This is a column of analysis.
As we as a city continue our ongoing debate about downtown housing incentives and gentrification—are you for them, against them or ambivalent?—it’s probably best we figure out what exactly it is we’re talking about.
If you’d asked me five years ago what my definition of displacement or gentrification was, my answer would be much different than it is today.
I would be sure.
Today, I’m not so sure, even though I’m much more knowledgeable on the topic. I have more perspective. The more we at the Heron report on the issue, the more community meetings we attend, the more doors we knock on, the more uncertain I’ve become.
Reporter Gaige Davila has been interviewing a variety of people—from city officials to housing advocates to homeowners who are genuinely stressed about being displaced—for a piece that we’ll publish Sunday about the city’s attempts at addressing displacement issues in San Antonio.
Everyone quoted in the article, it seems, has their own definition.
I always thought the classic displacement scenario as being one where a homeowner couldn’t afford to pay their property taxes because of the rise in the value of their home—their long-neglected neighborhood becomes a hot real estate submarket because of _________________.
This situation is what city officials describe as indirect displacement, when a household gets caught in the appreciation ripple created by new investment in their community.
An example of direct displacement would be one like Mission Trails, which happened four years ago when an entire mobile home community was uprooted to create a clean slate for a luxury apartment development called Mission Escondida. I remember arguing with a colleague at the San Antonio Express-News, where I worked at the time, about how it didn’t qualify as true gentrification because the residents didn’t own the property—a stance that seems narrow-minded and callous as I reflect back on it.
Mission Trails was its own kind of special tragedy because of the way two forces created by local government—one indirect, one direct—converged on the low-income, 100-household community that, in retrospect, never had a chance: the Bexar County-backed creation of the Mission Reach segment of the San Antonio River, above which Mission Trails sat on an escarpment, and the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, from which Mission Escondida received a $1.8 million incentive package.
The old Soap Works apartments, now called Soap Factory, are similar, except it wasn’t the southern stretch of the San Antonio River that was turned into a linear park, but San Pedro Creek. At that sprawling apartment complex in west downtown, at least three households have received relocation assistance from the city—either from federal dollars or from the city’s general fund—because of a rent hike. The apartments, because of the $178 million creek renovation, became prime real estate and the new owner from Houston began upgrading the units. With upgrades came higher rents.
As you’ll read in our piece on Sunday, some homes pile up code enforcement violations and subsequent fines to the point that people can’t afford to pay them, and then it all snowballs.
Other homeowners are foreclosed on—either by the county (taxes) or by the bank (mortgage). In either case, they couldn’t afford the cost of owning a home, and so what happens in those situations?
I took a course on foreclosures once, for research when I worked at the E-N, and I remember the instructor, an investor, talked about how people don’t pay their mortgages because one of three things happened—they lost their job, they got divorced, or someone in the family got terminally ill. Would one of those situations be considered displacement or just a terrible turn of events? I’m not sure—because as property taxes rise, or a neighborhood becomes more expensive to live in, the volume of things one considers to be affordable, it would seem, begins to shrink.
I imagine the rise in property values doesn’t help any household’s financial situation—whether you have job security, are living with the love of your life, or are in perfect health. Those rising expenses only push a household closer and closer to the edge of vulnerability. Maybe it wasn’t a tragic event, but a lesser blow, like a new brake job on the old jalopy?
What if, before it got to that point, the household’s finances squeezed tighter and tighter with each year’s appraisal, and an investor knocks on the screen door and offers the stressed household cash for their home, and they take the offer? Would that be considered displacement?
One cannot ignore the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA). In 2017, while serving as managing editor at Folo Media, we wrote this in an article:
By February 2014, 205 residents had been displaced from Wheatley Courts, which were being razed so that construction could begin on the new community.
At an invite-only breakfast later, where guests were updated on how the new community that replaced the courts called East Meadows was doing, a SAHA staffer approached me and took umbrage with our use of the word “displaced.” It didn’t qualify, she said (I really can’t remember her name nor title) because every resident was allowed to move back into the new mixed-income apartments once they were built. What if they didn’t want to move?
There is, what some experts describe as, cultural displacement. This happens when the neighborhood changes to the point that it no longer serves the interests or needs of longtime residents, and so they sort of voluntarily move.
Maybe displacement is when you are compelled to move for a reason you didn’t choose?