Over the past few months, San Antonio’s Housing Commission has worked to craft a universal definition of “affordable housing,” an ambiguous term that often sparks debate between those involved with building subsidized housing and those who advocate for cheaper rents.
The new definition comes as the City Council prepares in the near future to consider adopting an action plan for how to address San Antonio’s housing needs, a plan which stems from Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force framework of 2018.
“We’re dealing with multiple types of housing, income … and it was important for there to be consistency (in the definition of affordable housing) amongst all our programs to make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing,” Pete Alanis, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust, and a member of the Housing Commission, told the Heron.
Here’s the commission’s definition:
In short, “affordable housing” in San Antonio is housing that’s restricted to households making up to 60% of the area median income, and who pay an “affordable percentage of gross income on housing costs,” as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After housing costs such as rent or the mortgage have been paid, the household should have enough money left over for “basic necessities like insurance; utilities, including water, energy, and internet; transportation; healthcare; education; food; and other household costs that contribute to one’s socioeconomic mobility and quality of life.”
“Affordable housing” must also stay affordable for a period of time based on the level of public subsidy, such as property tax rebates or exemptions that a development receives.
The commission adopted the definition in late June. Since then, Nirenberg has changed the makeup of the commission, most notably allowing Jessica O. Guerrero’s term as chairwoman to expire, while replacing her with former District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales to the displeasure of housing advocates who view her as being too pro-development.
[ Editor’s note: For more on Nirenberg’s recent reshuffling of the Housing Commission amid protests, read “Nirenberg names former Councilwoman Gonzales chair of San Antonio’s Housing Commission, despite protests” ]
The commission wanted to create a definition for use in the city’s Strategic Housing Implementation Plan (SHIP), a follow-up document created to execute the goals set out by the mayor’s housing task force three years ago—including to create nearly 48,000 new affordable housing units in the next 10 years. The City Council could vote on the strategic plan in September or October.
If approved, the definition will be used across city platforms and by local housing nonprofits alike.
The adoption of a strategic housing plan for San Antonio would follow the voter-approved Proposition A in April, which changed the city charter to allow for a true housing bond presumably worth several tens of millions of dollars to be placed on future ballots for voters to consider—along with traditional bond projects such as streets and sidewalks repair, building new parks and libraries, etc.
In the 2017-2022 bond program, voters approved a $20 million housing bond, but those dollars could only be spent on infrastructure costs that beget below-market housing construction. The charter amendment allows for future bonds dollars to be spent directly on housing construction.
In recent years, for-profit housing developers and housing advocates have argued about what type of housing should be considered affordable and what type shouldn’t. In particular, housing priced for people making up to 80% of the area median income, which is $59,300 for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area, has drawn the most disagreement about whether such housing is affordable in San Antonio. HUD establishes the figure every year, but it’s considered inflated, far above San Antonio’s true median income, because it factors in more affluent surrounding cities, such as New Braunfels.
Conversely, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 put San Antonio’s median income at $53,751.
How we got here
In January 2020, the Housing Commission, whose nine commissioners are a mix of five at-large community members and the four executive directors of the Housing Trust, San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, and the VIA Metropolitan Transit, respectively, was tasked with creating a definition that functions across city and nonprofit activity and aligns with the language of affordable housing as used by HUD.
On June 23, representatives from nine nonprofits that develop and work in the sphere of affordable housing—including Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio and Alamo Community Group—presented its own definition of “affordable housing,” which largely mirrored the one the Housing Commission had crafted.
Where they differed was how they defined the lowest rungs of San Antonio’s housing needs—those making between no income and 30% of the area median income, or AMI, which is $22,230 for a family of four.
The commission’s matrix looked similar, but broke out an additional category of 0-15% AMI in the rental category. (See “Housing Commission’s Definition of Affordability” above.)
Two sides formed over whether such a delineation should exist between those making 30% AMI or less.
“I have considerable difficulty understanding why our breakout of the 0-15% was going to make it more difficult for our developers to obtain funding [for affordable housing],” said former commissioner Susan Richardson, who sat on the commission at the time, citing language from the housing policy framework that emphasized creating housing opportunities for the most vulnerable, “we already know that they’re in that 0-15%.”
Jennifer Gonzalez, executive director of Alamo Community Group, a nonprofit builder of below-market housing, offered this rebuttal.
“Our concern is not that we will not have access to funding. We don’t exist just merely to seek out funding … we exist to provide affordable housing and supportive housing to some of the neediest families here in the San Antonio community,” Gonzalez said. “So for us it’s not the issue of being able to access (funding), or that we’re loosing some type of funding. It’s about taking away our ability to actually produce the housing you are wanting to see.”
Kristin Davila, president and executive director of Merced Housing Texas, one of the community partners, reminded the commission that this definition is not meant to prioritize funding strategies—that task is responsibility of the strategic housing plan. The definitions’ only job is to build common language to work from.
SAHA President and CEO Ed Hinojosa Jr. chimed in, advocating for the break out of a 0-15% AMI category.
“My concern is that focussing on 30% AMI as a solution is not addressing the need of those individuals (who make between no income and 15% AMI). A subcategory is necessary to capture that need.”
San Antonio native Maggie Ryan is pursuing a bachelor’s of arts in English Language and Literature/Letters at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She is interning at the Heron through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. She can be reached at email@example.com or @m_rrye on Twitter.
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