Late Wednesday, the San Antonio Housing Authority board of commissioners voted Ed Hinojosa Jr., a 17-year veteran of the agency, as president and CEO following a national, six-month search. The appointment could mean a dramatic shift in what type of housing the agency invests in and champions going forward.
Since January, Hinojosa Jr. served as SAHA’s interim leader after David Nisivoccia left to lead the housing agency in Denver. Before stepping into the lead role, Hinojosa Jr. served as SAHA’s chief financial officer for 12 years.
“I am humbled by the appointment to serve SAHA,” Hinojosa, Jr. said in a press release. “I have seen the agency make positive strides in the last few years, but there is so much more work to be done. I am eager to continue the agency’s affordable housing mission that respects the families we serve and demonstrates compassion and empathy to the challenges they are facing.”
For months leading up to the moment when Hinojosa Jr. took the helm of SAHA in January, the agency and housing advocates had been engaged in a bitter fight over the future of the Alazan-Apache Courts on the near West Side. Under Nisivoccia, the plan was to demolish the 501 units built in 1940 and replace them with mixed-income apartments—a plan advocates vehemently opposed.
Even before Nisivoccia’s time at SAHA, in the last two decades, the agency followed policies set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—which was to de-concentrate public housing and replace it with mixed-income apartments. The idea is that a diversity of residents in terms of income breeds prosperity, especially for lower-income households. “How can we transform our public housing stock into bridges of opportunity to help people get out of poverty?,” Andrew Cuomo wrote in 2000 when he served as HUD secretary under President Clinton. “A large part of the answer, as is becoming increasingly clear, is to reduce the isolation that separates public housing residents from the opportunity structures of the larger community.”
That same year, SAHA razed the 660-unit Victoria Courts just south of Hemisfair and has since been replacing it with mixed-income communities—a build-out that continues to this day.
But many affordable housing advocates say that poorer residents of public housing are the ones who suffer the most. Being forced to move from public housing can be traumatic, and a low percentage actually return to the new development the two years or so after it is constructed. It’s also been described as government sanctioned gentrification, as concentrations of poor people are replaced with those mostly more affluent.
The most recent example came in 2015, when SAHA began evacuating the 248-unit Wheatley Courts on the East Side. Eventually, SAHA would replace that public housing community with the mixed-income East Meadows complex. The master development was funded under the Obama administration, which recast Clinton’s strategy as Choice Neighborhood. Where Clinton’s approach was to replace housing with housing, Obama’s version would incorporate social services for those in transition.
Nisivoccia and other top SAHA officials never hid the fact that this was the plan for San Antonio’s remaining large-scale public housing communities: the Alazan-Apache Courts, the Lincoln Courts, the Cassiano Homes.
Then Hinojosa Jr. entered the picture. In a SAHA board meeting in January, Hinojosa Jr. proposed a new direction for the agency, one that would seek to increase the number of public housing units in San Antonio, not diminish them. For the Alazan Courts, he proposed keeping the same number of public housing units, 501, and perhaps even adding to them. Where the advocates and Hinojosa Jr. differ is how to go about it. Hinojosa Jr. argued the buildings are too derelict to save and need to be torn down and rebuilt, whereas many housing advocates, concerned about displacing residents, argued for their rehabilitation.
Still, the conversation became one less adversarial. The tension that existed between Nisivoccia and the advocates had subsided almost completely after that meeting.
“I’m very happy with the selection,” said Kayla Miranda, a resident of the Alazan-Apache Courts, who has challenged SAHA’s development strategy and its eviction policies in recent years. “While there is still much work to do, Ed Hinojosa has taken a new and different approach to housing than the former CEO. He believes in public housing and that housing is a human right. His actions have followed through with his words. There is a lot of hope in SAHA now.”
In an interview in January, Hinojosa Jr. described a dire housing situation in San Antonio. There are roughly 8,000 people waiting for a housing voucher, and another 40,000 people waiting for public housing, he said. There are roughly 6,000 public housing units that exist today in San Antonio.
“We issue on a monthly basis about 50 vouchers. Maybe 55. Only 57-58% of the people that have vouchers are able to find new housing,” Hinojosa Jr. said. “So we became really concerned because of the current environment in trying to relocate 250 residents, which was the original (first phase of the Alazan) plan.”
Hinojosa Jr. said the national conversation about public housing was shifting away from the mixed-income model, especially at the start of the Biden administration.
“There’s new evidence … that suggests that that theory that started in the late ’90s was inaccurate and was a faulty assumption,” he said. “And today, the growing belief is that the most important thing is housing stability. For an individual that’s poor and perhaps their family’s in crisis, the best thing for them is housing stability, not the location of the housing.
“And that’s what will help them achieve some sort of stability in their lives and be able to improve their lives, based on that conversation that’s changing nationally, and locally. And I think that’s kind of the backdrop of one of the other factors that’s playing into the decision here.”
In the interview, Hinojosa Jr. rejected the notion that there had been a philosophical shift now that he had taken over for Nisivoccia.
“I think maybe you’re reading a little more into it,” Hinojosa Jr. said. “I’ll tell you this work on Alazan started a year and a half ago, and that was before Covid. That was before the economic crisis. That was before these discussions about public housing and increasing the inventory of public housing were happening. It was also before some of these discussions about whether de-concentration is better than not having concentration.”
Aside from his public housing approach, Nisivoccia was also heavily criticized for offering SAHA’s power to provide a full property tax exemption, afforded under state law, to private developers for the construction of predominantly above-market housing, or rents just below those prices.
Hinojosa Jr. said any partnership SAHA makes with a developer going forward would have to include public housing in those developments.