The Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee will consider whether a proposed renters' commission would be separate from the current Housing Commission, or become a subcommittee, among other options. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Community members on Tuesday helped City staffers brainstorm ways to use the $1 million allocated for addressing housing displacement in San Antonio.

The City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD) hosted the first community meeting on how to use that money, which the City refers to as the risk mitigation fund, during the Mayor’s Housing Summit. The fund was proposed by the mayor’s housing policy task force and added to the fiscal year 2019 budget. About 70 people attended the work session to give input and their concerns about housing displacement.

The housing summit, in its fourth year, cost attendees $30 to $35 for a one-day pass. A two-day ticket cost $50. The risk mitigation work session, however was free and open to the public.

Meeting participants said rising rent, unsafe housing, and lack of financial assistance were big causes of displacement. In 2016, San Antonio saw 9,848 evictions and 28,362 people displaced, while 78 people were evicted daily. Though the City has not seen 2017’s numbers, they expect them to be higher, said Azza Kamal, a City housing policy planning coordinator.

Almost half of renters in San Antonio spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, Kamal said.

“These families that are cost-burdened spend, on average, $330 more per month than they should,” Kamal said.

This map, part of a City of San Antonio presentation at the Mayor’s Housing Summit, shows where residents are most vulnerable to housing displacement. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Meeting participants added that gentrification and new development also push long-term residents out of their homes. For example, Soapworks, a downtown housing complex that was bought by a developer and renamed Soap Factory Apartments, used to have affordable rents but the cost has increased.

“Around nine months ago, Soapworks was sold to an investor whose business model is to buy properties, invest money to renovate the buildings, and then increase the rents for the renovated properties,” said Veronica Soto, the director of Neighborhood and Housing Services.

Developing lower-income areas is good economically, but not for the long-term well-being of residents in the area, Soto said.

“We have seen that not just in the downtown area, but in other neighborhoods where there is investment opportunity – which on the one hand is good for economic development purposes, but the opposite is that there are some who don’t benefit from that,” Soto said.

One of the soon-to-be “hot” areas is East San Antonio neighborhood Denver Heights, Soto said. Martha Banda, a Denver Heights resident, shared her experience at Tuesday’s meeting. She said not only are real estate agents coming in and trying to scare her neighbors away by warning of “regentrification,” her neighborhood’s property prices have been steadily increasing in recent years.

“We see homes that couldn’t sell for $30,000 five years ago getting flipped and sold for over $300,000,” Banda said.

Neighborhoods nearby have also felt the pressure of increased prices, she added.

“Many who want to live in Dignowity can’t, and come to Denver Heights,” Banda said. “You can’t find a vacant lot in Dignowity for under $100,000.”

Lasandra Melton-Dolberry, who lives in affordable housing community Renaissance Village Apartments in Northeast San Antonio, said she’s in the middle of a three-day eviction notice that she has been fighting. She wants to see the City put more resources toward helping renters in San Antonio, and to educate renters on fair housing rights.

“I think one of the biggest problems is there is no advocacy for tenants,” she said. “There’s nowhere for tenants to go.”

Soto also said that tenants have few options when facing eviction or displacement.

“In Texas, we have a strong property rights state, so renters have even less recourse,” she said.

Soto said this was the first of at least three meetings to help figure out how to best use the money allocated toward addressing displacement in San Antonio.

“We have no clear idea what to do with the risk mitigation funds” Soto said. “We’re coming here with a general idea, but what is the best program to create?”

Soto said the input and survey results gathered from attendees on Tuesday would be analyzed and presented at the next community meeting. Future meetings have not been formally scheduled yet.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.