Gentrification is part of our everyday vocabulary at this stage in San Antonio’s “Decade of Downtown.” The subject has renewed relevance with several recent developments in the inner city, including the French & Michigan mixed-use debate and the rezoning of the Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, the latter of which is one of the first incidents of population displacement in the city to make way for development.
On Oct. 7, Mayor Ivy Taylor headlined a panel discussing “Gentrification in San Antonio: the Challenges of Development, Renewal and Displacement.” The panel focused on policies that affect inner city neighborhoods and the research that influences those policies.
Berriozábal was the first to speak. As District 1 representative from 1981 to 1990, she was the first Latina elected to the council, and has an abiding concern for the health of the city’s core. She examined the varied definitions of gentrification and highlighted policy decisions that have left inner city neighborhoods vulnerable.
She traced the issue back to 1951, when the City adopted a council/manager form of government, focusing not only on growth, but expansion. From that time a lot of public policy placed economic generators to the north, Berriozábal said.
She then fast-forwarded to 2008 when the City decided to bring resources back to the center, implementing policies to support this trajectory. She cited the inner city reinvestment and infill policy (ICRIP). Such policies, she asserted, are having unintended consequences on inner city neighborhoods.
“I thought the ‘Decade of Downtown’ was just downtown, but it wasn’t,” Berriozábal said.
ICRIP applies in low-income neighborhoods, but little is being done to address the needs of residents, whose homes are now appealing to investors and developers, she said. As homes disappear, the culture and livelihoods of residents are threatened.
“There are huge areas of the Westside that are in danger of disappearing,” Berriozábal said.
That disappearing housing stock is at the heart of Drennon’s research as an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University. Drennon is also a recipient of the 2014 UAA Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award. Her work has led to many of the grant-funded revitalization efforts on the Eastside.
Before she delved into the research, however, Drennon took on some issues of vocabulary.
“We toss around the word (gentrification) a lot,” she said.
She explained that the definition has evolved since it was identified as a process in London.
“Urban Pioneers” is a term she finds highly problematic, largely because of what it implies about the process of gentrification, that until the new cultural amenities – yoga studios, coffee shops, etc. – arrive, there is virtually nothing but a wilderness to be pioneered.
The working definition of gentrification Drennon uses in her research comes from the Brookings Institute: “The process by which higher-income households displace lower-income residents of a neighborhood, changing essential character and flavor of that neighborhood …”
It is the word “displace” that gives the heat and potency to gentrification. Drennon said she hopes that by understanding the process of gentrification, policies can be put in place to prevent such massive population shifts as have been seen in places like New Orleans.
“It’s important that we get ahead of this,” she said.
Drennon looks for departures for the normal trajectory and pace of neighborhood change.
In the normal succession of families slowly gaining wealth and leaving for more affluent neighborhoods, houses filter down the economic ladder, and neighborhoods become affordable to lower-income brackets. The life cycle of most houses then passes into rentership, and eventually either into abandonment or refurbishment, depending on the capacities of the landlord.
The kind of gentrification that ends in displacement is signaled by an abnormal spike in the price of the housing stock.
Drennon and her research partners, students at Trinity University, looked at pre-Recession data for 138 census tracts inside Loop 410. They found that 35 of them exhibited such spikes. Within those census tracts, demographic and tax data indicated two new kinds of buyers: cash buyers and education-rich (though perhaps income-light) first time homeowners. The cash buyers could signal a particular threat to neighborhoods, as much cash buying is done by groups with no interest in the social fabric of the neighborhood.
“Who are the folks buying these houses? Are they even people or are they just funds somewhere?” Drennon said.
Gentrification, whether by development, speculation, or demographic changes, pulls housing out of the natural cycle. Housing that had become affordable, now starts the process over at the top of the cycle.
However, the question is as much about gentrification as it is about maintenance of the stock that is left. What about the 103 tracts where normal home value cycles are still at work? In those neighborhoods, deterioration is still happening, and housing stock is being lost there, as well.
What can be done about it?
“That’s when we pass to city government,” Drennon said.
Mayor Ivy Taylor is uniquely positioned to speak at this political-theoretical-experiential crossroads. A resident of the Eastside, and former council representative for District 2, Taylor also worked for the City of San Antonio’s Housing and Community Development Department and Neighborhood Action Department. She is a lecturer at UTSA’s College of Public Policy, and found herself balancing between her professorial voice and her role as mayor.
In Taylor’s assessment, the housing issues we face are inevitable in the market-based system that drives housing in San Antonio and across the United States.
“Housing is definitely big business,” Taylor said.
Trends demonstrate that people will pay more for houses in quiet, spacious, safe, beautiful places.
“Affordable shelter is unfortunately going to be less desirable,” Taylor said.
Market and policy together have a large influence on how a neighborhood will change. In Taylor’s view, interventions have a mixed record. Regulatory standards are necessary but don’t ensure the supply will meet the needs of the population at every income level. Past examples of government interventions, such as slum clearance and urban renewal in the 1950s, have led to major problems for displaced populations.
Before resigning his office, Mayor Julián Castro appointed District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal to head a new “task force on diverse and dynamic communities.” The task force will examine ways to manage gentrification so that inner-city communities could be renewed with new residents and investment while existing residents would be protected from rising property values and taxes.
Taylor favors a development focus on mixed income, live-work-play neighborhoods. She also wants to see balanced growth throughout the city.
“One of the real issues is income inequality,” Taylor said.
Middle and low-income families are forced to put such a large percentage of their income into housing, that they are vulnerable to influxes in the housing market. Rather than simply focusing on housing, Taylor wants to see a community development approach that support residents and stabilizes deteriorating neighborhoods.
Eastpoint, the City’s development initiative on the Eastside, is one such development.
“We’re also working on education. City-wide, we’re taking that approach with the Pre-K 4 SA program,” Taylor said.
The theory is that when communities have access to jobs, education, and services, people who increase their earning capacity can invest in their homes, protect their assets, and build wealth.
“We’re also working on a comprehensive planning process for our city,” Taylor said. “Really, in the end of the day, we can’t just invest in real estate, we also have to invest in people.”
The discussion was the latest installment of Community Conversations, hosted by the Institute for Public Administration, Politics and Public Policy at St. Mary’s University, which is housed within the St. Mary’s Graduate School. One of the primary goals of the Institute is to develop outreach programs that foster dialogue between the University, the public, government agencies and nonprofits to address important public issues.
*Featured/top image: From left: Moderator Cary Clack, the mayor’s communications director, Mayor Ivy Taylor, Former City Councilmember María Antonietta Berriozábal, and Trinity University’s Christine Drennon during a panel discussion. Photo by Bekah McNeel.