The City of San Antonio, like much of the nation, is facing a perilous housing crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. At the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), we see the housing and financial challenges our more than 60,000 residents face every single day. It is an ongoing struggle taking one step back for every two steps forward.
Over the course of more than 80 years, SAHA has provided families affordable housing that serves as a stepping stone to achieving a better quality of life. But over the decades, federal funding continued to be diminished, and public housing authorities across the country have struggled to find the financial resources to maintain existing housing units, which were first introduced in San Antonio during the pre-World War II era. Most public housing communities are now in dire need of modernization to meet the needs of residents in this century.
Reimagining the approach to building affordable housing begins with detaching ourselves from the outdated, 20th-century model of how to build affordable housing. It is an obsolete model that needed to be gutted and the proverbial fixer-up needed a major transformation.
When I was recruited by the former SAHA CEO Lourdes Castro Ramírez in 2013 as chief operating officer – and later offered the role of president and CEO – I committed to changing the housing status quo and creating a new roadmap for SAHA. The plan would bring to fruition the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force recommendations of increasing production of new affordable housing units and rehab of existing stock.
Since 2015, SAHA has been shepherding a new 21st-century approach to address increasing housing demand. This approach will rehabilitate existing public housing in San Antonio, which is estimated to cost nearly half a billion dollars. Simultaneously, SAHA will continue to build new affordable housing for the 45,000 residents on the waiting list and the influx of thousands more expected to move to San Antonio in the next decade. This approach, or roadmap, is one that is innovative, equitable, sustainable and will define a new housing era for San Antonio.
While this is a long-term, sustainable plan, the initial results are noteworthy. In the course of just the last five years, SAHA has increased the number of households served by more than 1,200 and is projected to build nearly $1 billion in new housing consisting of nearly 7,500 new housing units.
This new strategy requires partnerships bringing new financing mechanisms to achieve the goals of both rehabilitation and increasing the availability of affordable housing. Relying and waiting for federal government funding was, and is, no longer sustainable.
In recent years, these partnerships have been instrumental in providing exemplary developments including HemisView Village downtown and Sutton Oaks and East Meadows on the East Side – injecting new life into these communities.
Most importantly, as a nonprofit, mission-driven agency, the revenue all new development generates is designated to renovate the agency’s existing housing properties and support the social services SAHA uniquely offers at each of its developments, such as job training, financial literacy and other self-sufficiency initiatives. In addition, new funds generated will be used explicitly for constructing more units for residents making 30 percent of the area median income at other locations around the city.
This new roadmap has a meaningful and real impact on the lives of our residents.
Trelina and Leonard, a couple who lived at the former Wheatley Courts and returned to East Meadows following the revitalization effort of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant, describe their newer units as a place where people can finally live.
Julia Stemley is a strong, single mother of three who arrived in the city as a Hurricane Katrina survivor with only a $4,000 household income to her name. Through financial literacy, case management, and access to resources at SAHA like ConnectHomeSA and job training, she is now employed at Judson Independent School District with a $40,000 household income.
SAHA has housing choice vouchers reserved for the THRU Project to help foster children who are transitioning into adulthood. It’s a project I was proud to lead to ensure young adults can enter the workforce knowing they have a roof over their head.
Knowing that homeless college students are putting everything on the line for an education, SAHA created a new Housing Assistance Program with Alamo Colleges to offer some of the thousands of homeless students at both Palo Alto and St. Philip’s College a housing choice voucher as they complete their studies. I first proposed this partnership when I overheard a security officer was hired to safeguard an empty parking garage where homeless students slept in their vehicles.
In order to help veterans, SAHA entered into a public-private partnership to build a new multifamily development near the Loop 1604 and Culebra Road area that will have a full-time Veterans Service officer to provide counseling, assistance accessing benefits, and transportation to the nearby Veterans Affairs Hospital.
We celebrate residents like Marcielle Roman and Felecia Woods who started with the same journey as many of our residents and are now homeowners – the ultimate dream I hear nearly every resident receiving housing assistance from SAHA wishes to achieve. It’s that same dream that has motivated me every single day for the past 30 years that I have worked in the affordable housing industry.
SAHA has been an exemplary model for community revitalization, and it has been an honor to be part of this agency for the last seven years. I will now take what I have learned from this vibrant city and take it with me to the Denver Housing Authority where I have been appointed executive director. I will forever be grateful for the hospitality San Antonio showed me, the friendships I forged here and community leaders like Ramiro Cavazos and Dr. Morris Stribling who honorably and graciously led the SAHA board for many years and were very much instrumental in shaping this innovative housing roadmap and Ana “Cha” Guzman who continues to lead this transformative approach.
I remain optimistic for both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in SAHA’s future. I know SAHA and San Antonio will make decisions in the best interests of SAHA residents and the larger San Antonio community.
I am hopeful the foundation we constructed will provide safe and quality housing for generations to come.