Only two years after its founding in 1937, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) used New Deal dollars to build Victoria Courts, a public housing project that would come to span 36 acres in the Lavaca neighborhood south of downtown.
Over the decades, a concentration of poverty within the project’s borders gave rise to crime and a lack of social mobility amongst its residents, problems that were endemic to public housing built in the mid-20th century. After demolishing the 660-unit community in 2000, SAHA received a federal grant to redevelop the site as Victoria Commons, a neighborhood where high-earners would live beside low-earners, in accordance to the wisdom at the time about how to build effective affordable housing.
SAHA has since built two mixed-income apartment complexes, with a third under construction, and a set of townhomes totaling 901 units.
Yet much of the former site of Victoria Commons remains bare, as the agency contends with rising housing costs in a resurgent downtown, and opposition from Lavaca residents who worry that too much density, and too many affordable units, are being packed into their neighborhood.
That could soon change. SAHA and its master developer, the Catellus firm of Oakland, Calif., are moving forward with a plan to fill the rest of the neighborhood with two apartment complexes and more townhomes. In an effort to allay the concerns of Lavaca residents, the agency has greatly reduced the density of housing from a plan it proposed last year. A large portion of the income-restricted units will fall under the designation of “workforce housing,” the upper echelon of subsidized housing.
The new plan would create a total of roughly 426 housing units, down from 654 in the previous plan, according to presentations SAHA has made to the neighborhood. The number of affordable units would go up slightly, from 204 to about 215, but about 100 of those would be “workforce housing” built through SAHA’s public facility corporation (PFC), which many experts say do not produce true affordability.
Zoning changes required for the plan are on the preliminary agenda for the city’s Zoning Commission meeting on April 20. But Tim Alcott, SAHA’s real estate and legal services officer, said the requests will likely be considered later, perhaps in May.
SAHA is still facing opposition from members of the Artisan Park Townhome Homeowners Association and residents of Leigh Street—the two communities of mostly homeowners that SAHA instigated in the last 20 years—who are concerned about a five-story apartment complex the agency plans to build on a triangular piece of vacant land known as the “north basin” at the end of Refugio Street, along Interstate 37. All of the complex’s roughly 80 to 100 units would be reserved for low-income tenants.
Members of the two groups say the complex would be out of character with the neighborhood—too tall, and with too many of the affordable units concentrated in one place.
Selsa Gonzalez, president of the Artisan Park Townhome HOA, declined to be interviewed, saying that the struggle had already put stress on herself and her husband, Omar Gonzalez, director of real estate at the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp., or HPARC, which is building a master-planned community at Hemisfair, just north of Lavaca.
She said only, “I feel that SAHA has been very unfair to our group,” and provided a letter which the HOA and Leigh Street residents had sent to SAHA and Catellus on March 21.
The groups are asking SAHA to spread the income-restricted units more evenly throughout the neighborhood, and to build only for-sale properties—i.e., condos and townhomes—in the area between Refugio (the townhomes) and Leigh (single-family homes) streets.
“Evident with ownership is a level of care for the neighborhood,” the letter states. “It is also the path towards equity and economic advancement.” It goes on to say, “We have learned from the Victoria Courts that an unbalanced mix of market-rate to affordable is unsustainable.”
Alcott allows for no possibility of spreading out the income-restricted units planned for the north basin complex. With property values rising, it just isn’t possible to build affordably-priced townhomes in Victoria Commons, he says. SAHA previously built six townhomes in the neighborhood priced for low-income families, but rising property taxes soon made them unaffordable and the homeowners were eventually priced out.
The residents of the apartment complex at the north basin site will make between 40% and 60% of the area median income (AMI), he said in an interview—or, roughly $28,800 to $43,200 a year for a family of four, the income range of many downtown workers.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
“It’s a very small development. We’re talking 80 to 100 units—that is very little compared to what is being built out there,” Alcott said. “If you look at the entire area, with the park amenities, the way all this goes together, it’s not like you’re segregating out a bunch of poor folks. They are part of that community.”
SAHA is limited in what it can do by the financing mechanisms at its disposal, Alcott said. The north basin complex would be built with federal housing tax credits, which carry stricter affordability restrictions than PFC deals and require a certain level of density to make sense financially.
In a recent meeting between SAHA and Lavaca residents, Omar Gonzalez suggested that SAHA could build mixed-income apartments on Labor Street, where the agency owns the old Victoria Courts administration building and a YMCA daycare center, which it plans to build upon. Under last year’s plan, SAHA would have built a complex on the site of the administration building, but nearby residents were concerned about the traffic it would create. Alcott now talks of swapping the property with the city, and some Lavaca residents want to see it turned into a community center.
