Lucille LeBlanc lived in her Denver Heights home on the East Side for 12 years in decrepit condition, when, in 2019, things got worse. There was an electrical fire. One of her plugs was burning from the inside. Along with electrical issues, her ceiling was coming down due to busted pipes. “And then because the water was coming through the kitchen, coming down to the floor, a lot of times I had to put pans down there for the ceiling. They had cracks that (were) coming from the ceiling and coming down to the kitchen floor. And then it started in the dining room and the second bedroom I have,” LeBlanc says.
Along with extinguishing the fire, the fire department took one look at LeBlanc’s hazardous electrical wiring and told her she needed to take care of the issue as soon as possible. “Well this house is old,” she remembers telling the fire department. Her whole electrical system needed replacing. She could not afford it.
LeBlanc called 311, which then directed her to the Claude Black Community Center on East Commerce Street. “I talked to them and I told him I needed help with my home,” LeBlanc recalls. She then applied for the city’s newly-enacted home repair program, or the Owner-Occupied Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program (ORR).
Since 2016, the City of San Antonio has allotted $26.5 million to repair or rebuild 215 homes of struggling San Antonians, $20.6 million contributed by the federal government.
Expanding on the equity lens concept the city first adopted in 2017, the home repair program LeBlanc took advantage of is attempting to correct the inequities of the past. It’s intentionally targeting homes that were once deemed by the federal government as undesirable–a practice known as red lining. Many of these areas are becoming more attractive to investors, and programs like owner-occupied rehab and reconstruction help keep residents in place, the city says.
In a recent interview, Mayor Ron Nirenberg described the rehabilitation of aging housing stock as the “biggest area of opportunity” as the city begins to shift millions more dollars via San Antonio’s first major housing bond next year toward solving what many describe as an affordable housing crisis.
But the program is not without its critics, who say the eligibility process can be cumbersome for lower-income households and that it could serve more homeowners if it were more efficient.
Depending on the need of the home, the city has four programs residents can apply for. In some cases, the city will pay for minor repairs, in others, it will demolish the home and rebuild from the ground up.
The Owner-Occupied Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program allots anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per home, depending on the scale of the repairs or reconstruction. The program rehabs on an as-needed basis, such as installing new flooring, repairing roofs, rebuilding bathrooms and kitchens, adding in and taking away walls, adding new windows, painting the interior and exterior, sometimes building a deck in the homeowners’ backyard.
Houses that need the most repairs are more likely to fall within what were once labeled as red line districts, or neighborhoods deemed unfit for mortgage lending across the country by the federal government in the 1930s. The practice often separated the older, poorer parts of cities from newer communities. This segregation amplified an already racist and classist divide in neighborhoods all over America. Although red lining was outlawed in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, housing segregation still affects neighborhoods in the U.S., with the majority of people living in these neighborhoods still being underserved and caught in a cycle of poverty. People who live in former redlined districts are often minorities with less access to healthcare, affordable living necessities, and can sometimes fall victim to predatory loan sharking, The Washington Post reported.
San Antonio is no exception. “It’s a common idea that the most affordable housing is the housing that currently exists, but what we want to do is help people who can’t afford to maintain their home,” says Madeleine Mendez, the interim Housing Production Manager with the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD). “These (homes are in) areas where it’s becoming more attractive to buyers to buy up homes and flip them. And it’s probably more attractive (to the homeowner) to receive a lump sum of money from somebody who’s going to turn around and flip the house and sell it for three times what they paid you. But we don’t want to have people pushed out of their homes because they can’t afford to maintain them.”
This allows, Mendez says, for homeowners to age in place in a market that is rife with gentrification.
Newly-elected District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo says it’s important to have stable neighborhoods which are experiencing economic investment that “outpace stagnant wages.” It’s an issue she campaigned on for the West Side council seat, and which she talked to us about before the runoff election.
Castillo argues the city’s home repair programs aren’t accessible enough, citing requirements such as clear titles and specific insurances, which many homeowners in her district can’t afford to pay.
“Whether you’re a homeowner or renter,” Castillo says, “we know rents and property taxes are increasing. And as a city, we need to do better to implement community displacement mitigation tools and policy.”
Alma Diaz, a homeowner who has had her home repaired by the city, said the application process took more time and money, by taking the steps to have a clear title on her home, and buy homeowners insurance. Such convoluted processes, as Castillo puts it, make it difficult for homeowners like Diaz, who lives in a multi-generational home with her grandkids, to enter the program.
“Cut(ting) the red tape,” Castillo says, would allow for fewer barriers for homeowners to pay their way through in order to apply.
