A home for sale in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. Photo by Scott Ball.
Hispanic families are purchasing homes at rates faster than other minority demographics. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio is expected to gain 1 million people by 2040 and the City is planning to annex 66 square miles of commercial and residential areas. What should the city prioritize as it grows?

Without pause, Christine Drennon, head of Trinity University‘s Urban Studies, says affordable housing and public education are the first things on the list.

“The city is on the rise, but not with the people who made it,” Drennon said during a recent interview. “The people who worked really hard through the 20th century are still here and are still mostly lower middle class. We need to think about how to get them on the rise even more than things like improving the quality of life for Millennials moving downtown.”

Professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University Christine Drennon
Christine Drennon

Drennon’s credentials give her recommendation weight. She has researched and published about urban growth patterns for more than a decade, earning the national Urban Affairs Association’s premier award recognizing scholarship and activism. At the same time, Drennon has been on the ground in the thick of the community for years as a board member for Ella Austin Community Center and has worked with many nonprofits involved in the urban core.

“In Austin, the City’s upward momentum was not because the people of Austin who were there got a great education and bought houses. The big population didn’t go from working class to upper-middle class,” she said. “Instead, wealthy people moved in and the community got too expensive for old residents to stay. Our challenge is not to replicate that. How do we lift up the people who are here and allow them to do really well?”

The data bears out Drennon’s account. In Austin’s historically working class area along East Cesar Chavez, which used to look very similar to San Antonio’s Eastside, the median real estate price is more expensive than 90% of the neighborhoods in Texas. There was a 5.4% decline in the city’s African-American population between 2000 and 2010, earning Austin the distinction of being the only fast-growing city in the United States losing African-Americans.

In San Antonio, average home sales broke the $200,000 mark for the first time in 2015 and the upward price trend continues. Unfortunately, median household income remains low at $50,502 and it’s not rising as quickly as housing prices. Those numbers are what Drennon is looking at.

Affordable housing challenges also come from the loss of subdivisions. Many of these houses were subdivided even though they were originally single-family homes. New buyers are returning to single family homes, which means less affordable housing opportunities. That reduces the community’s overall wealth even if the household income on average becomes higher, and it reduces urban density.

That’s not good. Dense populations support more amenities like restaurants and festivals while boosting overall economic growth and energy efficiency. In places like Dignowity Hill where vacancy reigns supreme, there’s no density to lose, but losing subdivided housing now means that the city will lose the density it could have had when those gaps are filled.

Dignowity Hill resident and property owner Erasmo Diaz stands in front of the large vacant house at 724 Nolan St. Photo: Scott Ball
Dignowity Hill resident and property owner Erasmo Diaz stands in front of the large vacant house at 724 Nolan St. Photo: Scott Ball

According to Drennon, the people who move in aren’t as important as whether there is affordable housing.

“I don’t think you can think about gentrification in terms of race or demographics in general. If we just talk about property value it is easier to craft solutions,” she said. “Properties have deteriorated, and values have gone down, but every time someone picks it up and rehabs it so that it’s worth more. We should think about property value rather than different people moving in.”

Scholars can’t even agree on the definition of gentrification. A study published last December found that when people used numbers like poverty rate, educational attainment, and median income to find gentrifying neighborhoods, they all found different neighborhoods. Since gentrification is a loaded term that has no clear singular meaning, it may be more useful to just look at average housing value by itself.

How can we increase the amount of affordable housing and protect existing residents? Drennon points to Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) who is finding ways for local government to step in to help home owners.

Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. speaks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.
County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. (Precinct 4) speaks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.

A main goal of his as commissioner is to establish what he’s calling a Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund.

“We should create a joint partnership between the city and the county where each would give $100 million, and we would split the money between two programs,” he said. “First, invest in single family home rehab and construction projects to create homes between $75,000 and $150,000 closer to where middle class families can afford. Second, invest in community housing like low-rent apartments and condominiums.

“The city can vote in the bond cycle in 2017, and then it just takes three votes at the Commissioners’ Court so we would vote at the same time. If there’s $200 million publicly invested, that means you’re leveraging a multiplier effect on the local economy worth more than $1 billion through the private investment that follows.”

To those that may balk at the hefty price tag, he says, “Every time the city has to build a new street, fire station, or a police station, it’s a permanent strain on City and County budgets. The fiscally conservative thing to do is to bring back neighborhoods that already have those resources by investing in their housing.”

Some argue that housing construction investment could cause the kind of rapid gentrification that would push out existing residents.

“Gentrification is really only happening in a couple of neighborhoods, and in those neighborhoods we should freeze property taxes for home owners who have lived there for at least 20 years and adjust them according to inflation for 10 years. That way, you wouldn’t force existing homeowners out.”

The bond process, which happens once every five years, is a prime opportunity to explore city growth issues and make progressive moves. The process hasn’t historically been used for housing programs, and instead has been used for more traditional public projects like streets, drainage and parks. The City must put affordable housing in the same category, however, because its effect on economic growth is just as direct as public infrastructure.

“This is the stage in the City’s development where we have to ask tough questions,” Drennon said.

In the short-term, San Antonio can add housing to the bond process discussion in places like the 2017-2022 Bond Survey. Interested residents can sign a petition for housing investment and a gentrification property tax freeze here, and call their district councilmember to ask for their consideration of housing in the process.

Without improving housing options, the city stands to lose more than just growth.

“San Antonio is a working-class city and that’s a fundamental part of the culture,” Drennon said. “It’s part of what brings people here now, and if affordable housing goes, the working class will go too. This place will lose a big part of what makes it what it is.”

*Top image: A home for sale in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.