Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.
Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

This month, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) will officially open the doors to the Park at Sutton Oaks, a state-of-the-art mixed-income housing community on the Eastside right along I-35.

Partially funded by federal grant money, Sutton Oaks is a preview of the economic transformation of the impoverished and industrial Eastside that will come with external public and private funding. In fact, it’s already underway, as anyone who has tried to buy a house in Dignowity Hill lately has learned firsthand.

The Park at Sutton Oaks is the first new housing phase of the Choice Neighborhood Initiative, part of a larger plan utilizing funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2011, HUD awarded the Eastside $30 million for redevelopment.

HUD, which targets this grant at “struggling neighborhoods with distressed public housing,” couldn’t have picked a more applicable site. The area between Highway 281 and the AT&T Center, has a median household income of $17,175. A quarter of the lots are vacant or undeveloped. Forty-four percent of the people living there do not have a high school diploma. The violent crime rate is three times higher than the city average.

The four-square mile area is bordered to the north by the industrial highway that connects San Antonio to East Texas with huge swaths of railroad; to the west by an expensive downtown; and to the east by the AT&T Center and its surrounding empty warehouses (such as the 125,000 square foot derelict Handy Andy building).

If anyone still believes publicly funded sports arenas and stadium serve as economic development engines, one visit to San Antonio’s Eastside settles that argument.

To fix it all up, the federal government has coordinated three grants through the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative to fund neighborhood and community development. In addition to HUD’s Choice grant, the Department of Education (DOE) named it the Eastside Promise Neighborhood, one of 21 in the country, awarding $23.7 million in 2012 to develop “cradle-to-career” solutions. The Department of Justice (DOJ) awarded its Byrne Criminal Justice Grant for $600,000 in 2012 to drop crime rates.

Blue is the East Side Promise Neighborhood while Red is the Choice Neighborhood Revitalization project, where federal grant money can be used. Photo Credit: EastSide Promise Neighborhood
Blue indicates the East Side Promise Neighborhood while Red inidcates the Choice Neighborhood Revitalization project, where federal grant money can be used. Photo courtesy of EastSide Promise Neighborhood.

In 2011,SAHA completed Sutton Oaks I with funding assistance from the HUD, and now they’ve completed the Park at Sutton Oaks, their flagship new housing complex. It’s beautiful, especially compared to SAHA’s notorious previous East Side complex, Wheatley Courts.

Wheatley Courts was built in 1941 and has aged about as well as three-day-old Taco Cabana queso. What was once a robust location solidified into discolored concrete and a reminder of the consequences of neglect. Habitually plagued with gang violence and surrounded by some of the most intense poverty in the city, Wheatley Courts is long overdue for a replacement.

Whereas Wheatley Courts was entirely public housing, the Park at Sutton Oaks has mixed-income residents, integrating market rate apartments into subsidized and tax-credit assistance units. This reflects SAHA’s transition towards exclusively mixed-income projects, as opposed to the “obsolete premise of warehousing low-income families,” according to SAHA Policy, Planning, and Public Affairs Officer Melanie Villalobos.

“We have found that mixed-income communities improve the well-being of low-income households, creates opportunities for interaction between individuals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and increases community safety,” said Lourdes Castro Ramirez, SAHA’s president and CEO.

Unlike the gentrification of the broader Eastside, which is pushing some lower-income residents out, Sutton Oaks is only offering a quarter of the units at market rate. Half of the apartments are “affordable,” which are funded with tax credits for those making less than 50 percent or 60 percent of the city’s median income. The remaining quarter is “subsidized,” targeted those making 30 percent or below median income.

30-50% AMI Public Housing

50% AMI Tax Credit

60% AMI Tax Credit

Market Rate

Bedrooms

Units

Rent

Units

Rent

Units

Rent

Units

Rent

One

5

$288

2

$518

30

$633

11

$750

Two

35

$343

15

$619

32

$757

18

$850

Three

7

$394

7

$713

24

$873

14

$1,025

Four

2

$448

1

$794

2

$972

3

$1,100

Chart: Prices for the Park at Sutton Oaks apartments gathered from their leasing office. AMI = Area Median Income

Some money for the Park at Sutton Oaks was from HUD “Replacement Housing Factor Funds,” which is only awarded to pay for replacing defunct public housing. Agreeing to demolish Wheatley Courts was a precondition to get the HUD funding, and in a symbolic gesture, the pulverized concrete from Wheatley Courts will become a walkway to the new complex.

The complex is state-of-the-art, with superior energy efficiency standards and Build San Antonio Green Level II certifications.

“The more SAHA pushes towards sustainability, the more other housing developments get pushed. The eventual goal, of course, is a net zero impact city,” said Beth Keel, sustainability initiatives liaison at SAHA.

“Sutton Oaks is just a snippet of what’s to come from the 13-acre Wheatley redevelopment. The whole neighborhood will be a LEED Neighborhood Development with an intention of a platinum rating and the ultimate goal of a net-zero city,” Keel said. That neighborhood development is SAHA’s new focus. At Sutton Oaks, they are building a big community garden and amphitheater right in the center of the complex.

When completed, the garden will have seventeen raised beds, fruit trees, berry plants, and herbs.  Sutton Oaks will feature SAHA’s 12th community garden, but it will be the largest by far.  It’s intended to teach kids living at the complex how to grow their own food.

“A lot of these kids have never experienced gardening, they have no idea where vegetable gardens come from, so this garden will be a way that they can reconnect,” she said.

Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.
Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

“A trip to the closest supermarket by bus takes 45 minutes both ways,” said Sutton Oaks Director of Activities Victor Zuniga. “A quick trip outside to the garden may change the minds of some residents about where we should get our food.”

That’s because the northern Eastside is a food desert. The garden is a step in the right direction, but it will only be a minor nutritional supplement for the 1700 residents. The rest of the often barren Eastside will have to provide for the vast majority of Sutton Oaks.

This is a common theme with Sutton Oaks, which has used huge amounts of initial investment capital to build infrastructure that SAHA is hoping the community will expend time and energy to maintain. Sutton Oaks wants to be a fully functioning community while being adjacent to the highway and standing an equal distance (one mile) to oilfield chemical manufacturer Frac-Chem and its closest natural area, Salado Creek Greenway.

If the Eastside is to develop as a neighborhood, then the surroundings will have to feature hospitable locations for residents to buy their essentials and enjoy themselves. Housing complexes, and the infrastructure that follows due to grants, must be accompanied by a community that is much harder to construct.

Still, SAHA’s mixed-income housing and the broad applicability of the new federal grants demonstrates a lot of institutional foresight.  This week, SAHA announced a weekly shuttle to H-E-B for Sutton Oaks residents, and the plans for Sutton Oaks were actually a crucial factor for receiving the HUD Choice Neighborhood Grant. SAHA and the city are stacking the deck to ensure the Eastside’s development.

Still, infrastructure is necessary but insufficient for a robust community. The rest of the work in building a livable Eastside must be done by entrepreneurial and altruistic residents. Giving them a great place to live is a good starting point.

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.

“I think we’ll be a lighthouse for the Eastside development,” Victor told me as he looked the Park at Sutton Oaks over with pride.

The final open volunteer day for the community garden is this Saturday, May 17. Anyone interested can show up to Sutton Oaks at 9:30 a.m.

The ribbon cutting for the full Sutton Oaks complex (1010 Locke Street) is open to the public, featuring Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, and Mayor Julián Castro. It will be on May 31 at 10 a.m.

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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.