In a 1938 poem to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Father Carmelo A. Tranchese, a Jesuit priest and pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the city’s historic West Side, expressed his gratitude for help to bring public housing to San Antonio. The poem read, in part, “Because of the great benefits which he has bestowed on San Antonio, Texas.”
Despite opposition from landowners and some elected officials, Tranchese led the effort to bring public housing to San Antonio as the city and country were recovering from the Great Depression, a housing crisis, and a global tuberculosis pandemic on the cusp of sweeping federal programs as part of FDR’s New Deal.
That initiative led to the creation of the United States Housing Authority (USHA) as part of the Wagner-Steagall Act (U.S. Housing Act of 1937), which allowed for federal financing of the first public housing built here in San Antonio — but not without some initial resistance.
The first signs of “not in my backyard” arose as nearby landowners refused to sell land to the newly created San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) to build new housing for low-income families. To draw national attention to this issue, Tranchese invited first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to San Antonio in 1939 to intervene.
Upon her arrival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the first lady said, “I had to come here first, because I had no choice. I was under orders from your friend, the President,” as chronicled in magnificent research by Stephen Arionus at the University of Michigan. This visit came four years after FDR wrote to Tranchese inquiring about the living conditions on the historic West Side.
“I shall deem it a favor if you will write to me about the conditions in your community,” FDR asked in his letter. “Tell me where you feel your government can better serve the people.”
Under the leadership of Tranchese, a founding SAHA board member, SAHA received approval for $4 million from USHA to build the Alazán-Apache Courts and the Lincoln Heights Courts on the West Side, Victoria Courts south of downtown, and the Wheatley Courts on the East Side.
Fast forward to 2021, San Antonio is once again facing a housing crisis, a global pandemic, and recovering from an economic crisis. As funding reminiscent of the New Deal era arrives from Washington, D.C., to San Antonio, it is imperative we similarly embark on sustainable investments in our community rather than short-term housing solutions.
Members of our community are struggling, particularly our SAHA residents, who on average earn about $150 a week after taxes and have limited resources to pay rent, buy food for their families, pay utilities, and purchase medicine. By comparison, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in San Antonio is roughly $800 a week. This economic gap has only widened during the pandemic.
Tranchese established a moral compass that we, as housing advocates, are compelled to follow. We have an obligation to advocate for housing as a fundamental human right and to provide stable and safe housing for the well-being of our fellow citizens.
Since my appointment as SAHA’s president and CEO, I have called for inherent changes to the organization to espouse the beliefs of Tranchese. I believe we will get there based on three pillars:
- enhance interactions and policies to serve and protect 60,000 residents receiving affordable housing assistance,
- unite community members and assemble resources to meet the needs and fill the gaps in a unified and holistic approach, and
- expand existing and new partnerships to streamline limited resources and create a robust collaborative environment.
As Tranchese showed us, words are not enough; historic times require historic measures.
SAHA is taking action by becoming a certified Trauma-Informed Care organization so every interaction with staff strengthens a resident’s sense of safety, trust, and respect. The designation will ensure a resident’s well-being forms the cornerstones of our public engagement and service delivery. Every SAHA staff member will be required to undergo rigorous training, and certified trainers will be embedded across the organization.
The organization is also reevaluating its core values to reflect its new commitment. For example, we must advance equity in our housing practices and policies. Simply providing all residents the same programs and resources is not enough. We must acknowledge the socioeconomic and racial barriers implanted in our broader community, and we must develop policies and programs to help our residents overcome those barriers. We can always do more, and we will.
However, we can’t do it alone. We need the support and compassion of our elected officials, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, and the business community. We must champion our families. As they succeed, San Antonio will succeed.
In the spirit of Tranchese and FDR, I invite you to share with us your ideas on how SAHA can better serve the people and how we can collaborate to improve their quality of life by writing to me at email@example.com.
We are committed to a path forward that would have made Father Tranchese proud.