Housing directly impacts all other opportunities within a person’s life – that is the premise behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and Sunday’s DreamWeek event, Redeeming the American Dream.

City, school district and state officials, and business and neighborhood leaders joined Trinity University urban studies professor Christine Drennon Sunday afternoon at the Healy Murphy Center on the near-Eastside to examine how housing development in San Antonio and federal lending practices started in the 1930s contributed to present-day inequities.

“For most of us in the middle and working classes, [income] very much depends on where we live,” Drennon said during her opening presentation, noting San Antonio’s ranking as the most segregated city in the United States. The designation, which reflects San Antonio’s immense disparity between impoverished and wealthy areas, didn’t come by coincidence, Drennon said.

Original deed documents show that certain neighborhoods were designed with segregation in mind. Neighborhoods like Olmos Park, Beacon Hill, and Dignowity Hill were all developed with restrictions that prohibited leasing or sale of property to minorities, Drennon said.

Neighboring areas, many of which lie in San Antonio’s urban core, including Gardendale and Colonia San Ignacio, did not have these deed restrictions. These neighborhoods developed with small lots and infrastructure that lagged behind the rest of the city’s development. Both of these issues remain today, Drennon said.

Drennon showed photos of housing stock from these same areas in recent years to illustrate how they have fared over time. Neighborhoods with deed restrictions that prevented sale to minorities have high home values, whereas the other neighborhoods have more humble homes, Drennon said.

“That’s not an alley, that is a Westside street,” Drennon said, illustrating through the photos the differences in development between the two neighborhood types over time.

Drennon said the federal government only exacerbated the issue in the 1930s when it began identifying neighborhoods as most promising for investment. The government hoped this system would encourage banks to lend money in tough financial times. Some neighborhoods were given the green light because of the positive qualities of the existing property and its residents, while others were “redlined” because of depreciating property value and a majority non-white population.

“The United States government told the banks, ‘That’s a risk and you may want to think about it,” she said.

Drennon said this created a society where residents living in redlined neighborhoods couldn’t invest in their homes and couldn’t emerge from a cycle of poverty.

School districts came to play a role in this process too, when the 68 original common school districts of San Antonio began to consolidate into groupings based on property value. Districts formed partnerships with others because of a balance sheet – If a district had high property value, it was considered more attractive as a partner.

This left some districts – Edgewood and San Antonio ISDs, for example – with high concentrations of minority students and low property values, Drennon said.

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said his district has two-thirds of the highest poverty families in the county. That number jumps to 82 percent when combining students from Harlandale, Edgewood, and South San Antonio ISDs.

Joining Martinez on the panel were State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio); Victoria Gonzalez, senior policy advisor to Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Lourdes Castro Ramirez, chair of the Mayor’s Housing Task Force; and Stephen Yndo, chairman of the Urban Land Institute San Antonio. All discussed solutions to the inequities following Drennon’s presentation.

Panel moderator and Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard described the need for an “ecosystem” of collaboration across sectors in San Antonio to achieve tangible progress.

Several panelists cited strong education as paramount to changing the cycle of poverty.

Bernal, who serves as vice chair of the House Public Education Committee, said that solving school finance remains a crucial step in addressing property taxes that displace families from their homes.

Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) spoke at the Dreamweek event about solutions to San Antonio's problems with inequity and poverty.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) speaks at the Dreamweek event about solutions to San Antonio’s problems with inequity and poverty. Credit: Emily Donaldson / San Antonio Report

Martinez agreed, saying that money coming out of district homeowners’ pockets should stay within a district.

The superintendent also emphasized the need to raise expectations for students within SAISD.

In the past two years, SAISD has increased its graduation rate to 85 percent, as well as the number of students who attend “top Tier One” universities, Martinez said. However, he wants to continue pushing his students to consider college as an option post-graduation.

“We are making it very clear that not only are children going to graduate from our high schools, but they are going to be going to college,” Martinez said. “If you are coming from a high-poverty family, especially the families I serve…I don’t think our families are going to be okay if they don’t attain a higher education.”

Fifty-four percent of students graduating from SAISD go on to attend college, Martinez said.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks during a board meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In his two-and-a-half years with SAISD, Martinez believes a transformation has been underway. He said the district is on the right pathway forward, but has to cope with external factors – such as housing – that he can’t control.

He cited students who have learning disabilities because their housing exposes them to lead as one example of the district coping with outside factors.

“We will own education,” he said. “But I can’t own lead in the houses.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.