To build affordable housing is notoriously difficult: The builder must usually get multiple approvals through arcane government programs while navigating the whims of the real estate and financial markets—often, while facing opposition from those who live nearby who may be uncomfortable with changes to their neighborhood.
Even by those standards, it has been especially difficult to develop Victoria Commons, which the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) has been working on since the Clinton administration on the former site of the Victoria Courts public housing project.
Spanning about a dozen parcels in the historic Lavaca neighborhood just south of downtown, the 36-acre project has been like a giant puzzle in which the pieces don’t always fit.
But Tim Alcott, SAHA’s real estate and legal services officer, believes that the end is in sight.
Last month, the agency signed a memorandum of understanding with homeowners on Leigh Street who had opposed two apartment buildings planned on vacant land facing Interstate 37—known as the “north pond” and “south pond” sites—due to concerns about traffic and drainage.
With the agreement in place, SAHA received City Council approval on Sept. 16 for zoning changes clearing the way for development of the sites as well as about four blocks of townhomes south of Refugio Street. Another parcel, the former Victoria Courts administration building, had its zoning set for multifamily.
“I have all the approvals to get this thing done now. I don’t know anything that can stop it—but I don’t want to jinx it,” Alcott said in an interview.
The crux of the agreement is for SAHA to create another traffic outlet for the south pond site by extending McMonigal Place all the way to Labor Street, reducing the number of cars that would have to drive on Leigh Street and other roads. SAHA also agreed to build the townhomes before starting working on the north and south pond sites and to provide at least 1½ parking spaces per unit for its multifamily projects.
The agreement was signed on Sept. 16, the day of the council approval, by Vicki Perkins, a leader of the Leigh Street homeowners, and Ed Hinojosa Jr., SAHA’s president and CEO.
“I think that, more or less, the neighbors are … I don’t know if enthusiastic is the right word, but resigned to the current conceptual design,” said Walter Wilson, one of the Leigh Street residents. “We feel reasonably good about it now that infrastructure has been added to help the project work better. I think everybody is eager to see the project realized and see a finished neighborhood in place.”
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, president of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association, said she still has concerns about traffic. When McMonigal is extended, much of the traffic into the south pond project will run along the side of Labor Street Park, which she worries will make it less pedestrian-friendly.
She isn’t as optimistic as Alcott that everything is in place to bring Victoria Commons to completion. In the past, the neighborhood association has been less supportive of affordable housing than it is now; she pointed out that the association’s board could change, which might lead it to oppose the remaining phases.
“Is it smooth sailing? Probably not, but I think that right now, the neighbors are at least accepting of what they’ve got,” she said. The current plan “helps to continue the diversification of the neighborhood. It’s not as affordable as we’d like, but there are others who wanted no affordability, so there’s a balance there.”
It is unusual that the neighborhood association, and many of the area’s residents, have wanted more affordability than SAHA will likely end up providing. Over the years, as SAHA hashed out its plans, it responded to concerns from Lavaca residents by reducing the project’s density. A large portion of its income-restricted units will now fall under the designation of “workforce housing,” the upper echelon of subsidized housing.
At Victoria Commons, SAHA hopes to provide housing for those who work in the downtown service industry, Alcott said.
“There’s not a lot of truly affordable workforce housing units downtown that are new construction,” he said. “You know, the biggest expenses for our residents are food, transportation and housing. So if we get affordable housing, and alleviate the transportation issue as folks work downtown, that would be a big win.”
SAHA’s plans for the north and south pond sites are still very much in flux. The plans depend, in large part, on what developers propose to do there. The agency has been meeting with interested developers and will soon issue a request for proposals.
SAHA is applying for federal housing tax credits for the north pond site, but the agency would be open to using other financing mechanisms such as a public facility corporation, so long as it would create the desired levels of affordability, Alcott said.
“I’m agnostic if we use tax credits or not,” he said. “What I do care about is that we have workforce housing for people who work downtown.”
For the north pond, he would like to see a development “weighted” toward residents making between 40 and 60 percent of the area median income—or roughly between $28,800 to $43,200 a year for a family of four. Altogether, the north and south pond sites will likely include between 330 and 430 units, he said.
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SAHA has agreed to keep the townhomes it builds market-rate, as requested by nearby residents, agency spokeswoman Marivel Resendiz said in an email.
“From the funds generated by the market rate townhome sales, SAHA can construct new deeply affordable units in other areas of town,” Resendiz said. “We expect the total percentage of affordable units in the neighborhood to be consistent with what is currently there.”
Wilson, the Leigh Street resident, said he was disappointed that so much of the housing SAHA is building at Victoria Commons will be market-rate.
“That’s not the purpose of SAHA. I think it introduces some perverse incentives and tells you that the institution is kind of losing its way,” Wilson said. He added, “There are not going to be any poor people housed by this project.”
Resendiz said that any revenue SAHA generates will be invested into affordable housing throughout San Antonio. She noted that more than 40,000 residents are on wait lists for affordable housing and that the agency has more than $300 million in capital improvement needs across the city.
As of now, there are about 901 units in Victoria Commons, including those under construction at the 100 Labor Street mixed-income apartment community, Resendiz said. Of those, 501 are market-rate and 400 are income-restricted.
Here is the status of other portions of the Victoria Commons development:
» The townhomes site: SAHA is meeting with developers who are interested in building the blocks of townhomes, Alcott said. The current plan is for 63 townhomes to be built, with construction set to begin around the end of 2022.
» The administration building: Formerly, SAHA had planned to build 108 multifamily units on the site, with 10 percent of the units below-market and the rest market-rate. As of April, SAHA had changed its plans and was considering swapping the site with the city for another piece of land. But the agency couldn’t find land to swap with the city, and now has the zoning in place to develop the site with multifamily, Alcott said.
» The YMCA site: The agreement between SAHA and the Leigh Street homeowners states that SAHA is now proposing townhomes or single-family homes on the site, “although that is subject to change.” Alcott said the current plan is for 24 single-family homes.
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
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