As rents continue to increase in San Antonio, it’s getting harder for lower-income residents to find affordable places to live — especially ones that check the necessary boxes for families such as close access to mass transit and grocery stores.
San Antonians now have two options to search for affordable rentals and both are available in English and Spanish.
Housing Base, a local technology company, has been hired by the City of San Antonio to make the search easier. Its website launched last week lets users filter through available rentals across the city according to price, number of bedrooms, sides of town, flexibility for renters with a history of evictions or criminal record, as well as proximity to parks, health clinics, grocery stores and more.
Currently, the platform only displays properties, nearly 170, that have received city funds or tax credit incentives.
The nonprofit San Antonio Community Resource Directory (SACRD) also hosts a page with some similar filters that displays nearly 680 listings. A version of it has been around in some form since 2021, but also includes privately funded and owned apartments and at least one single-family home.
“The same tool will not work for everybody,” Veronica Garcia, director of the city’s housing department, told the San Antonio Report. “We think that it just helps our community to have more options and different varieties of ways that they can search for affordable housing in our city.”
The Housing Base website saw more than 10,000 visits on April 10, the first day it launched, Garcia said.
The city has financially supported both websites in different ways. Funding to develop the Housing Base platform, $195,100, came from the city’s 2020 budget. The city also paid a $100,000, two-year subscription fee. SACRD has received a total of $225,000 from the city’s federal pandemic recovery funds for the maintenance of its mental health portal and to promote awareness of its website, which provides geographic and contact information for a range of services, including health care, food, legal assistance, transit, employment and more.
“Being able to find good housing is … a serious problem in Bexar County,” said Bill Neely, SACRD’s executive director. “So to have more than one idea in the marketplace is not a bad thing. … It’s only going to make the final products better.”
The Housing Base platform has more functionality in that it allows users the option of creating a profile to save and adjust their preferences as well as sign up for notifications when new listings are created, Garcia said.
Social workers or housing navigators can also create multiple profiles to help clients with different needs search for housing, she said. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback as we’ve shared this with our nonprofit providers.”
Commercial real estate developer and Housing Base CEO and co-founder Juan Cano actively participated in the process that formed San Antonio’s housing policy framework in 2018, which led to the city’s 10-year affordable housing plan in 2021.
“Coming out of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force, the big lightbulb was: there’s a lot of data here and it’s not being used,” Cano said.
The Housing Base concept — to develop a one-stop portal to connect residents to affordable, available housing options — was selected to be part of the 2019 cohort for CivTech, a collaboration between the City of San Antonio and Geekdom aimed at sparking innovative technology that improves public processes and residents’ lives.
“What we realized was that while the city has a ton of data — as all cities do — it was siloed, it was not up to date, it was missing a lot of the elements that a tool to help people find housing would need,” Cano said. — And, much of the data wasn’t on the internet yet. “The data set that the city now owns, as it relates to housing inventory, is arguably the most up-to-date data set for that type of property in the entire United States.”
The Housing Base software combines information about affordable housing, including what social services such as child care are provided on-site or nearby, with mass transit route information, park locations and other infrastructure and services that impact public health. It also features an “accessibility menu” for users to adjust how the website is displayed to assist persons with disabilities.
For instance, many downtown workers have to take a bus for hours to get to and from work, Cano said. “We’re hoping that a tool like this will allow that person that works at the JW Marriott on the North Side to realize that: Oh, hey, I don’t need to live off of Military and Pleasanton Road. There’s actually a lot of options on the North Side of San Antonio that I could potentially live in.”
Cano said he is excited to see how the platform evolves and hopes to expand to other cities.
“It’s a living thing,” Cano said. “So as we learn more lessons, as we test it with the public, more functionality will be added.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the city how and when the platform expands.
An expansion to include non-city-incentivized rental units will be coming soon, Garcia said. “There are discussions already about what additional features we can add to the site or how we can make sure that the properties are accurately represented.”
SACRD/My City is My Home’s Housing Finder
SACRD’s Housing Finder map is the result of the nonprofit’s partnership with My City Is My Home, a nonprofit housing advocacy organization that provides property tax services.
It originated in 2020 as a spreadsheet — developed by various nonprofit partners including Haven for Hope, the city and South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless — to help quickly find housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Rich Acosta, a real estate agent and founder of My City Is My Home, joined that group and members continued to add properties to the list.
Acosta first launched that growing list as a map in September 2021, “which unfortunately was not very user-friendly,” he said. Still, over the next 11 months, the map had more than 18,000 users.
In October 2022, Acosta partnered with SACRD to develop an improved map. It does not have a profile feature like Housing Base.
SACRD takes the approach of “get as much data as we can, make it as useful as possible and get it in front of people,” Neely said. “Our website is a little more basic … we really veered more towards information accessibility than anything else.”
Generally, volunteers update the listings every quarter using real estate data and making calls to landlords to verify the available units and the leasing terms, such as whether or not the landlord will accept a first-time renter or a tenant with an eviction record, Acosta said. Now the map shows 678 properties “and when we’re adding more.”
The city could have used its money to sustain and improve SACRD’s existing platform, Acosta said. “If only they had $200,000 to hire people to keep it updated.”
But Neely welcomes Housing Base to the affordable housing ecosystem.
“It’s a good tool,” he said. “I’m not going to be offended if somebody uses my tool and wants to use [Housing Base] at the same time. As long as they find a place to live, that’s the important thing.”