You wouldn’t be 100 percent accurate if you said the San Antonio Heron’s coverage will be focussed on a city policy. But you’d be close.
The city of San Antonio’s incentives policy for downtown housing is intended to expedite the construction of apartments and condos. The way a city revitalizes its downtown, the thinking goes, is by having more people live there.
As one downtown leader told me years ago, when I reported on downtown for the San Antonio Express-News: An increased population floats all the boats. More people means more vibrancy, more diverse retail, more 24/7 dining options, more things to do, and on and on.
In order to accomplish this, the city created its Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), which launched in 2012, early on in Mayor Julián Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” campaign. The program offers tax rebates to developers (which can be worth millions of dollars), fee waivers (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) and smaller goodies.
The result is the construction of 6,543 units, aided by $97 million in CCHIP incentives, the San Antonio Express-News reported in January. That’s a lot of additional people and worth touting, indeed. So why, then, is downtown still a ghost town on many nights? Because many of the units have gone up, not in downtown proper, but in the neighborhoods that encircle downtown. Land prices, and other deterrents, have pushed developments away from the core. Only now are you starting to see a few more developments planned for what is truly downtown.
The program’s original footprint, the areas where developers could build and receive incentives from the city, stretched far outside downtown’s boundaries, into older neighborhoods well into the east and south sides of town. Why was this? Years ago I remember asking city officials and downtown planners about this, and the answer then was that the entire urban core needed to be populated — not just downtown. Though downtown’s population may be growing at a snail’s pace, it’s important that abutting communities thrive as well, because these zones will, in effect, feed each other in terms of activity.
It was intentional.
But the policy had some unintended side effects.
In late 2014, early 2015, the residents of the Mission Trails mobile home park, more than 100 mostly low-income households along the San Antonio River, an entire community, were displaced for luxury apartments — luxury apartments that benefited from CCHIP.
It was a media circus. I remember after the City Council voted to rezone the property, which allowed the developer, White-Conlee Development of San Antonio, to move forward with its plans and eventually uproot the families, Castro left his seat on the dias and made his way into the audience to console some of the residents who had come to plead their case.
Since then, two significant things have happened regarding the housing policy. First, the city redrew its boundaries in 2016, bringing the footprint closer to downtown. Second, Mayor Ron Nirenberg late last year put a moratorium on CCHIP because it was resulting in more and more luxury apartments, and very little affordable housing. City officials are now revamping CCHIP to include mechanisms that will result in more affordable housing.
Simultaneously, Nirenberg’s five-member housing task force, which formed in October, is scheduled to provide City Council with actionable steps to solve San Antonio’s housing woes — not just downtown. Included in these solutions, it’s assumed, will be how to prevent or lessen the effects of displacement.
As one housing expert told me last week, and I’m paraphrasing, there’s something morally wrong about giving tax rebates worth millions of dollars to a developer whose project will help raise the taxes of, and therefore potentially displace, working class families. As a journalist, I choose not to fully endorse this way of thinking, but it should absolutely inform the way we at the Heron think about housing development in the downtown area.
I didn’t always think this way.
During the Mission Trails uprooting, I remember getting a call from one of the activists, pleading with me to cover the story. Even though the families didn’t live downtown — the trailer park was along the San Antonio River south of Mission Concepción — they were still victim of CCHIP. I told her that because I was the downtown blogger at the Express-News, and because what was happening to these residents wasn’t downtown, that it was out of my scope of coverage. That was one of the worst mistakes of my career.
Though CCHIP doesn’t touch that far south anymore, it’s still our mission at the Heron to understand the effects of this policy — the bad, and the good — on every facet of the downtown region. Is the policy working? Will it? At what point will city officials shelve it? How will the city address gentrification? What kind of city incentivizes luxury apartments while San Antonio remains so economically segregated? Is downtown truly for everyone in terms of housing?
We’re launching to try to answer some of these questions. But we also want to make sure we shine a light on the good that’s coming from these policies, as well. Many of these neighborhoods need private investment to thrive — just ask the West Side. But what is the right balance?
Not all of our stories will be this heavy, we promise. Part of reporting on how downtown is evolving is informing you about events, the culture, major public projects like Hemisfair and San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and introducing you to some of the people who make downtown San Antonio a unique place.
We have many more ideas, which you’ll see come to fruition in our upcoming stories. And we are eager to officially launch the San Antonio Heron on Monday.
Photo of the Hays Street Bridge by V. Finster / San Antonio Heron
This is what we’ll be writing about. Click here to read about why we decided to form the Heron.