Cora Medina, 41, lives with three of her children at the Terraces at Haven for Hope, a low-income apartment complex right across from San Antonio’s homeless shelter. She’s an upbeat woman, laughing and smiling as she and her children greet me in their apartment on a recent summer afternoon. She’s stable—but maybe not in the traditional sense. She receives government assistance to buy groceries and get healthcare. The apartment she lives in is subsidized by a federal housing program, which allows her to pay a lower rent. It has also allowed her to find her footing in life.
“I’m not worried,” Medina says. “I am so content with my life right now. And Covid’s coming around again; it’s not that I’m not stressed about it, but everything happens for a reason, and I’m good. At the end of my day I’m good. And the Bible says it’s for your good, and I believe that.”
We at the Heron often describe varieties of housing by the percentage of the area median income, or AMI, the units are intended to serve. We talk about apartments priced for people making 30% AMI or 60% AMI, for example. Housing is often boiled down to numbers. We hardly ever talk to the people who live in these apartments. Here, first in an occasional series, we attempt to do just that.
She was raised in the foster care system in Michigan, but ran away at 16 to come to San Antonio where her maternal grandparents lived. She lived with them for the next 15 years and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as she raised five children—until her mother died. At the funeral, Medina’s family confronted her and pressured her to move out.
Over the next 10 years, Medina and her children moved in and out of family members’ homes, bounced back and forth between church members’ couches, and lived in homeless shelters and transitional homes as they searched for a place to call home.
In 2020, just before the Covid pandemic shut down most of the country, Medina was at the end of her time in a transitional home, and was in a recovery program to regain custody of her children—who had been taken away when her addiction spiraled out of control.
With a little over $200 to her name, and no family to turn to for help, Medina took a bus to Haven for Hope, where she had graduated from a few years prior. As she walked from the bus stop to Haven’s intake office, a “NOW LEASING” sign caught her eye, and she decided to take a chance and ask if there was an apartment available. There wasn’t, but Medina came back several more times. Right as she was ready to give up, the apartment management called. “Ms. Medina,” the receptionist said, “come back and fill out some paperwork—we have an opening for you.”
Medina and her children moved into the Terraces at Haven for Hope soon after, and have lived in their apartment for about a year and a half.
For Medina’s youngest son, 11-year-old Na’Zarius, it’s the longest he’s lived in one place in his entire life.
Changing the narrative
The Terraces at Haven for Hope were built by developer NRP Group, and are managed by Prospera Housing and Community Services, a nonprofit organization, which also builds housing. At the Terraces, Prospera provides support services such as after-school programs, computer skills training, financial literary classes, parenting classes and a food pantry, to name a few.
The Terraces property was funded primarily using federal low-income housing tax credits, or LIHTCs, which allow investors to receive tax breaks in exchange for providing equity to help fund construction costs. Prospera has also relied heavily on low-income housing tax credits to fund its own properties, such as the newly-opened Village at Roosevelt, a 57-unit mixed-income community that’s predominately priced for people making below the area median income.
Housing experts often describe tax credits as the best tool of funding truly affordable housing. “Free money” is another way they’re sometimes described, because in some cases, they can fund roughly 70% of a project’s cost. And both for-profit and non-profit housing developers take advantage of them each year.
“To end homelessness you have to stop it upstream before new people are coming into the system,” Scott Ackerson, executive vice president of strategic relationships and services at Prospera, said in an interview with the Heron, “and the way you do that is you have access to affordable housing so people don’t become homeless.”
One of Prospera’s goals has been to de-stigmatize often misunderstood terms such as “affordable housing” or “subsidized housing.” In recent years, the nonprofit received a grant from the H.E. Butt Foundation and San Antonio Area Foundation to hire San Francisco-based communications firm We Are Rally to help craft a strategy called narrative change—a method of storytelling that challenges negative perceptions of a particular topic, in this case, housing for low-income families.
Often, Prospera and other builders of below-market housing run into strong opposition from neighborhoods who don’t want such housing built in their neck of the woods. Often, homeowners say they’re concerned about property values declining, or crime. The phenomenon has a name: Not In My Backyard, or NIMBYism. The neighborhoods opposed aren’t always relegated to the northside, as you might expect. In recent years, the community around Mission San Jose on the South Side opposed below-market housing because they said the area already had plenty.
’Their feelings change’
There is evidence the narrative may be changing.
