San Antonio is a little more than halfway through its “Decade of Downtown,” an initiative declared by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and already the urban core has seen tremendous growth, development, and investment.
Major projects such as the new Frost Bank tower, slated to open in late 2018 or early 2019, the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, which broke ground last month, and the additions of various bars and eateries around downtown and nearby areas have drawn more residents and visitors and revitalized the urban core.
Another one million people are expected to move to Bexar County by 2040.
But with all of that growth, “there’s also a cause for concern and a warning flag,” Castro told hundreds of developers, architects, residents, and city leaders at the Urban Land Institute-San Antonio luncheon at the Pearl Stable Friday. When it comes to creating and maintaining a robust affordable housing stock, Castro said, San Antonio already is beginning to lag behind.
Over the past few years, housing affordability has continued to slip away as rent costs and median list prices for homes have soared. Many longtime inner city residents fear the rising costs will force them to leave.
“If San Antonio does not take bolder steps now to enhance housing affordability,” Castro said, “then in a few years this decade of downtown will give rise to a decade of displacement.”
San Antonio certainly isn’t the only city struggling to maintain affordability in the housing market. Castro pointed to other cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin where lack of affordable housing has led to displacement and a loss of diversity throughout each city.
With the fastest growing economy in the nation and a rich cultural history to preserve, San Antonio city leaders have no time to waste to address what some in the industry are already calling an affordable housing crisis.
“San Antonio has the opportunity to never become those cities,” Castro said, “if it acts now.”
The City has already implemented several efforts and Castro gave credit to city leaders, such as City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) who were present at the luncheon. In addition, Castro also thanked City Council for taking the initiative to combat the issue.
An advisory group created under Castro when he was mayor, the Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods has been meeting to create and implement long-range plans for the City that mitigate gentrification and increase affordable housing options. Additionally, a Neighborhood Improvements committee is included in the 2017 bond process, where an allotted $20 million is meant to address affordable housing.
Before Castro’s remarks, David Nisivoccia, San Antonio Housing Authority interim president and CEO, gave a brief update on housing initiatives in the city, including the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, a federal grant that is meant to improve and revitalize neighborhoods.
The Choice grant helped fund East Meadows, a mixed-income housing complex that replaced the old Wheatley Courts on the Eastside. The first phase of the project officially opened Friday morning.
The Choice grant also has propelled the community forward by funding initiatives that have increased the graduation rate from 45% in 2010 to the current rate of 81%, Nisivoccia said.
San Antonio has two other grants – the Promise Neighborhoods planning grant and the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant – and is the only city in the nation that has three federal grants, Nisivoccia added. A number of other local organizations, like the Urban Land Institute, which works to educate on the responsible use of land and how to create and sustain a thriving community, have made it their mission to aid in sustainable growth throughout the city.
With these efforts and more, Castro said, San Antonio can ensure affordability and preserve the city’s culture and vibrancy that has made it unique since the beginning. But the housing initiatives should also have a broader scope, such as also providing more education and career opportunities for families.
Nationally and locally, Castro has been working on projects in the HUD department that will do just that, such as ConnectHome, which brings vital internet connection to families with young children who live in HUD-assisted housing.
The Housing and Urban Development department, he said, is “a powerful platform to spark upward mobility in peoples’ lives.”
For San Antonio moving forward, Castro suggested the City look into amending or enacting land use regulations like zoning, taking a more regional approach to planning, and using the allotted bond funds to create more affordable housing.
Active collaboration between developers and the City, Castro added, is another key component to maintaining neighborhood diversity and authenticity while also making the cost of development cheaper.
“The stakes for getting this right are so high,” he said, and maintaining the city’s “soul” amidst all of the coming development “may be the biggest challenge of all.”