After nine months of meetings and brainstorming, the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force presented its first concrete ideas for how to address San Antonio’s most challenging housing woes. The presentation, given to the City Council on Wednesday, offered some concepts sure to be controversial, as well as an array of sobering statistics.
One big issue covered was displacement — when residents of older communities are forced to leave their homes, for whatever reason, because of incoming apartments and condos that often receive incentives from the city. Specifically, in late 2014, early 2015, more than 100 families were displaced from the Mission Trails mobile home park on the San Antonio River on the South Side where luxury apartments are going up.
It’s what drove Mayor Ron Nirenberg to create the task force in the first place.
In recent years, the city adjusted its incentives policy for downtown housing to reduce the possibility of such displacement happening again, but the fear remains.
The task force suggests $1 million be set aside in the upcoming budget for a “risk mitigation fund,” which would assist residents who are displaced with moving costs.
It also recommends a “displacement impact” assessment for any public improvement project that costs at least $15 million, such as the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. There, some residents of the adjacent Soapworks and Towne Center apartments, which cater to lower-income people, are feeling the pressure of an owner who’s talked about raising rents now that the San Pedro Creek is an urban destination.
“If there’s a project that we feel like the city has an influence on, we should require an economic analysis and displacement analysis if that project moves forward,” Dawson said. “We could have known five years ago when San Pedro Creek was moving forward that we would have had a Soap Works problem.”
Perhaps the most controversial will be the concept of “by-right zoning,” by which any proposed affordable housing development would automatically receive proper zoning and incentives to begin construction, no matter where in the city it’s located located.
“They don’t have to go through the lengthy (rezoning) process,” said task force member Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers. “They can get their incentive and go build their project.”
Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, head of the five-member task force, reminded the council that such a policy would require public feedback.
“We believe in zoning by right, but it has to include community input or a community advisory component,” Castro-Ramirez said. “Make those parameters public so that everyone knows this is how we’re going to operate.”
She was alluding to NIMBYism — Not In My Backyard — when neighborhoods pushback against affordable housing. Last year, during the local process for low-income housing tax credits, a federal program that helps fund affordable housing projects, many projects were weeded out because of NIMBYism. Mostly northside neighborhoods.
District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval applauded the forthrightness of the task force.
“It’s going to be extremely controversial,” Sandoval said. “It’s great to do that upfront, before people’s emotions really get in the way. Once you already have a project in mind, it becomes so much harder to go through a process like that.”
Sandoval would know. NIMBYism was the top issue for her last year when she was running for office. Then, the northern part of her district resisted a handful of projects that were pursuing low-income housing tax credits.
How such a policy would play out in the downtown area remains to be seen. In the city’s core, the main barrier to affordable housing isn’t so much NIMBYism as it is the cost to build such housing. Land prices, among other factors, make it a challenge. And the numbers don’t work, developers say.
An incentives policy for downtown housing, known as the Center City Housing Incentives Policy (CCHIP), doesn’t favor affordable housing. Separate from the task force, Mayor Ron Nirenberg also ordered city staff to revise the CCHIP to include incentives that would encourage more affordable housing in the downtown area.
Those recommendations should be presented to the council in August, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.
The task force addresses some of these barriers with a proposed automatic waiver of San Antonio Water System fees for any affordable housing development. Under the current system, the finite amount of fee waivers are reserved more for downtown developments, mostly luxury apartments and condos, and less for affordable housing projects.
Another recommendation that could strike controversy is the idea of changing the city’s unified development code to allow bond money to be used for the construction of affordable housing. In other words, the city could become a developer of housing under such a proposal.
Currently, bond money can only be used to support affordable housing. During last year’s bond election, $20 million was approved by voters to assist in infrastructure upgrades that would pave the way for an affordable housing developer to come in and build.
Overall, the task force is recommending $20 million in the upcoming budget for various housing needs, including $8 million for neighborhood improvements and incentives for affordable housing, $5 million for a homebuyer down payment assistance program, and $2 million to increase city staff to help make these ideas a reality.
The ideas drew strong and sometimes emotional reaction from the Council, but the were mostly in favor of the direction that the task force was proposing.
District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse was the lone critic, saying that the concepts equalled an overreach by local government. Specifically, he questioned what programs would have to be cut in the upcoming budget process in order to make room for the $20 million.
“Where is the like-minded cut in funding?” Brockhouse asked. “If you want $20 million in the budget, who goes? What do you cut for that?”
He went on, “I have concerns about the city turning into a lender, the city turning into a guarantor, into an underwriting arm, a housing center. There are areas which I’m willing to go into, but also we also have to understand, homeownership as a right is a very difficult conversation. Because quite frankly everyone cannot be a homeowner until they do certain things in their control, in their own responsibility, such as credit.”
Task force member Maria Berriozábal, a former councilwoman who has worked on this issue for 30 years, gave some perspective. She talked about the myriad of housing studies that have been drafted in recent years, and about how they came to similar sets of recommendations. And yet nothing has happened.
“If it’s not there, nothing is going to happen (again) — and that’s the political will,” she said.
In early July, the task force is scheduled to present a more definitive report to the council
Featured photo: Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, head of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, goes over housing recommendations to the City Council. Photo by V. Finster / San Antonio Heron