San Antonians for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) launched its 2019 series of Eastside Business Briefings at a Monday breakfast with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who focused on recent achievements and what he sees as priorities in bringing economic equity to a neighborhood that was “left behind for generations.”
In his speech just weeks before voters go to the polls May 4 for city elections, Nirenberg touted news that VelocityTX and H-E-B projects will bring needed jobs and economic activity to the East Side while developments such as Friedrich Lofts are slated to add 174 affordable homes.
“The first document I signed as mayor was the Compassionate City Charter,” he said, which led to an “equity lens” process for how the city creates its budget. “We are matching the greatest investment with the greatest need and where we can have the greatest impact.”
That led to the council passing a 2019 budget with $27 million for improving infrastructure on the East Side, he said, and new resources to improve housing affordability across the city. In 2018, the Mayor’s Housing Task Force made recommendations to solve the problems of affordable housing and displacement.
“Why? Because your council representatives demanded it, and said there are too many zip codes in this part of town that have been left behind for more than a generation …,” Nirenberg told the group of Eastside business leaders.
New SAGE CEO Tuesdae Knight said she thinks the group’s partnership with the City of San Antonio is going to help the East Side prosper and grow.
“He [Nirenberg] talked about a lot of things that are very impactful … important to our organization and our community,” she said, adding that housing is especially critical, “because we have been disenfranchised for so long. So having the attention now is what’s really going to make a difference.”
Knight said SAGE is partnering with the San Antonio Housing Authority to solve some of its challenges with affordable housing. The nonprofit Merced Housing Texas also is working to deliver more affordable housing on the East Side. A housing project for seniors at East Commerce and Olive streets that it started in 2015 has been delayed by construction problems that Merced President Kristin Davila hopes will be resolved this year.
But Davila, who attended the breakfast Monday, said her organization’s ability to find funding to support any kind of affordable housing projects for the inner-city is getting tougher. Current rules around the state’s Qualified Allocation Plan for low-income housing tax credits requires funds to be used only outside Loop 1604.
Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio President and CEO Natalie Griffith said one of the greatest challenges in improving the existing housing stock on the East Side is establishing clear titles on homes that have been in families for generations. Without a clear title, residents can’t qualify for the City’s home improvement programs or even a home equity loan. Those homes also can’t be sold and are often left vacant and abandoned.
Griffith said the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders has worked to solve that problem on the West Side, and Davila said the San Antonio Area Foundation recently awarded Merced a $15,000 grant to assist Eastside homeowners with probate issues. There are 300 homeowners currently on the waiting list for Merced’s owner-occupied repair program.
Another issue plaguing Eastside residents who don’t have clear titles is they can’t qualify for a senior property tax exemption. “I have a personal experience with that,” Davila said. “The family member is living in a home that she’s lived in forever and it’s been passed on, but because she doesn’t own it, she doesn’t qualify for senior tax exemptions.”
On the East Side and elsewhere, Habitat for Humanity is encouraging reconstruction over rehab because of the homes’ age and poor quality as many were built before building codes existed.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend $100,000 to try to rehab a house that wasn’t built well in the first place,” Griffith said. “It makes more sense to demolish that house and build a quality, energy-efficient house.” For that reason, she added, “The City has increased its attention to reconstruction as an option.”
Attendees at the breakfast asked Nirenberg whether the City is looking at ways to provide tax relief for business owners and residents.
The mayor responded that he is talking with state legislators regarding House Bill 2, which would limit the amount of property tax revenue collected by local governments, and the formulas used to derive taxes, and he expects that the school finance reform bill also will provide some relief.
“The truth is we have many people in our community who are on fixed incomes, who lived in their homes for generations and have been passed down. Some of those families are very sensitive to property taxes rising.
“As economic development happens, we could simply say, as governments do, ‘It’s the consequence of progress,’” he said. Instead, the council approved a new funding for a program for residents facing displacement.
“We’ve decided as a San Antonio community, we want to have some help for people because there’s obviously a return on investment for the community when we improve our housing stock – we make sure that people who are on the verge of being displaced don’t have to rely on social services,” he said. “That to me is not just a comprehensive housing policy, it is a comprehensive and compassionate housing policy.”