Once the repairs are done, not all homeowners are happy with the outcome, says Castillo, whose grassroots experience as a West Side housing activist and member of the Historic Westside Residents Association helped her get elected. She gave an example of a homeowner whose foundation shifted after renovations. Castillo chose to keep the homeowner’s identity anonymous, but says that the homeowner called the city, which gave her a list of contractors to follow up with. Castillo says there is a lack of follow-up on the city’s part.
“I’m not sure what homeowner that was, (but) it’s possible that they were calling after the one-year warranty period, in which case, we cannot require that the contractor do more work than we paid them for,” Mendez says when asked about the homeowner with the shifting foundation Castillo referenced. Mendez went on to say that the city provides education to homeowners on the upkeep of their home.
For Sarah Gould, interim executive director of the West Side-based Mexican American Civil Rights Institute, the housing crisis stems from inequality in real estate. The city’s program, she says, can potentially allow people to escape the cycle of poverty based on the home they own, and its value as it increases over time. Repairing peoples’ homes so that they are both currently livable and livable for future generations allows families to build wealth.
“The rehab program is not only about historic preservation, but also about undoing … years of injustice around real estate and quality,” Gould says.
But Gould is also concerned about “preserving the look and feel of … these older neighborhoods that have wonderful bones (and) wonderful design” that would, in turn, make for a home of a higher value—rather than demolish and rebuild. Gould says at some point the program becomes about quantity over quality. According to Mendez, of the 215 projects completed since 2016, 170 home were rehabbed and 45 were reconstructed.
Although Gould, a former employee with the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, wholeheartedly supports the program, she raises another point.
Environmentally speaking, wood floors on these homes are being replaced with laminate. Pipes are replaced with PVC. Everything is plastic and non-biodegradable, possibly ending up in a landfill somewhere. As Gould says, “we can’t be short-sighted about the environment, because it’s the poor neighborhoods that are already taking the brunt of the climate crisis, and it’s only going to get worse. So we really do have to be thinking about, where’s all this stuff going? Where’s the new stuff coming from? What’s the lifespan of this new stuff? Will it just end up in a landfill in 20, 30 years?”
Mendez says that while the city does use economy grade materials in the homes, it’s because the program has a “fiduciary responsibility to these federal funds (that are allotted for the program).”
Mendez also stresses that NHSD does consult with the Office of Historic Preservation on older homes.
To the argument that the city should be more efficient with its dollars, Mendez says the cost of repairing homes increases when considering factors such as testing and addressing lead-based paint in all homes built before 1978, and requirements when using federal dollars, including “environmental reviews and code requirements that add to the cost of the repairs.”
LeBlanc’s home was accepted into the program about two weeks after she applied. But by the time the paperwork was finished and the loans were closed, it would be over a year until the construction started. By September 2020, Covid-19 ravished the city—so everyone’s home, including LeBlanc’s, seemed to be backlogged.
At this point of construction, homeowners are given a one-time, $1,200-$1,700 stipend to vacate their home for the next 3-9 months while construction is being done.
For Maribel Gardea, whose home rests in Donaldson Terrace near Woodlawn Lake, she was lucky that her housing situation allowed her family to move next door with her parents.
“They rent that home out. And so we were lucky that during the Covid stuff happening, they were not renting it out to anyone, so we got to rent it out from them,” Gardea says. “And we moved literally like next door to our house.”
Like Gardea, LeBlanc stayed with family. And Diaz, who also lives in the Woodlawn Lake area, says the managers of the program gave her around $1,600 to move out and also stay with family.
Mendez makes it clear that in the application the city is upfront that it’s the homeowners’ responsibility to have somewhere else to live, and that most of the time people have a family member that they’ve chosen to stay with.
“I mean, it was easy for us,” Gardea says, “but I can see where it could be difficult for some people to find an apartment or, you know, another place that they have to move to.”
For Gardea, her family’s move-in was particularly special. Her 10-year-old son has multiple severe disabilities, so accessibility is an important part of her family’s life. Before the city repaired her home, Gardea and her husband had difficulties bathing their son in a regular shower and tub. The program gifted the family a handicapped restroom that was more accessible and allowed for an easier time bathing. During construction, their kitchen door was widened to allow their son’s wheelchair to be able to pass through. Stairs were removed so that a room would be leveled up for usage.
“But I mean, they did anything,” Gardea says. “Everything from a whole new AC wire system, to the water pipes. They did the whole new system outside, too. So I mean, it was pretty much everything. Everything became new again.”
According to Castillo, there are more people in District 5 filling out applications than the city has the money for. It begs the question: How can the money be allocated in such a way that benefits constituents the most?
