Come Aug. 31, Debra Singleton doesn’t know where she’ll be living. That’s the day she has to vacate the Thunderbird Apartments, an affordable housing complex in Monte Vista where she’s lived for two years. Over the past seven months, all but a few of Singleton’s neighbors have moved out of the 71-unit complex, which will be demolished by its neighbor and owner Christ Episcopal Church.
Christ Episcopal’s leadership, which purchased the apartment complex in 2004 so it could expand its campus and community service programs, has plans to use the cleared property for a multi-use community outreach center with green space and parking.
Singleton and the dozen or so remaining Thunderbird residents – most of whom live in subsidized Section 8 housing units – will have to find new homes as their apartments are boarded up and then razed. Church officials already have received approval from the City of San Antonio to demolish the structure on a date that will be set once the last tenant’s lease expires in late November and they are relocated.
Singleton received her eviction notice last week. Most of the contents of her one-bedroom apartment have been packed into boxes strewn across her living room, but for now at least, she has nowhere to go. For Singleton, who has a medical disability that prevents her from holding full-time employment, and many other low-income renters, finding affordable housing in San Antonio has become more and more difficult in the recent years.
As the city has grown and infill development quickens in the urban core, neighborhoods are changing, and affordability for many is slipping away.
Christ Episcopal Church’s Vestry, a 16-member advising body similar to a board of directors, first considered buying the Thunderbird site in 1957. Once the property went on the market again nearly 50 years later, the church purchased it. The Vestry developed a master facilities plan for the Thunderbird site, and in January voted unanimously to raze it to make way for the new outreach space, which will be based inside an 1890s carriage house on the property that currently serves as a laundromat for Thunderbird residents.
The aging apartment building sits right next to Christ Episcopal Church, the quality of each building distinct as they sit side-by-side. White sheets of plywood cover the windows and doors of each vacant Thunderbird unit.
The Vestry is still shaping its plans, but the new space will house its food pantry program and serve as a meeting place for youth and adult groups, Church Rector Patrick Gahan said in an interview.
A playground, pavilion, and community garden are other possibilities for the space, he said.
“There seems to be a real need for a place of solace here in this part of the city,” he said.
A main priority for the Vestry, Gahan said, is to ensure that each Thunderbird tenant is relocated to a “comparable or superior residence.” Relocation services are being administered by the San Antonio Alternative Housing Corporation (SAAHC), which manages the Thunderbird and similar complexes around the city.
Rick Rodriguez, SAAHC asset/compliance director, said the last tenant’s lease is up on Nov. 30. A manager will be on duty until the end of December. Since January, when the Vestry officially announced its plans for the Thunderbird, Rodriguez and his team have been regularly corresponding with tenants, he said, and have connected them with managers of other affordable housing complexes managed by the public housing agency.
Such work was a stipulation made by the Vestry, said John Boyce, a local business attorney who heads the Vestry.
“The welfare of those residents is, perhaps, our highest priority, and we’re not going to clear the property until they have been found a comparable or superior property,” he said.
Boyce said that the decision to demolish the Thunderbird was made in large part because the Vestry felt the church lacked the necessary financial resources to maintain the deteriorating property for its residents. Upkeep, repairs, and overall costs of operating the complex, he said, exceeded the church’s budget.
“We looked at all kinds of options, like keeping (the Thunderbird) and so forth and it really didn’t make sense to keep it because it’s very expensive to operate and we weren’t even sure we were serving the residents properly because it’s not a particularly great property,” Boyce said. “There are a lot of better properties out there.”
The Vestry has spent more than two years considering its strategic plan and the implications for the Thunderbird property and its residents, Boyce said. Church leaders gathered feedback from the Monte Vista Neighborhood Association and at church-wide meetings, neither of which produced major dissent to the plan, he said.
The group also discussed affordable housing options for the Thunderbird tenants with SAAHC, Boyce said.
“This action is being undertaken with the knowledge that San Antonio Alternative Housing has more than 1,000 units across the city available to low-income families,” states a document posted on Christ Episcopal Church’s website.
“San Antonio Alternative Housing has assured us that they’ve got plenty of alternative space (for Thunderbird residents),” Boyce said. “They said they have 1,200 units they operate … How many of those are vacant, I’m not sure now, but they felt they had the capacity to relocate those people.”
Rodriguez couldn’t be reached before publication to confirm how many of those units are currently available, but said in a interview last week that the alternative housing corporation does not have any available apartments near the Thunderbird.
According to current and former Thunderbird residents, the search has not been easy. Navigating the tangled web of affordable housing options in San Antonio involves a myriad of actions – background checks, applications, meeting with case managers, and lots of waiting.
A number of Thunderbird residents, some of whom have experienced homelessness, are unable to pay housing application fees or satisfy other requirements, such as passing credit and criminal checks or presenting proof of job security.
For many of the Thunderbird tenants, the normal stress of moving – even with the help of Rodriguez, who has referred them to other properties – has only been heightened by miscommunication among residents, the housing corporation, and HomeSpring Residential Services, a third party property management company hired by the housing corporation to manage day-to-day operations at the Thunderbird.
HomeSpring representatives didn’t return a request for comment.
Rodriguez said housing corporation officials notified tenants at least four different times that their leases would not be renewed, but one former tenant, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she never received such notice that the Thunderbird was going to be torn down. Instead, she learned about it from her child’s teacher. Eventually, the housing corporation provided each tenant with a list of affordable apartment complexes to contact, she said.
After that, she felt like she was on her own. She is currently living with her mother as she tries to find a place for her and her three school-aged children.
“I had to just accept it,” she said. “I had nowhere to go. I still don’t.”
Some, however, have left the Thunderbird and found vacancies in places such as the Woodlawn Apartments, Laurel Apartments, and Lago Vista Village Apartments across from Our Lady of the Lake University.
A number of City and community leaders in the housing sector have referred to San Antonio’s affordable housing shortage as a crisis, prompting the City to create a special housing commission to address the issue and preserve and create additional affordable housing in the inner city.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district is home to the Thunderbird apartment complex, said that while a priority of the City is to preserve affordable housing, each situation is different. He said he doesn’t know enough about the Thunderbird to say one way or another if it should be saved, but aging buildings that require large amounts of renovations are tough candidates for rehabilitation in terms of cost.
“Sometimes (buildings) start to deteriorate and there’s sometimes some hard choices to make about the kinds of improvements to be made, if they’re feasible or not, and how we can still provide affordable housing for folks,” Treviño said. “How that looks is impacted by varying conditions of every building. Not all can be rehabilitated or repurposed.”
The Christ Episcopal Church Vestry sees the Thunderbird as such a case. At the end of the day, the groups sees the property as more beneficial to its ministry as a community gathering place where neighbors and those in need can receive assistance and spiritual guidance from the church.
“We think that the Monte Vista community will find that the services to the community (from the church) will really be enhanced overall and it will be a win-win for everybody,” Boyce said.
Considering the lack of resources the church can provide for the Thunderbird, the Vestry doesn’t see the building’s demolition and the subsequent relocation of its residents as contributing to the gentrification of the rapidly changing area.
“It’s never been our desire to (force low-income people out of the area) and we don’t think in fact that that’s what we’re doing,” Boyce said. “We think the (Thunderbird) residents will be far better off in new locations, many of which will likely be in the inner city.”
Singleton said she hopes so, too.
“I know something good has got to come out of this. I really believe that,” she said. “I’m just hoping to God I can find some place to go.”
Top image: The Thunderbird Apartments at 211 West French Place in the Monte Vista neighborhood. Photo by Scott Ball.