(From left) Panelists Christine Drennon, Lourdes Castro Ramirez, Verónica Soto, Leilah Powell, and Meghan Garza-Oswald, and moderators Iris Dimmick and Juan Cano discuss affordable housing during San Antonio CityFest. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A panel of affordable housing advocates and experts agreed Friday that solving housing problems in San Antonio would require a shift in how people think about homes.

Leilah Powell, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation San Antonio, said she wished she could change the idea that most people have of a “stable neighborhood” – a row of single-family homes with white picket fences.

“We don’t have to continue to sell San Antonio as a place with gated communities, and [with] such a heavy emphasis on one type of housing and one mode of living that we all aspire to,” she said during the panel discussion at San Antonio CityFest, the Rivard Report‘s inaugural ideas festival.

Instead, housing solutions can come in the form of tiny homes in the backyards of existing homes as well as apartment buildings, Powell said.

In the discussion moderated by Rivard Report Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick and Juan Cano, principal of Cano Development, panelists discussed the housing issues that concern them and potential solutions to providing more affordable housing in a growing city.

Lourdes Castro Ramirez, a former principal deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, led the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force. Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed the task force last August to develop a housing strategy as San Antonio’s demand for housing and prices increase at the same time. The task force published a 56-page document of recommendations that were adopted in September.

Ramirez said the task force’s process of developing recommendations was inclusive, data-driven, and built on community experience and knowledge. The task force also helped to change the conversation in San Antonio about housing, Ramirez said. As a result, the City’s fiscal year 2019 budget includes $25.1 million for housing initiatives, more than triple the previous budget.

“We are now more understanding of what we mean by ‘affordable housing,’” Ramirez said. “It’s not just subsidized housing. It’s the ability for a family to not spend more than 30 percent of their income’ on housing alone.

Verónica Soto, director of the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, said that housing affects everyone, even if they don’t see it that way. She said San Antonio was missing an ecosystem that connected people together around affordable housing. Ramirez agreed, adding that the housing policy task force worked well because it brought the community into the planning process.

“I think when people do [participate], they take ownership, and they become much more aware and invested in making it happen,” she said.

Meghan Garza-Oswald, president and CEO of Community Housing Resource Partners, said she thinks some of the apprehension around creating more affordable housing comes from a fear of density. But housing, including higher-density housing, can be an economic generator and bring stores like Target to a previously less-populated area, Garza-Oswald said

“We can’t think of housing just as a resource for those living in poverty,” she said. “It’s an economic driver for our city, and will bring business to an area of the city.”

Powell added that even with affordable housing, someone is making money.

“If you’re building a unit of housing, there’s a contractor involved, engineers involved, developers involved,” she said. “The market is involved in this problem. Let’s believe there are market-based solutions to the affordable housing crisis.”

Christine Drennon, director of Trinity University’s urban studies program, said change comes from people flipping their understanding of housing as a private good.

“What I do with my house impacts others,” she said. “If we’re all willing to invest in housing as a public good, as we invest in things like streets and sidewalks, we will all benefit if housing wasn’t seen as a pair of shoes — I own them, don’t touch them.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.