The case can be made that the program attempts to do just that. “These programs and the assistance we have available is a good opportunity to provide more assistance where it’s most needed, or where it has been lacking in the past,” Mendez says.
There are seven eligibility characteristics the city considers: 1. The home is in a former red lined district; 2. The home is in an area where the concentration of people of color is 72.05%, or greater; 3. One or more people under the age of 18 live in the home; 4. The homeowner is a veteran; 5. The homeowner is 62 or older; 6. The homeowner has a disability; 7. The home is less than or equal to 1,700 square feet.
The application process is lengthy, with about 300 applications received a year, and around 65 homes actually completed, says Mendez. The application window opens, and the city can determine how many slots it can fill upon the approval of the fiscal year budget by the City Council.
Eligibility in this case means “stringent” requirements. “We check for basic things like (if) the homeowner has the home listed as their homestead, that they are in 100% ownership of the home, that they’re not behind on their taxes,” Mendez says. From there the remaining eligible homeowners are put into a lottery. Using a set equity scorecard for each district, the city then determines how many houses it can rehab per council district. Every address of every application is checked and is assigned a point for ones that are in the red lines district, to families with elderly people, people with disabilities, people with children—so that they can address considerations like health hazards and accessibility issues. Then the winners are randomly selected.
The equity score method is still within its first year. Before, the lottery method was random, says Mendez.
Now, city officials want to make sure each neighborhood or demographic gets a fair and equal chance to thrive, most importantly by attempting to take the steps necessary to dismantle previously racist programs, like red lining.
“We check every address of every application we received and assign a point for ones that are in the red line districts,” says Mendez.
The program changes as the homeowners’ needs change. For example, this year, managers of the program considered the square footage of the home because typically smaller homes are older, as well as “taking into account homes that have children under the age of five because we know that that is the age where lead-based paint can really affect their development,” Mendez says.
Two years out from the initial application process, LeBlanc’s house feels new. The outside is painted bright orange over a new foundation. The inside, despite its bright white trim and laminate floors, still captures the essence of who LeBlanc is. Pictures sit atop an old writing desk LeBlanc has had since she ran a daycare out of her home. A large framed photo of LeBlanc is perched front and center. She’s years younger, back to the camera. When the city workers saw it, LeBlanc says, “They asked, is that you?”
Spending time with the homeowners, however, makes the notion of a relationship between city and people a little more clear. LeBlanc considers the City of San Antonio the real reason she’s able to call her house home again. She considers the team that helped her along the way to be family. There is a certain familiarity in the way she speaks of her points of contact throughout the process. While visiting her with our photographer, LeBlanc is visibly disappointed that members of the owner-occupied rehab and reconstruction staff were unable to visit her as well.
Blueprint Ministries, a nonprofit that repairs homes, knows about the importance of building relationships with homeowners. The faith-based organization provides room and board, and meals to around 200 volunteers, many of them being students from middle class neighborhoods. They spend the summer restoring 25-30 homes, with a budget of about $5,000 to $6,000 per home. Although it is not as intensive as the city’s program, Blueprint Ministries does almost everything the city does, with the exception of plumbing, electrical, and foundation repair.
“It doesn’t end up being about, ‘What’s your income and my income,’ but rather ‘How can I add to your story, and you add to mine’?” says DeeDee Sedgwick, the organization’s executive director.
She cites building relationships as the most important aspect of the program. She stresses that the demographics of the volunteers that come through her program are often white, middle-class people with little-to-no experience of life outside their own. Sedgwick says that, by the end of the program, the homeowner and volunteers build a rapport.
Along with building relationships, the program also provides resources for the homeowners. If the homeowners need help with bills, Blueprint Ministries may send them to Christian Assistance Ministries, a nonprofit organization that helps prevent homelessness. Blueprint Ministries has delivered blankets and other necessities to homeowners in need, too. “It’s really important to us that we continue to help research and help them with those things,” Sedgwick says.
Alma Diaz, too, shares a closeness with the city’s home repair staff, bumping hands, laughing at their own inside jokes about their families. The staff remembers the layout of the homeowners’ old houses, walking amongst the new homes in their socked feet. Of course, there may be exceptions to the norm, but in LeBlanc, Gardea, and Diaz’s case, it seems the city tries to build rapport with the folks it attempts to help. The repairs themselves help give them peace of mind, as well.
“I don’t have to worry about the sewer line no more,” LeBlanc says. “I don’t have to worry about the electrical anymore. Oh, you don’t know how happy I am I can sleep in peace.”
Emily Drisch is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. Follow her at @partylkeits1999 on Twitter
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