation for relocation and most often in downtown adjacent neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly poor communities of color.

Michael Shannon, head of the development services department — which oversees code enforcement — called it an apples to oranges comparison. He told TPR’s The Source they would release their own figures soon to refute the report.

The bombshell report came out the morning after the last board meeting and validated the beliefs of many in these communities that the city doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

The Source: City officials respond to "Ousted" report on code enforcement-related displacements in San Antonio

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Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
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Amelia Valdez talks about people in her neighborhood trying to stay in homes the city wants to demolish

For instance, at the Nov. 17 committee meeting Linda Ortega, a committee member from District 5, accused city staff of holding a secret meeting with select committee members to the exclusion of others.

“It is disturbing because I'm sure all of us feel that we were appointed by a council person. They regarded us as knowing something. And this memorandum sent to a select few speaks otherwise,” she said at the time.

Lori Houston, assistant city manager, defended staff saying the meeting was with committee members who worked on the SHIP document to better prepare her staff on what information to present to the housing bond committee.

Who ends up with the money to execute options is at the heart some of the distrust and disagreement on the committee. Vocal community members, organizations like the Texas Organizing Project and some on the committee wanted options for giving money directly to the San Antonio Housing Authority. Other committee members want bond money to go to nonprofit developers.

Federally funded SAHA has made an active push to tap into bond funds. It held a webinar prior to the Tuesday meeting to push its needs that included about $341 million in capital improvements at its properties. The organization said its waitlist grew by more than 40% to 50,000 people since the pandemic began.

“We hope to be able to use some of that money to help create additional public housing. Because there is such a large need in the city,” said Ed Hinojosa Jr., executive director at SAHA.

But it isn’t clear how much money given to SAHA — with significant capital needs already — would go towards new housing. Outside new construction, SAHA highlighted options like "buying down" the cost of homes to help lower income people and buying out housing it holds in partnership with others to bring on additional units.

Hinojosa sent a letter in August to the mayor and council lobbying for $40 million in bond funds to redevelop the 81-year-old Alazán courts.

The city and Gonzales did not seem open to the idea of directly funding SAHA with bond dollars with city attorney Andy Segovia describing the act as potentially “problematic.”

Nonprofit affordable housing developers believe they can deliver new units for less money, since SAHA requires more upfront capital to build. One developer asked the committee to cap the amount that a single project could get — limiting it to $5 million and spreading it to 40-50 projects.

“Nonprofits have the most flexibility in the use of non federal dollars, so why take away the most innovative and least constrained dollars and give it to a federal agency which would have limits and regulations that would increase costs,” said Michael Shackelford, director of policy at the nonprofit developer Alamo Community Group.

Public housing through SAHA is often pegged to income, meaning if a person loses a job the amount they owe in housing can be reduced. This is often not the case with other developers.

It isn’t clear there will be much time for more conversation on the finer points of either and as the city staff have repeatedly stated the committee is not setting projects, it is only setting guidelines. City staff will return to the committee with potential bond dollars amounts going towards each of the proposed areas of investment.

This weekend committee members will tour several nonprofit and public housing options. They will then meet next Wednesday to vote on a resolution to present to council for its vote.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive