The first annual San Antonio Housing Summit. Photo courtesy of Ivy Taylor's Facebook page.
The first annual San Antonio Housing Summit. Photo courtesy of Ivy Taylor's Facebook page.

The keys to enhancing local housing policy in San Antonio’s complex market will be addressing gentrification concerns with better planning and confronting educational and income disparities.

That was the consensus of a few speakers, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, during the San Antonio Housing Summit on Friday at Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Taylor briefly explained to dozens of experts and officials from housing-related agencies and organizations how the findings of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Diverse and Dynamic Neighborhoods that were adopted as policy guidelines by City Council on Thursday.

Chief among the task force’s recommendations is to create a 15-member commission, the  Commission for Preserving Diverse and Dynamic Neighborhoods. Members will be appointed by the mayor and council members and will include business, academic, and community representatives who will use the recommendations to create and review various city policies.

While the council accepted the task force’s findings, there was dissent among the task force itself. Two members, community advocates Nettie Hinton and former Councilmember Maria Berriozábal, opposed the whole final report entirely. They asked for the council to delay voting on the document, expressing concern the report was watered down and an ineffective guide to policy development.

(Read more: Amid Task Force Dissent, Council Approves Gentrification Guidelines)

Nettie Hinton stands in opposition of the task force recommendation. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Nettie Hinton stands in opposition of the task force recommendations as they are read to City Council on May 14, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Taylor acknowledged that many people have different opinions about the source of local housing problems and solutions, especially regarding gentrification.

“The problem of gentrification results from conflicts between the housing market and comprehensive policy,” she said.

Taylor said there is a correlation between developing a highly skilled workforce for quality jobs and ensuring that moderate-to-low income individuals have access to quality affordable housing. “Stable, mixed-income neighborhoods can help to fix the extremism in income inequality.”

SAHA interim President and CEO David Nisivoccia
SAHA interim President and CEO David Nisivoccia

David Nisivoccia, the San Antonio Housing Authority’s (SAHA) interim president and CEO, said nearly a quarter of local renter households spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs, such as rent and utilities. The goal should be about 25-30%. It’s a challenge, he said, because it prevents those households from spending a higher amount of money on other sectors of the economy.

Income segregation is another challenge altogether, Nisivoccia said. According a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, San Antonio was No. 1 in income segregation among the nation’s 30 largest metro areas. In a Martin Prosperity Institute report released this February, San Antonio had the sixth-highest level of economic segregation in the country.

Nisivoccia said SAHA is doing its part to address income inequality. The goal is for the agency’s self-sufficiency programs to help residents of SAHA’s public housing projects to access affordable education and enter the workforce with more diverse skills. These programs, combined with other private and public efforts to improve literacy rates and limiting the digital divide in lower-income neighborhoods, can help residents succeed to the point that they won’t need housing assistance.

“While a lot of our clients have a smart phone, many don’t know how to utilize the tools on their phone that could end up helping them up the economic ladder,” Nisivoccia said.

He added SAHA’s self-sufficiency programs serve more than 1,900 people, 40% of whom are now employed.

Nisivoccia counted off the larger methods SAHA is using to improving low-income neighborhoods. He mentioned three federally funded grants being used for EastPoint, a diverse, bi-lingual, 4-square-mile area in the city’s Eastside.

Wheatley Courts, a once-troubled public housing complex in EastPoint, is the site of the Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant, which helped to develop the Wheatley Choice Transformation Plan.

(Read more: Excitement on San Antonio’s Eastside)

Mayor Ivy Taylorsits in a backhoe at Wheatley Courts on demolition day. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Mayor Ivy Taylorsits in a backhoe at Wheatley Courts on demolition day in September 2014. Photo by Robert Rivard.

The plan calls for converting the former Wheatley Courts sit into a 305-unit, quality, mixed-income community. In addition, the plan calls for expanding SAHA’s adjacent mixed-income Sutton Oaks community, and saving a key piece of land for commercial/retail development.

“There will be transformational impact here, not just on site but in the whole neighborhood,” said Nisivoccia. He added there are hopes to replicate the EastPoint system on the city’s Westside. “We are striving to find ways of delivering positive, different models of housing.”

One of the new apartment buildings at the Park at Sutton Oaks. Photo courtesy of SAHA.
One of the new apartment buildings at the Park at Sutton Oaks. Photo courtesy of SAHA.

“There’s no silver bullet” to solve housing challenges, Taylor said, and housing alone should not get all the attention from policy-makers and other stakeholders. “There’s a public education problem, there’s a transportation problem. They’re all linked together.”

That’s where SA Tomorrow comes in. It’s a three-pronged planning effort to help guide San Antonio toward smart, sustainable growth, as the city expects to welcome another 1 million residents by 2040. The planning effort will incorporate the city’s comprehensive plan, a sustainability plan, and a multimodal transportation plan. The City has produced a survey to gather community feedback, the first of many strategies to get the public engaged in the planning process.

Click here to take the survey.

“This is a critical turning point in our city’s history.” Taylor said. “It’s the first time we can develop a comprehensive plan in conjunction with our capital improvements plan and planning for a 2017 bond program.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said affordable housing, improving the local workforce’s skills, neighborhood revitalization and developing sustainable, walkable communities are all interrelated. She was hopeful that findings by the mayor’s neighborhood task force can help address these challenges.

Improving walkability in neighborhoods, she added, should get a closer review with the new commission as well as the SA Tomorrow program.

For example, said Local Initiatives Support Corporation‘s Celia Smoot, the ability to walk or bike to walk to work in their neighborhood greatly helps a low-income individual hold onto a job and, by extension, their home.

“It’s kind of sad that many residents still have to get into their car, into a vehicle, just to do most anything in their own neighborhood,” Sculley added.

Richard Milk, SAHA’s policy and planning director and a task force member, echoed Sculley and Taylor’s sentiments about implementing the task force’s recommendations.

“The new housing commission created yesterday will provide something new and important: Provide a long-term forum for stakeholders to discuss these issues,” he added.

*Featured/top image: The first annual San Antonio Housing Summit. Photo courtesy of Ivy Taylor’s Facebook page.

Related Stories:

Amid Task Force Dissent, Council Approves Gentrification Guidelines

Council Hears Gentrification Task Force Briefing

Mayoral Candidates Talk Gentrification with Esperanza

Preserving Neighborhoods: The Human Element

Citizens Demand Bilingual Meetings on Gentrification

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