“It sounds like the challenge is that you’re trying to build something that’s financeable, and we’re trying to build something that fits in our neighborhood, and it seems like there’s a clash between those two tools,” Gonzalez said in the meeting. “Ultimately, we’d like to see something more in line with what’s in the neighborhood today.”
Gonzalez stated at the meeting that his opinions were separate from those of HPARC.
Many of SAHA’s earlier plans for Victoria Commons did not include developments on the north basin site and a vacant plot south of it, also along Interstate 37, known as the “south basin,” where the PFC complex is now planned.
“I think one of the frustrations is that the plan continues to change, and sometimes we feel like we’re not being a part of that change,” Gonzalez said.
The Lavaca Neighborhood Association is not coming out in support of the current plan, but is not opposed to it either, said its president Cherise Rohr-Allegrini.
Last month, the association refused SAHA’s request to write a letter of support for the zoning change because its board members felt that their concerns about the project’s impact on the neighborhood’s infrastructure hadn’t been addressed, she said.
The association has long held that 45% of the units that SAHA creates in Victoria Commons should be below market-rate. Last year, its board told SAHA that they couldn’t support the plan which the agency proposed because it would lower the proportion to 39%.
The board is now satisfied that the 45% affordability target will be met, Rohr-Allegrini said.
“Let me say that there’s not opposition to the current proposal amongst the neighborhood board,” she said. “I have confidence that Catellus is working very hard to try to address (the concerns). I don’t know that they’ll be able to resolve it.”
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said that SAHA has “created a compromise that they can live with, and hopefully the HOA and the Artisan folks can too. We don’t want for there not to be a project that creates affordability.”
The latest plan differs from the one proposed last year in the following ways:
» The north basin site: Under the former plan, it would have included 180 apartment units, with 85% below-market and the rest market-rate. Under the current plan, it will include between 80 and 130 units—probably closer to 80, Alcott said—all of them affordable.
» The south basin site: The former plan would have included 200 apartment units, 15% below-market and the rest market-rate. Under the current plan, it will be a PFC complex with 250 units, half market-rate and half below-market.
SAHA will aim to reserve 40% of the units for tenants making up to 80% AMI and 10% for those making up to 60% AMI, Alcott said. The rest will be market-rate.
» The administration building: Under the former plan, it would have included 108 multifamily units, 10% below-market, the rest market-rate. SAHA is now considering swapping the site with the city for another, as-yet-undetermined piece of land.
» The YMCA site: Under the former plan, it would have included 102 apartment units, 10% of them below-market and the rest market-rate. Under the current plan, it will include 23 single-family homes, all market-rate.
» The townhome site: Under the 2020 plan, it would have included 64 single-family homes, all market-rate. Under the current plan, the number of homes has been reduced to 63.
SAHA hasn’t yet chosen developers to build the components of Victoria Commons, Alcott said. Catellus is serving as a master developer for the project as a whole.
Catellus has worked on master-planned communities across the U.S. In Texas, it is best-known for partnering with the City of Austin to build the 700-acre Mueller community on the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in northeast Austin. When the project is complete, it is expected to include 6,000 homes and 4.2 million square feet of office and retail space, according to Catellus’s website.
Among Lavaca residents, there is a diversity of opinions toward SAHA’s plans. Jacob Davis, who lives on Leigh Street, said he supports the apartment complex planned at the north basin after SAHA added another vehicle exit which would divert traffic from the neighborhood’s side-streets. But he is concerned about SAHA’s plan to tear down the YMCA, which offers one of the few childcare centers in the area. The agency plans to build townhomes there.
“I have several co-workers, since I work at the Marriotts downtown, that utilize that, so we were wanting to preserve that,” Davis said. “We felt like that was a really good thing to have in the Victoria Commons area, especially with the affordability and the workforce goals they have for that area.”
Rose Anzel, a member of the Artisan Park Townhome HOA, said she now feels “pretty good” about the plans after SAHA and Catellus addressed the neighborhood’s concerns about traffic flow and density.
“My biggest concern at this point is just that whatever they do develop on the north and south ponds really does blend in with the neighborhood in terms of design, architecture and community feel,” she said.
In a recent virtual meeting with Lavaca residents, Greg Weaver, an executive vice president with Catellus, addressed concerns about design by showing images of the Mueller community in Austin.
“We try to always look at the streetscape, the landscaping, the adjacency,” Weaver said. “One thing that Catellus does, and that we’re doing on this project here, is we’re going to have very strict design guidelines for each of the parcels, both the homes and the apartment buildings, and then we’re going to have an architectural committee that looks at everything.”
2020 Area Median Income
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|Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development|
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