Essex Modern City will feature a large plaza for residents, customers, and neighbors to enjoy. Credit: Courtesy of Clayton & Little Architects

There are several housing and commercial projects of all sizes coming soon to neighborhoods in San Antonio’s Eastside.

From Efraim Varga‘s ambitious eight-acre Essex Modern City – which includes plans for a large, luxury housing and commercial development with a vertical urban farm, an autonomous shuttle to downtown, and a climbing wall – to the 12 simple, single-family garden homes on Martin Luther King Drive expected to sell for as low as $125,000, new housing options are cropping up in some of the city’s poorest zip codes. These are just a few of the most recent projects, part of the Eastside’s uptick of investment in recent years.

As the community watches property values increase and construction equipment roll in to their neighborhoods, the City of San Antonio and several developers have placed an emphasis on affordability and sustainability. The goal for some developers is to provide high-quality products while offering certain units at less-than market rate. The goal for the city is to maintain vibrant, mixed-income neighborhoods without displacing existing residents and culture.

Varga and MLK Garden Home developer Ken Lowe participated in a panel discussion Thursday morning with Terramark Urban Homes CEO Charles Turner and NRP Group Vice President Mark Jensen about their Eastside projects, Urban@Olive and Crockett Lofts at Sunset Station, respectively. San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE), a nonprofit dedicated to economic development, hosted the conversation as part of its quarterly Eastside business briefing.

“Multifamily development alone won’t truly keep the Eastside economically diverse. To truly keep the Eastside diverse we have to include single family development as well as (make) historical renovations accessible to everyone,” said Akeem Brown, SAGE director of operations. “SAGE plays a role (by) recruiting community-minded developers and advocating for incentives so that affordable housing projects make economic sense.”

While each project has some level of affordability in mind, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) and Turner are working on a new concept that would make affordable housing more economically attractive to developers. At first, the pilot program would include Terramark projects, but Warrick said he hopes to start conversations and similar programs with any and all developers who are interested.

“I can’t make housing affordable, but I can offset some of their costs in developing these projects,” Warrick told the Rivard Report after the panel.

Terramark predicts it can sell the Urban@Olive homes for about $200,000-250,000. But an agreement, which is still in development with District 2, would have the City pay for infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, etc.) surrounding the project so Terramark doesn’t have to. The developer can then save money on the project overall and charge slightly more for the market price homes in order to subsidize the two or three homes made available at a reduced price – perhaps at less than $180,000.

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) delivers his State of D2 address on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) delivers his State of D2 address on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“We’re still working on this, but we’re definitely going to have some affordability at least in all of his (Terramark’s) projects,” Warrick said.

To be clear, “affordable” does not necessarily mean “low-income” housing like entities such as the San Antonio Housing Authority and San Antonio Housing Trust provide. In this context, it’s closer to “workforce housing” – affordable for entry-level professionals and, in some cases, service workers.

One concern many have is that, as property taxes increase due to continued investment, some homeowners may not be able to afford their homes. If someone wants to sell their home in the Dignowity Hill Historic District and find something more affordable on the Eastside, there are limited options, Warrick said. This new program could help open up options to residents who want to move within the neighborhood.

MLK Garden Homes Ken Lowe speaks about the need to change the perception of development on the Eastside.
(From left) Ken Lowe of MLK Garden Homes, NRP Group Vice President Mark Jensen, Varga Endeavors Founder Efraim Varga, and Terramark Urban Homes CEO Charles Turner discuss their housing and commercial projects in the Eastside. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Details are still being worked out, Warrick said, but it’s possible that project managers would “build into the contract that they have to live there at least five years.”

Funding may come from District 2’s own streets, sidewalks, and drainage project budget.

“To make affordable housing happen, I’m willing to forego some sidewalks in areas,” Warrick said. “(This would) allow them to stay in the neighborhoods.”

Details about the program will be released early November.

“It really adds to the quality of the neighborhood when you have a mixture of income and socio-economic levels,” Turner said.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...