As the City moves forward with its first-ever affordable housing bond process, the group of 30 citizens charged with targeting areas around San Antonio for revitalization using bond funds is a bit concerned, and confused.

The Neighborhood Improvements Community Bond Committee is one of five citizen groups appointed to allocate the City’s $850 million bond to various projects in areas such as parks, streets and drainage, among others. Unlike the other groups that are choosing specific projects to allot funds to, the Neighborhood Improvements committee is identifying general areas around the city for revitalization – particularly in the form of affordable housing implementation – using the $20 million housing bond.

These locations will inform the City’s urban renewal plan, which will be implemented by the City’s urban renewal agency, the Office of Urban Redevelopment San Antonio (OUR SA). City staff has recommended 15 geographic areas for consideration by the committee.

The lack of details regarding the forthcoming projects as well as each one’s cost has left a number of committee members uneasy. Some are worried that once they identify the geographic areas for funding – and if the 2017 bond is passed – there will be no citizen oversight regarding whether or not affordable housing is actually implemented. Mixed-use and mixed-income projects also are possibilities for the selected areas.

“How we put these packages together and with whom is going to make a big difference (on neighborhoods),” said committee member Beverly Watts Davis, who is also the San Antonio Housing Authority Choice Neighborhood Program director, at Thursday’s committee meeting.

Committee Co-chair Jackie Gorman, who is also the executive director of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE), reminded the group that its duty “is not to identify projects, it’s to identify areas where projects might be funded.

“City staff can’t tell us today how we’re going to get the best bang for our buck because they have no idea what projects we’re going to do, or where, or who our partners will be,” she said.

If the 2017 bond passes, the City can purchase land in the selected areas in the urban renewal plan and ready it for development, then sell it to a for-profit or nonprofit developer to construct affordable or mixed-income housing or a mixed-use structure.

Affordable housing units have to be priced at or below 80% Area Median Income (AMI). The City monitors that to ensure developers are reducing their rental rates to get that demographic into those properties, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said during a presentation on examples of mixed-income housing that the City has already implemented and other scenarios for bond funded developments.

The City also offers additional incentives to developers to make some housing projects mixed-income, Houston said.

Others said they think $20 million is not enough to make a substantial difference, but staff reminded them that all of the funds made from selling property to developers will go back into the housing program for future projects included in the urban renewal plan.

“$20 million is not a lot, but it can be leveraged to go a long way with all our other tools,” Houston said.

Gorman voiced concern that the City’s monitoring of developers to keep prices affordable for those who make 80% AMI or below was insufficient.

“That’s not happening” in some cases, she said. The City, Houston countered, will bring information on how exactly it oversees developer activity to the committee in the coming meetings.

City staff also prepped the committee on the neighborhood improvement area survey where each member will rank the locations based on priority for receiving bond funds. The committee can choose to delete areas, if it wishes, and add others to the list for renewal.

Once the list is finalized, the committee will present it to City Council on Dec. 14  and to the public on Jan. 18.

Along with the neighborhood maps already provided by City staff, committee member and SAGE director of operations Akeem Brown said he would like to see maps that also portray any additional investments such as parks projects or new schools in the target areas. Since the group members are collectively focusing on overall neighborhood improvements and not just housing, this would help them make more informed decisions when choosing locations to receive funding.

“It would be very important for us as we decide on those areas to know what those amenities are,” he said.

Some committee members and citizen attendees Thursday said that they’d like to see increased outreach to communities throughout the process moving forward. They’d also like for the group to consider other areas not included in the staff recommendations, such as Harmony Hills and an area on the Westside with more than 93 vacant lots, as suggested by Westside resident Rodrigo Rendon during the public hearing portion of the meeting.

City staff has said that it is beneficial to include as many geographic areas as possible in this bond cycle’s urban renewal plan. Even though those areas aren’t guaranteed funding, they will at least become eligible for consideration.

As a recommending body, the Neighborhood Improvements committee can use the housing bond to help ensure affordable housing will actually be implemented.

“If we want affordable housing in (certain) areas,” Gorman said, “we’re going to need to step in.”

Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com