Noel Poyo (center) speaks during a DreamWeek panel discussion on equitable neighborhoods at Cafe Commerce on Monday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Noel Poyo (center) speaks during a DreamWeek panel discussion on equitable neighborhoods at Cafe Commerce on Monday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Despite fears of continued gentrification, and the City of San Antonio’s efforts to prevent it, there are ways to ensure social inclusion while rebuilding a neighborhood.

That’s the conclusion of a panel discussion held Monday at Café Commerce. The event, “Revitalizing the Dream: An Equitable Neighborhood Development Discussion,” was part of the DreamWeek San Antonio calendar of events and revolved around current trends and anticipated changes in small business development, affordable housing, and family financial wellness. The discussion was hosted by the Texas-based nonprofit National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB), which helps communities attract and generate private and public investments.

More than 50 people listened as four local panelists defined equitable neighborhood development. Brad McMurray, development director for the local nonprofit Prospera Housing Community Services, said to him it means reinvesting in or redeveloping a community by using its existing assets and making it more attractive.

“It would be an equitable situation where those who are invested in the neighborhood are involved in improving it,” he added.

Janie Barrera, president and CEO of local non-profit microlender LiftFund, said organizations such as hers are critical to helping to improve a community’s financial literary rate, especially when a home’s value comes into play.

“Let’s level the financial playing field,” Barrera said. “Ask yourself, ‘Who’s living in those homes?’ It’s our responsibility to educate our neighbors so they can make good financial decisions.”

Amanda Hoss offers comments during a DreamWeek panel discussion on equitable neighborhoods at Cafe Commerce on Monday, Jan. 11. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Amanda Hoss offers comments during a DreamWeek panel discussion on equitable neighborhoods at Cafe Commerce on Monday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

A neighborhood improves only when all residents and stakeholders participate, said NALCAB Executive Director Noel Poyo. The hard part is encouraging full involvement.

“People get upset when their neighborhood changes. It’s not just because rents go up or it gets harder to stay there financially,” Poyo said. “It’s when everybody else who’s leaving looks like you and when everybody who’s coming in, doesn’t.”

What makes a neighborhood vital, he said, is “in the DNA” of the people who have been there the longest and have the most to gain or lose when their community changes.

Kristin Davila, vice president for Merced Housing Texas, a local non-profit developer and manager of affordable housing, said developers cannot afford to exclude current residents of a neighborhood that’s undergoing change.

“It’s important as long as people have an opportunity to benefit from the investments, and have a say in what new resources are made available. It’s absolutely essential,” she added.

Several San Antonio neighborhoods are on the verge of improving or deteriorating, according to Poyo, and that’s reflective of many cities nationwide. Declining levels of investment and redevelopment do not mix well with escalating costs of services and infrastructure, he noted, especially in inner-city neighborhoods.

Poyo gave a couple of examples of neighborhoods on the verge. Take a look at Pearl, the redevelopment of which did not directly effect surrounding neighborhoods, he said. But now that Pearl has become a case study in successful urban infill, surrounding neighborhoods in Midtown are coping with the positives and negatives of the increased traffic and influx of businesses and high-end residential communities.

“You look at those neighborhoods – where will they be in five years?” Poyo asked rhetorically.

Dignowity Hill Historic District, another neighborhood “on the verge” is experiencing rising values of improved homes and businesses but is surrounded by a larger network of Eastside neighborhoods that doesn’t have the historic housing stock that is attracting new residents or the proximity to downtown’s growing amenity economy.

Poyo and his fellow panelists explained that’s why all stakeholders – developers, businesses, residents, the public sector – must emphasize proper planning and foresight to make sure neighborhoods such as Dignowity Hill and those near the Pearl can be successful without gentrification entering into the picture.

One of Merced’s newest projects is the development of Oscar Eason Senior Apartments at East Commerce and Olive streets, which is a community meant for very low-income senior citizens. Davila called the project “a well-thought out plan” that enables area seniors to continue living in their neighborhood at an affordable rate.

Barrera said she is interested in how LiftFund and other financial institutions can encourage low to middle-income residents to help shape the destiny of their neighborhoods by improving their individual financial situations.

This can be done, Barrera said, by residents adjusting to the “new ways of living” in a certain neighborhood – taking advantage of more available transit options, securing a job at new business closer to home, or starting their own business.

“Let’s think about what all this change can bring with it but with planning, to make sure you have a work/live place,” she added.

Affordable housing may play a major part in the City’s next bond proposal, scheduled for 2017, McMurray said. But in order to maximize such a bond program – if approved by voters – the private and public sectors must consider people who are able to secure affordable housing on their own and those who simply cannot. In other words, everyone has to have a part to play in the public dialogue.

More and improved multi-family communities will have to be part of the solution, McMurray added, given projections for San Antonio’s future growth. If the City is willing to give affordable housing a major monetary commitment in its 2017 bond proposal, Poyo said, it should be all in.

“I think it would be irresponsible not to (infuse millions of dollars) given the state of the economy,” he added.

*Top image: Noel Poyo (center) speaks during a DreamWeek panel discussion on equitable neighborhoods at Cafe Commerce on Monday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.