Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Friday announced that he would appoint former District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales as chair of the city’s Housing Commission, despite protests from activists who say that during her time on council she was too supportive of awarding tax breaks to developers and did not push hard enough to create affordable housing.
The mayor also said he would offer two important seats on the boards of the San Antonio Housing Trust and the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corp., or PFC, to recently-elected District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo.
The Housing Trust PFC, a nonprofit arm of the city, has the power to award multimillion-dollar property tax breaks to developers to build mixed-income apartment complexes such as the Baldwin on the near East Side and the newly opened Flats at River North on Broadway. The nonprofit’s partnerships have recently been met with growing opposition from activists, and McKee-Rodriguez and Castillo have questioned whether it should be giving away tax breaks for housing that often is not affordable to those living in surrounding neighborhoods.
Both council members represent districts that have struggled to absorb the wave of development spreading from downtown over the last decade, helped along by the Housing Trust PFC, other public facility corporations run by local governmental entities, and city incentive programs.
During her years on the Housing Trust PFC board, Gonzales was supportive of projects such as the Friedrich Lofts, a 358-unit complex that is set to begin construction soon on East Commerce Street. Speaking with the Heron in June, after the Housing Trust PFC approved a deal to build the complex, McKee-Rodriguez said he was “pretty disappointed” and that the PFC should have fought for lower rents.
Over the past two weeks, housing activists including former SAHA commissioner Sofia Lopez and outgoing Housing Commission chair Jessica O. Guerrero met for two protests at City Hall calling for the mayor not to appoint Gonzales. During her time as the commission’s chair, Guerrero sent letters to Nirenberg and the City Council asking for the city to put a stop to PFC deals.
“A lot of us voted for Nirenberg to serve as mayor because we trusted that he would take things in a different direction,” Guerrero said in front of City Hall on Thursday. But “after so many years of a deepening housing crisis, we see that he is taking things in the wrong direction.”
“It is an ongoing struggle for people who are impacted by displacement, evictions, and all kinds of housing insecurities, to be at the table,” she said. “The few of us who were appointed to be on these boards had to fight every step of the way to make more space for our colleagues, for our neighbors, for all the people who we know are living the realities of the housing crisis.”
Reached by phone on Friday, Gonzales said she was “looking forward to continuing to advocate for affordable housing in the city.”
“I could give a lot of examples of what I did for affordable housing and District 5. But I think this is a new role,” she said.
She noted that when she was elected to City Council in 2013, the city’s housing policies were focused on creating housing downtown, but that the city has lately shifted the focus toward affordable housing.
“Let me just say that the focus of the council has changed drastically under Mayor Nirenberg, and I believe it’s for the better, in that we are prioritizing housing,” she said. “But that has not always been the case. So I think that the PFC and (Housing Trust) did some very important projects, but the focus on them was not deep affordability like we’re doing today. So I think that’s where we’ll spend our time.”
In recent years, under Nirenberg, the city amended its downtown incentive policy, which has since expired, to require developers to give up 25% of its city property tax rebate toward a fund for the creation and preservation of below-market housing. The Housing Trust PFC has slowly started to require lower levels of affordability in the projects it partners with. But for housing advocates, the progress scratches the surface of San Antonio’s housing crisis.
In a statement, Nirenberg defended Gonzales, saying she “has a strong track record of tireless advocacy for the equitable distribution of resources and has long championed innovative housing policies.”
He pointed out that she helped create two city programs to help homeowners rehabilitate their homes: the Minor Repair and Owner-Occupied Rehab Program, and the District 5 Shotgun House Preservation Pilot.
Along with Gonzales, the mayor said he would appoint Kristin Davila and Amanda Keammerer to the commission. Davila is president and executive director of affordable housing nonprofit Merced Housing Texas, and Keammerer is CEO of Javilud, a consulting company.
The purpose of the Housing Commission is to make policy recommendations to council on matters of housing. The mayor has given it a role in helping to implement the recommendations of the Housing Policy Framework, a strategy drawn up in 2018 by his Housing Policy Task Force.
In an interview on Thursday, Castillo said she believed that Gonzales was “not committed” to the qualities she believed the chair of the Housing Commission should have.
“I believe that the next appointee should be someone who’s committed to centering the experiences of marginalized communities and those who have been impacted by bad housing policy,” she said. “We need a champion of deeply affordable housing, and someone who believes that housing is a human right.”
In last month’s election for the District 5 seat, Gonzales supported Castillo’s opponent, Rudy Lopez.
By giving a seat on the Housing Trust PFC board to McKee-Rodriguez, the mayor is restoring District 2’s presence on the board after he replaced former District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan with District 9 Councilman John Courage in 2019.
The mayor also appointed newly-elected District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran to the board. Courage and District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia will remain on the board.
Pete Alanis, the executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust, said he was glad that Districts 2, 3 and 5 would have representatives on the PFC board, noting in a statement that “our inner city communities are vital to ensuring an equitable and inclusive path forward.”
“I also appreciate the mayor’s decision to also keep representation from District 4 and District 9,” he said. “They have undoubtedly been positive voices in transitioning the Housing Trust to an organization that is better coordinated, inclusive, and equitable.”
The Housing Trust PFC will soon undergo reforms suggested by a study that the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders conducted for the city last year. The five council members will be joined on the board by six housing experts and community leaders who will offer guidance on its deals.
“I am looking forward to City Council taking action to fill our remaining six community member board seats so we can continue the work of meeting the housing needs of our community,” Alanis said.
Heron reporter Maggie Ryan contributed to this report.
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter