By Ben Olivo | @rbolivo | Heron editor
Jannet Garcia, 33, used to live with her two children in one of the derelict apartments at the Alazan Courts on South San Marcos Street, which faces Alazan Creek just west of downtown. There, she didn’t feel safe. She worried about the floodwaters from the creek potentially damaging her truck every time it rained, and about some of the people doing drugs around the Guadalupe Street bridge.
In April, Garcia moved a block west into a new unit at Legacy at Alazan, a mini apartment complex Opportunity Home San Antonio, the former San Antonio Housing Authority, built as part of the redevelopment of Alazan Courts.
The new apartment has been life-changing for Garcia and her two children, ages 8 and 9.
“Not so much because it’s brand new … what it is is central AC, a washer and dryer,” said Garcia, who received a donated air conditioning unit two years ago when word got out that not all apartments at Alazan had one. “My children have their own rooms. They even act different. It’s crazy how AC impacts a person.”
“There are no words to share the difference between Alazan-Apache to now, the new apartment,” she said. “It inspires you to do more.”
The area could be due for more new low-income apartments.
Opportunity Home San Antonio has applied for $8 million from San Antonio’s housing bond for a new public housing development at Alazan-Apache Courts, which are two communities separated by Guadalupe Street that span roughly 33 acres on the near West Side.
The 88-unit expansion is slated for a baseball field on the Apache Courts side. Opportunity Home SA says the new public housing stock is desperately needed as its waiting list for public housing and housing vouchers has doubled from 35,000 in Summer 2020 to roughly 70,000 currently.
The new development is expected to cost $24 million—$8 million from the housing bond (assuming the funding is approved via a city selection process) and $16 million from Opportunity Home SA’s Moving-to-Work funds.
It’s part of an overall master planning process for Alazan Courts, which was restarted in February, with the goal of increasing the number of public housing units from 501 to somewhere in the range of 560 units.
On the Alazan Courts side, the latest redevelopment plan, the result of an eight-month-long public process, shows the circa-1940s barracks-style housing as a mix of new construction, the rehabilitation of other units, the demolition of some creekside units that reside in a floodplain, and new green space.
Last week, Opportunity Home SA and Able City, a Texas-based architecture and urban planning firm that’s leading the public process, unveiled the latest version of the plan, the result of several resident and community meetings, and 300 survey results.
“We’ve melded it all into one design direction,” Seema Kairam, an associate with Able City, said of the process that began in February and that’s scheduled to wrap up next month. “Now we’re at the point where we’re asking the community: OK, now we have one direction. What do you guys think?”
In recent years, Opportunity Home SA, when it was known as the housing authority, had pushed hard to demolish Alazan Courts and build a mixed-income community just as it had done at Wheatley Courts on the East Side in 2014, and the Victoria Courts south of downtown in 2001.
The recent completion of Legacy at Alazan, which includes some market-rate apartments, was a result of that strategy.
The current planning process for the Alazan Courts is guided by a new direction at the housing agency, one that strives to replace the public housing units lost by the razing of Wheatley and Victoria courts, and smaller public housing communities, in the last 20 years.
Under Opportunity Home SA President and CEO Ed Hinojosa Jr., who took over the agency almost two years ago, the agency’s priority is to house those on its 70,000-person waiting list.
Hinojosa Jr. contends that conventional affordable housing models, whose lowest-rent units are for people making up to 30 percent of the area median income, or AMI, don’t adequately house the average public housing resident in San Antonio. Those “up-to-30 percent AMI” apartments are for people making $18,000 to $20,000 a year, he said.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
“Here at Alazan, the last time I looked, the average family earns about $10,000 a year,” Hinojosa Jr. said. “You know, there are families that earn $500 a month, $6,000 a year, and there’s no way they can afford a 30 percent (AMI) unit ever.”
Among the 70,000 on Opportunity Home SA’s waiting list, roughly 59,000 are waiting for a public housing unit, while 11,000 are waiting for a voucher.
Strategically, building the 88-unit apartment complex first at the Apache Courts will provide residents of Alazan Courts whose units are marked for demolition a place to move while staying in roughly the same community.
“The commitment from Opportunity Home since the beginning was that through all of the redevelopment of Alazan, we wanted to make sure that no one was displaced from the neighborhood,” Kairam said.
The San Antonio River Authority is currently redrawing the floodplain maps for Alazan Creek, Kairam said. Assuming the new map is approved by City Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), nine buildings accounting for 49 units would be demolished under the new plan. Kairam said it’s unclear which current buildings will be demolished first; the agency is still working on a phasing strategy.
In meetings and workshops with Alazan-Apache Courts residents and West Side community members, aspects of the new development—from building height to location of new buildings to the addition of green space—have been discussed, planned and debated.
“There are also buildings in the interior of the blocks that will be replaced with taller new construction—by going taller within the blocks we can add the additional square footage needed for the increased unit sizes and to replace the units in the floodplain,” Kairam said.
In a community design workshop in June, participants prioritized upgrading open spaces and playgrounds, upgrading the streetscape, preserving as many existing buildings as possible, and preserving the look and feel of the neighborhood.
[ Reimagine Alazan: View results from the June 25 Community Design Workshop hosted by Able City ]
Kayla Miranda, a resident of the Apache Courts who also served on the city’s housing bond community committee, said she felt heard during this latest iteration of the Alazan Courts planning process.
“The way that it’s been handled is good,” Miranda said. “I was part of the resident work group. We met several times and we all weighed in. I’m not 100 percent happy with it, but nobody ever is. You have to have some consensus.”
Miranda lives next to the baseball field where the 88-unit expansion is planned. She’s concerned about razing of some buildings in the floodplain, but she’s glad Opportunity Home SA is planning to expand the total number of public housing units.
“The resident meetings were completely packed; it was full every single time,” she said, “and everyone had a chance to speak up. And we debated and talked. Each and every time we came back from a meeting, they made changes based on what we told them.”
Leticia Sanchez, co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association, said she disagrees with some of the new buildings being three stories, especially on the baseball field where she said the city view for existing residents will be negatively impacted.
“For me the three stories is something we’re trying to stay away from,” Sanchez said. “I’m grateful that they are not demolishing the majority of the buildings, that they are trying to respect the historic preservation of the structures, not just for the history but also for our environment. The more you destroy, the more goes into our dumps.”
“I think Able City has done a decent job of communicating and listening to what we’ve asked,” Sanchez said. “Personally, I would have liked for them to have shown residents what it is to renovate—what facilities would have looked like that are renovated that have been done throughout the United States … (without showing renovated public housing) it’s hard for people to imagine what can be done.”
The community meetings continue next week, and the final master plan is scheduled to be completed in November.
Along with Able City, Alamo Architects of San Antonio and national consultant Economic & Planning Systems (EPS) are also part of the planning process.
Opportunity Home SA is requesting $8 million from the overall housing bond $150 million that’s earmarked for rental housing production and preservation, home production and rehabilitation, and the creation of housing for the chronically homeless. Currently, committees composed of city officials and community members are reviewing applications for housing bond dollars, and are scheduled to make recommendations for City Council approval in December.
[ Heron: Is San Antonio rushing its $150 million housing bond? | Aug. 19, 2022 ]
Heron Editor Ben Olivo has been writing about downtown San Antonio since 2008, first for mySA.com, then for the San Antonio Express-News. He co-founded the Heron in 2018, and can be reached at 210-421-3932 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @rbolivo on Twitter