Dirt-covered walls spray painted white. Pest control that doesn’t come around as often as it used to — resulting in roaches. Fees for services residents once took care of themselves.
Residents of the Soap Factory apartments (previously Soapworks and Towne Center) that the Heron interviewed say the situation at the west downtown apartments has worsened. Earlier this year, media reports shed light on plans by the new owner, Houston-based Barvin Group, to renovate the units, some of downtown’s last truly affordable housing options. The three properties comprise roughly 300 units, and sit along the banks of the newly-opened San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
Residents feared they’d be pushed out — and some have.
Two Soap Factory households have tapped into $542,000 in relocation assistance the city of San Antonio made available in April. Two other households have applied for the aid, which pays for rent at the new residence for up to three months. The major qualification to receive the assistance, city officials said, is that one’s rent must have increased a minimum of 15 percent in the last 12 months.
Other Soap Factory residents feel they will soon be displaced by a rent increase, or made to feel uncomfortable and forced out that way. If they choose to move to a renovated unit, they could pay almost $200 more than their current rent (according to an analysis of soapfactoryapartments.com), which for some would be a 40 percent increase they cannot afford, they say. They say empty units are plentiful — renovated with painted walls and new appliances — but with poor craftsmanship.
Three months ago, Dennis Dahms moved into a renovated efficiency, for which he pays $670 a month, and already has had issues. After his first week, he started seeing roaches skittering around the apartment. The metal strip transition from the carpet to the tile floor was uneven and caused him to slip and break his wrist after his sock got caught on the metal. When he approached the management about it, he said they wouldn’t acknowledge it.
“What I’m paying, it ain’t worth it,” Dahms said. “The quality of the workmanship, and the people they got working for them, is half-assed.”
In April, the city reprogrammed a federal Community Development Block Grant, which freed up $542,000 in relocation aid for situations such as the one at Soap Factory. The changes began just before the opening of San Pedro Creek — the $175 million public improvements project that turned what had been a ditch into downtown’s second linear park, along with the River Walk.
So far, two households have used the assistance — for a combined $4,200 — Irma Iris Durán Rodríguez, interim executive assistant in the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD), said in an email. Each of the households received three months of rental assistance at their new locations. Along with the funds, the city’s Department of Human Services is providing counseling.
Another two Soap Factory households have also applied for the aid.
In order to qualify, residents must have a household income less than 80 percent of the area median income — which is $50,800 for a family of four, for example. Also, the household’s rent must have increased a minimum of 15 percent in the last year, Rodriguez said.
“An eligible client then seeks a new rental that is no more than the increased rent at their present location,” Rodriguez said.
Under the program, the city of San Antonio can pay the household’s rent up to three months, and up to a max of $2,500 per household.
‘Nobody is happy’
Lonzo, an eight-year resident of Soap Factory and downtown worker, pays $520 for a one-bedroom apartment. He and his husband are now looking for a new place after they were forced into renting month to month — instead of the four- to six-month leases they were used to — and pay fees for services they used to do themselves.
“We’ve been having a lot of problems since these people took over,” said Lonzo, who only gave his first name. “Nobody is happy.”
Neither the management company, Capstone Real Estate Services, Inc., nor Barvin Group returned interview requests for this report.
One resident, who asked to only go by Linda, and her boyfriend have lived in a one bedroom at Soap Factory for a decade and pay $550 a month. Before the complex was purchased, Linda said she could rarely find any parking. Now, parking is plentiful and at least three people in her building have moved and another is planning to move soon.
“Almost everyone who lived here was a senior or worked downtown,” Linda said. “They’re just slapping some lipstick and jacking up the prices. There is no place for these people to go.”
A newly renovated one-bedroom apartment now costs the renter $899, according to the Soap Factory website. New appliances and flooring are advertised, but Dahms said his apartment looks far from the pictures on the website.
“It is not like that when you walk in the place,” Dahms said. “The pictures on the Internet are different.”
Before Capstone took over, dumpsters were available on every corner of the property. Now, residents are forced to pay a fee for a trash valet service that varies from $17 to $70 a month depending on the resident. Outside every door is a black trash can where residents must leave their trash in a clear bag or risk it not being picked up. Trash services occur Monday through Friday and are not available during the holidays, when one might need the service the most. If Lonzo or his neighbors need to dispose of trash in a large dumpster, there is one located in the back of the complex, which is quite a distance from where he lives.
According to Lonzo, threats of trash-related citations have been dished out frequently.
Resident-turned-activist Maureen Galindo, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her three young children, has become the unofficial spokesperson for residents experiencing changes at Soap Factory. She recently teamed up with another resident-turned-activist, Natasha Hernandez of Dignowity Hill, among others, to form Tenants United San Antonio, a renters rights advocacy group.
“Tenants are so vulnerable to displacement and landlord abuse and that’ll get worse and worse as this housing crisis gets worse,” Galindo said.
In late June, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force unveiled its plan to address some of San Antonio’s most pressing housing needs citywide, such as the rising cost of living and the potential for more displacement. For example, 32,000 units are needed for residents making less than 30 percent of the area median income, which is $14,780.
In the center city, the most glaring example of displacement was at the Mission Trails mobile home park in late 2014, early 2015. The South Side community of Mission Trails, some 300 families, was forced to move after the property owner received rezoning help from the City Council and an incentives package from the city’s Center City Housing Incentives Policy.
Currently, many longtime residents of Dignowity Hill fear displacement and further gentrification of their neighborhood they say will be assisted by a development called the Bridge Apartments next to the Hays Street Bridge.
Galindo said the group is still working to create a solid foundation for what they want to accomplish. Residents of communities who have either been displaced or fear they’re on the verge of being uprooted met for the first time a few weeks ago for the first TUSA meeting.
“The initial meeting was just trying to figure out ways to dispute what was going on and finding ways to work together and have a united voice and talk priorities,” Hernandez said.
District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño confirmed Tuesday night that the upcoming draft of the budget proposal, due to be released to the full council Thursday morning, will include $1 million for an “emergency fund” and $100,000 for rental assistance.
Nirenberg’s housing task force recommended $1 million be set aside for a “risk mitigation fund,” which would assist residents who are displaced with moving costs.
Galindo said she’d rather assistance come from the property owners, rather than from tax dollars.
“It has to be known that they can’t just come in here and take over,” Galindo said. “It sets a precedent for other companies that want to come in to San Antonio and take over.”
The group also recommended the a “displacement impact” study for any public improvement project of at least $15 million, such as San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
“We could have known five years ago when San Pedro Creek was moving forward that we would have had a (Soap Factory) problem,” task force member Gene Dawson told the City Council in late June.
Featured photo by V. Finster | San Antonio Heron