The Village at Perrin Beitel is another one of Prospera’s project in the planning stages just outside Loop 410. At that location, the nonprofit wants to build a 92-unit apartment complex—82 units of which would be reserved for people making less than the area median income.
In this part of town, new below-market developments are a rarity because they often get shut down by neighborhoods. Marc Levesque, head of the neighborhood association of Village North 2, told the Heron that neighbors near the Village at Perrin Beitel expressed concern about traffic congestion, views blocked by the apartment walls, and trying to fit too many people into a small space.
“When developers want to bring in properties, they need to be straight up,” Levesque said. “They have to take care of the properties.”
The conversation started to change when Brad McMurray, Prospera’s vice president of development, talked to the neighborhood in person, and answered their questions and facilitated an updated plan for the new complex, addressing the neighborhood’s concerns. After discussion, and seeing the updated plan for development, the neighborhood became excited for the new project and have now expressed their full support.
District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry told the Heron: “We’ve had other (LIHTC proposals) in the past that didn’t go over so well, but once the neighborhoods get an opportunity to speak with the actual developers, their feelings change.”
In San Antonio, developers are not required to reach out to neighborhoods where they plan to build below-market housing. But it often behooves them to do so. One reason would be to meet a community’s concerns head on. Another has to do with the level of support a project receives from the city as a developer attempts to win tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the state agency charged by the federal government with doling them out. Every year in San Antonio, only three, sometimes four, projects win the tax credits out of more than 20 applications. Included in the TDHCA’s scoring system is the level of support a project receives from the local government. Using its own scoring system, the City of San Antonio gives more points to developers when they engage neighborhoods. In 2017, the change came about after communities adjacent to Bandera Road were upset at former District 7 Councilman Cris Medina for not informing them of two incoming housing projects. During the municipal election that year, challenger Ana Sandoval promised those neighborhoods, and others in her district, for more transparency in the process. After she beat Medina, Sandoval helped lead the revision to the tax credit process.
’There’s too much to do’
One day when I met with Ms. Medina, she, and her oldest son and his fiancée’s father stood outside, trying to figure out what was wrong with her 2011 Dodge Journey, which had broken down a week before. That morning, Medina told me, her daughter dislocated a toe and had to be taken to the nearest emergency center, but Medina didn’t have time to stay at the ER and get her car fixed—which she needed in order to go to work the next day.
“There’s too much to do,” Medina said.
Medina makes just under 30% of the area median income—about $23,000 per year—and has to make that money stretch for food, clothing, and shoes for herself and the three children who live with her. Not to mention transportation expenses.
Medina cleans houses for Maids on a Mission, and mostly works in neighborhoods around the Stone Oak area—driving about 30 minutes on average from her near-West Side apartment. Medina’s job requires her to have a car, so taking the bus isn’t an option, but while she waited for repairs to her car, she was still able to work by carpooling with her oldest son’s fiancée who recently started working with the same company.
It didn’t take long for Medina to get to know the people living in her new community. A few months after she moved into The Terraces, Medina saw one of her neighbors working on his car in the parking lot. She approached him and asked for help with an issue her own vehicle was having, and he offered to fix it for her. A few days later, Medina opened the door to the same neighbor asking for some spare milk. Medina was happy to help.
Medina has another friend living in The Terraces, who she met during her time in Haven’s recovery program.
“It’s cool to go over to her every now and then and see how she’s doing, and we’ve both come from so far,” Medina laughs, “I’m like ‘Yes, girl, you keep moving and I’m going to keep moving, too!'”
Medina still feels guilt over missing time with her children when they were taken away from her. Her job allows her to come home for lunch, so she spends her afternoons during the summer with her kids, cooking, talking, and being present as much as she can, now that they’re together again.
“That’s something I promised myself. Every day if I get my kids back, every day, I’m gonna cook. I just took the little things for granted.” Medina’s voice strains as she remembers—her pain at the memories of her past is evident.
But every time she starts talking about her worries, she can’t help but laugh. She’s content with where she lives. She recently got a promotion at work, she loves her community, and her relationship with her children is stronger than ever.
“That’s part of the promise I made myself,” she said, “that’s part of being a better mom.”
This article was produced in part with a grant from the H.E. Butt Foundation.
San Antonio native Maggie Ryan is pursuing a bachelor’s of arts in English Language and Literature/Letters at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Over the summer, she interned at the Heron through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. Follow her @m_rrye on Twitter.
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