David Nisivoccia, who ramped up partnerships with private developers to increase affordable housing in San Antonio, will step down as president and CEO of the San Antonio Housing Authority to lead the Denver Housing Authority next year.

Originally hired as SAHA’s chief operating officer in 2013, Nisivoccia has led the agency since he was appointed as interim president and CEO in 2015. “Interim” was removed from his title in late 2016.

“It’s an opportunity to work in another dynamic city that has housing issues that are similar but different from what we have here in San Antonio,” he told the San Antonio Report on Monday. “It’s an opportunity to stretch myself professionally, and I value those opportunities.”

Two weeks ago, he was announced as the single finalist in Denver’s months-long search for a new CEO. His last day at SAHA is slated for the first week of January, and he’ll start in Denver on Jan. 19.

More than 57,000 children, adults, and seniors receive public housing, housing vouchers, or other assistance through SAHA, the largest public housing authority in Texas. With an annual operating budget of $186 million and about 525 employees, SAHA owns real estate assets valued at $550 million.

“I take a lot of pride and joy in our everyday life at SAHA, knowing that we work for people who want to have a more fulfilling, goal-driven life,” he said.

“I’m simultaneously sad about and excited for David,” said Jason Arechiga, senior vice president of NRP Group, which has partnered with SAHA on several housing projects. “San Antonio is losing a great leader in affordable housing that recognized the need for quality housing options for our residents and utilized SAHA’s resources to leverage opportunities in the public and private sector. We wish the best for him.”  

Since Nisivoccia took the helm, SAHA has more aggressively pursued public-private partnerships that blend market-rate with subsidized housing units in several new projects. Some residents and community organizers take issue with that mixed-income approach, but those projects build revenue that allows the agency to better serve its mission, he said.

SAHA started pursuing such partnerships around the early 2000s and continued throughout the years, including the Wheatley Choice Neighborhood project, but more favorable market conditions have allowed the agency to do even more, he said.

Those projects generate revenue to subsidize very low-income housing, maintain its existing buildings, sustain resident service programs, and build up SAHA’s reserve fund.

“We’ve already developed 1,200 units in the last four years and another 7,500 … are [anticipated in the coming years],” he said, adding that under more traditional housing authority models, those units would have taken much longer to produce.

David Nisivoccia Interim President & CEO of SAHA and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro share a moment while touring an East Meadows townhouse.
Then-interim President and CEO of SAHA David Nisivoccia and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro share a moment while touring an East Meadows townhouse in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Plans to demolish and rebuild a portion of SAHA’s Alazán-Apache Courts, which was recently named one of the most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was met with protest by the Westside Preservation Alliance and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. In an adjacent lot, SAHA is partnering with NRP Group to build The Legacy at Alazán (previously called Alazán Lofts), which will include 88 units. Of those, 48 will be public housing, eight will be market-rate apartments, and the rest will be allocated for renters making a fraction of the area’s median income.

“The shift from public housing to private investment is class warfare, and our city continues to fail our most vulnerable and our most cost-burdened,” said Teri Castillo, an organizer with the Historic Westside Residents Association. Castillo joined other activists and SAHA residents on Monday to protest the developments.

Teri Castillo, left, an organizer with the Historic Westside Residents Associations speaks against the demolition of SAHA’s Alazán-Apache Courts.

“Our residents deserve quality housing, so why hasn’t SAHA provided this to our residents in their current housing units?” said Leticia Sanchez, co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association.

Sanchez also criticized the size of the four-story Lofts, that will tower over surrounding one-story homes in the area. Across the street, designs for the buildings that will replace the current two-story Alazán structures have not been started, officials said.

There is roughly $500 million in maintenance needed across SAHA’s 6,000-unit system, Nisivoccia said. Meanwhile, after loans and payroll expenses are paid, SAHA receives roughly $8 million from the federal government for renovations.

“We’re not leaving these existing properties behind; we’re trying to generate income so we can invest in them,” he said. “The cultural history is not in the buildings; it’s in the people.”

A SAHA survey of Alazán residents showed that 81 percent would prefer their homes to be rebuilt rather than remodeled, officials have said.

The Alazan-Apache Courts, the oldest public housing project in San Antonio.
The Alazán-Apache Courts is the oldest public housing project in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Public housing should not be profitable for private developers, Castillo said. She encouraged residents to call in to SAHA’s board meeting on Thursday to ask for community engagement in the new CEO selection process.

“David’s not skipping town because the city held him accountable,” she said. “David’s skipping town because we held him accountable.”

The protest on Monday and previous criticisms “didn’t play into my decision process whatsoever,” Nisivoccia said. “[Protests are] not unusual in my business.”

Affordable housing is difficult to build anywhere, but Denver has unique challenges, he said.

“They need more [affordable housing] just like we do,” he said. “It’s different because the economics of the city are different.”

Most notably, the land values and cost of construction are higher.

There is a “vast chasm” in San Antonio between economic success and failure for people in San Antonio, he said. The city is one of the most economically segregated in the country. In Denver, there’s a stronger middle class, he said.

There’s also more built-in public investment in affordable housing in Denver. The city’s annual budget includes funding for the Denver Housing Authority, a portion of the state tax on marijuana sales is allocated to the authority, and they have a $100 million bond program to build affordable housing.

San Antonio’s $20 million housing bond can only be used to facilitate affordable housing, not build it directly. The City’s 2021 budget allocates $27.5 million for affordable housing. That includes emergency housing assistance, relocation assistance, and home repair.

If San Antonio wants to use bond dollars to directly fund the construction of affordable housing, its charter would need to change, he noted.

But the last three mayors, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, have built momentum for necessary change, he said. “[They] all identified and understood that affordable housing needs to be a priority in the city.”

City Council established San Antonio’s first-ever comprehensive affordable housing strategy in 2018 and started allocating more toward affordable housing production, housing rehabilitation, and displacement mitigation.

“Now all we need in San Antonio is to grow that investment,” he said.

SAHA will formalize its search process to replace Nisivoccia in the coming weeks.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org