At a recent Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association meeting, neighbors came together to talk about the proposed updates to our Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD5) design standards. These design standards were originally developed by area residents in 2005, in partnership with City staff, to address the demolition of craftsman bungalow homes in favor of more subdivision-style homes. This was a grassroots effort to preserve our neighborhood housing stock and to inform future development.

The recent and overdue work to update the design standards was a result of changing development trends and the City’s focus on high-density infill which allowed for multi-storied single family condos to be built on a lot zoned for multi-family development. The updates also addressed issues that included porch requirements, fencing, height, and setback limitations. Many of the NCD standards were actually loosened.

There were many opportunities over the past year for residents and businesses to participate and provide input. Feedback ranged from “The City shouldn’t be able to dictate what I do with my property,” to “How can we protect our neighborhood against indiscriminate flippers and developers?” But the most commonly heard and loudly voiced concern was over residents’ ability to stay in their homes in the face of wildly increasing property taxes, partially caused by the new high-density infill developments and flipped houses in their neighborhood.

“I don’t know how much longer many of us can hang on,” one anguished neighbor said to a crowded room. His neighbors vigorously agreed. The frustration and fear were palpable.

At a recent breakfast organized by the Mayor’s Housing Summit, an executive of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) stood before a packed room and denounced neighborhoods as the NIMBYs who would deny affordable housing development in our communities because our design standards make it more difficult for developers to build. Recently, Beacon Hill has been criticized for this very thing. The fallacy in a working and middle class neighborhood like Beacon Hill – according to a 2015 Census Bureau report the family median income in Beacon Hill is just under $37,000 in a 77% Latino neighborhood – is that density and development creates affordable housing.

The easy equations belie reality. Density does not equate to affordability. In fact, the quick turnover of flipped houses and the development of luxury condos which has become the model for downtown housing development (like the recent construction of six single-family condos on one lot in the middle of a block of mostly single story early 2oth century bungalows selling for more than $300,000 each) has contributed to a steep rise in housing prices and property taxes, and many longterm residents simply cannot keep up. Local landlords struggle to maintain affordable rental rates when their taxes are skyrocketing.

The “unprotected” neighborhoods of Monte Vista Terrace and Tobin Hill North (part of Tobin Hill) are facing condo developments that are anything but affordable and are incompatible with the character of their neighborhood. Who wins here?

Residents in Tobin Hill North, who have been there for generations, will face rising property values and taxes, a fear echoed at a recent Zoning Commission meeting where several elders and other neighbors voiced concern over incompatible and expensive developments. Tell the unfortunate residents of Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, who were displaced by City-incentivized development how that tragedy promoted affordable housing. Their affordable housing will be replaced by luxury condos. In working class neighborhoods, affordable housing is the housing people live in now.

A residential house and newly constructed high density infill development project on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood.
A recently built high-density infill project sits next to a craftsman home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Design standards can help maintain stability in neighborhoods, and they help prevent displacement. In fact, one of the Beacon Hill NCD5 standard updates requires that units built on multi-family lots be built within one structure to help ensure rental housing for the future. In the 12 years that our NCD standards have been in place, there is no instance of them discouraging the development of affordable housing. Design standards do not prohibit affordable housing – expensive developments drive up land prices and prohibit affordable housing. Protecting working class neighborhoods could help protect affordability in a hot housing market.

While we’ve updated our standards, Beacon Hill has also welcomed thoughtful and neighborhood-friendly developers working on affordable housing and density into our community. There are opportunities within the neighborhood for the development of “missing middle” housing and along the corridors for four-story structures creating density.

As we work with the City in the future on the Near North Central Plan as part of the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan (which promotes “strengthening [NCDs] to address the appropriateness of new and infill construction through enforceable design standards that allow neighborhoods to define unique character and features and promote compatible infill development” HPCH P9), we look forward to working on issues of density and equity. But we cannot solve San Antonio’s workforce housing shortage by destroying these early 20th century downtown neighborhoods that are an important part of our city’s history. Once gone, these unique neighborhoods cannot ever be brought back. Once gone, our neighbors cannot ever be replaced.

One of the greatest reasons we struggle with the issue of affordable housing is that San Antonio does not have a comprehensive housing policy. Working together to create one would be a first step to guiding our future. A developer-driven approach to affordable housing, one that primarily favors the builders, is not an answer. If we are serious about providing affordable housing, then we need the political will to do the hard work of building a plan that is equitable and that works.

Any workable housing plan must include neighborhoods in the decision-making process instead of a top-down elitist approach that bypasses the democratic process of allowing neighbors to speak for themselves. We must avoid easy answers that promote a blanket policy of control that may displace neighbors and leaves them vulnerable to predatory practices. Simplistic slogans like YIMBY and NIMBY are just diversions to the complex and difficult work that needs to be done.

In his much acclaimed new book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, journalist Peter Moskowitz examines the very process that is occurring in our downtown San Antonio neighborhoods and in neighborhoods across the U.S. He makes the case that it is imperative that neighborhoods should decide their own future: “So the problem of solving gentrification is not only about economics or urban planning, but about democracy. What would cities look like if the people who lived in them, who made them function, controlled their fate?”

We must not destroy our unique downtown neighborhoods to solve the problem of San Antonio’s affordable housing shortage: We must, instead, develop an equitable and effective housing policy whose process is fair, inclusive, and transparent. We must give the people who live in our neighborhoods a voice in their fate.

Cynthia Merla Spielman

Cynthia Merla Spielman is president of Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association and a founding member of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition. Her recent blog, neighborhoodsa.com, is a forum for neighborhood...