Travis Park Church is looking into redevelopment options for its underutilized property downtown. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio estimates that area churches own approximately 3,000 acres of underutilized real estate. Faith groups, the City, and developers may be able to find common ground on developing those properties to provide affordable housing.

As part of its nearly $35 million affordable housing budget this year, the City set aside $300,000 for a pilot program that will fund technical assistance and development advice for church congregations that want affordable housing on their property, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told a gathering Wednesday of local faith leaders, developers, and architects.

Whether a church wants a 10-unit project or 200-unit project, Houston said, “you need a navigator and a partner, and the City of San Antonio wants to be that partner.”

The West End Baptist Church, which encounters homeless people sleeping on its property on the city’s Northwest Side, is exploring the possibility of providing very low-income housing to better serve its surrounding community, said Sandra Jolla, who is married to Senior Pastor Rev. Michael Jolla.

“My husband has a great passion for us doing something to help,” Jolla said. “We feel like, as a church, we shouldn’t be telling people to get off our property when they’re just looking for some place to sleep.”

Many churches, especially small ones, don’t know how to approach the complicated financial, legal, and construction issues involved in producing affordable housing, Houston said.

“Each development is different,” she said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all [approach] and we know that you can’t be expected to do it alone.”

The City, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) San Antonio, and Mission City Renewal, a community development incubator, organized the two-hour informational session and discussion Wednesday at Travis Park Church. Organizers had to bring in extra chairs for the unexpectedly high turnout.

Travis Park Church also is looking into redevelopment options for its underutilized property downtown.

The City has set up an online survey to collect information from interested churches – from contact information to the size of the project to the level of commitment from church leadership.

This will help the City find two to three projects to guide through the development process, said Ian Benavidez, a housing administrator for the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.

Even if a church or other organization isn’t selected for this particular pilot program, Benavidez said, the City can help in other ways – such as through the new Center City Housing Incentive Program, federal tax credits, gap financing initiatives, and grants that help rehabilitation projects.

“[We want to] make sure we’re not losing [existing] affordable housing,” he said. “We’ll find a way to partner with you.”

An overview of assistance programs for developers, homeowners, and renters is available here.

City Council adopted a comprehensive affordable housing policy framework in 2018 that acknowledged that the city’s housing supply is not keeping pace with its economic and population growth.

In 2016, 165,000 of all 498,000 households in San Antonio households were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, according to the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force report.

“By 2030, as the number of San Antonio households approaches 590,000, and if all factors related to housing affordability remain constant, there could be as many as 200,000 cost-burdened households,” the report states.

For decades, the City of San Antonio has left housing development largely in the hands of the free market, said Jim Plummer of the Bracewell law firm, which represents the San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corporation and other entities that help fund affordable housing projects.

“The City is now well-focused [on supporting affordable housing],” Plummer said.

How a project is structured legally has direct implications for how the landowner interacts with and profits from a housing development, he said.

In the case of the 228-unit mixed-income development at St. John Seminary next to Mission Concepción, the Archdiocese of San Antonio is the landowner and structured the lease terms so it had a say in how the buildings were designed and how much rents could be for decades. Only 30 percent of those units will be market rate and the rest will be reserved for individuals and families earning less than the area median income (AMI), Plummer said.

Some said the church “effectively sold out,” he said, “but the church did not sell out.”

Its lease agreement guarantees the Archdiocese revenue that will allow it to enhance its religious mission elsewhere while providing affordable housing, he said.

But Plummer added that not all developments have to be money-making projects so churches need to decide whether to pay into the project or to seek a profit.

“We can help you meet with developers to try and make a decision,” Plummer said.

Another key element the churches will need to consider is community outreach, said Laurel Engbretson, a program officer for LISC Bay Area. LISC has operated several programs that help churches execute their affordable housing visions, including one in New York and for Alameda County in California.

Successful projects have buy-in from the neighborhood, she said, and developers should “working with design [professionals] who understand what the community wants and is responsive to that.”

A zoning change sought by Second Baptist Church to open a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children faces opposition from many neighbors and elected officials. While it does not involve affordable housing, the matter is an example of the importance of communicating with surrounding stakeholders.

“You cannot over-communicate,” Engbretson said.

The pilot program is a jumping-off point to establish a network for collaboration for property owners, developers, and funding, said Ramiro Gonzales of Mission City Renewal, who is the managing partner of Urban Lazarus Real Estate Partners.

Mission City Renewal started Good Acres, a workshop series aimed at connecting churches with redevelopment opportunities, this year.

“We want to build that inventory, to find those that want to be a part of [increasing affordable housing],” Gonzales 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...