Bexar County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a combined $45 million in spending Tuesday aimed at addressing internet access gaps and affordable housing.
The county allocated $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved communities and $20 million to facilitate affordable housing production and preservation.
The City of San Antonio and Bexar County are seeking a partnership through a request for proposal with internet service providers (ISPs) to provide better access in high-priority census tracts and zip codes where service is limited or too expensive for many residents.
“We could leverage these funds and ask ISPs to contribute dollar-for-dollar matching amounts — and then $25 million turns to $50 million — and we can start really connecting communities that way,” said Marina Alderete Gavito, executive director of SA Digital Connects, a relatively new nonprofit dedicated to closing the digital divide in Bexar County.
Fast, reliable internet allows families to access financial assistance, education resources and employment and civic engagement opportunities, Gavito said. “We know that the digital divide impacts the social determinants of health.”
An estimated three-year, upfront investment of $600 million and annual state investment of $90 million is needed to close San Antonio’s digital divide, according to the nonprofit’s Digital Equity Community Plan.
There’s more than $500 million in federal funds coming to the region through pandemic relief and infrastructure bills, although local government officials have proposed a host of potential uses for the money in addition to increasing broadband access.
The City of San Antonio has allocated nearly $7 million of its ARPA grants toward digital inclusion and literacy.
Housing and homeless: ‘There’s much work to be done’
The county allocated $20 million in ARPA grants toward multifamily rental housing construction and preservation ($8 million), single-family homeownership construction and preservation ($5 million), and permanent supportive housing or shelter for homeless individuals ($7 million).
County officials said these investments are aligned with other local housing plans such as the city’s Strategic Housing Implementation Plan, which includes the voter-approved $150 million housing bond. That plan identified 95,000 households who struggle to afford housing in the area. More than 28,000 housing units will need to be built or preserved to meet the plan’s goals.
Bexar County’s affordable housing funds will prioritize projects that provide housing for families and individuals who earn 30% or below of the area median income (AMI) and target vulnerable populations such as children aging out of foster care, veterans and people previously or currently involved with the criminal justice system.
Several nonprofit and for-profit housing developers testified in favor of the affordable housing allocations — many of which plan to apply for the local ARPA funds.
“The unfortunate reality is that many slip through the cracks and wind up on the street or in our shelter system,” said Nikisha Baker, president and CEO of SAMMinistries, which holds the largest inventory of permanent supportive housing in San Antonio.
“When the incidence of homelessness is rare and brief, individuals and families are able to recover from trauma quickly. When that doesn’t happen, then individuals and families become chronically homeless,” Baker said. “We’re doing great work, but there’s much work to be done to address the issue of homelessness and affordable housing.”
Federal rules say ARPA funds must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by the end of 2026.