When City Council takes up the first substantive item on its agenda Thursday, you can be sure my neighbors will be present and accounted for. King William has a long history of what you might call aggressive civic participation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, neighborhood women stopped first a freeway, then a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers river project, both of which would have split the neighborhood.
In the late 1970s, the San Antonio Independent School District planned to fill four adjacent blocks with a huge food processing and distribution center. The King William Association got a grant from the Bexar County Historical Commission for an archaeological study, which led to the discovery of an ancient acequia. So we got a park and offices for the San Antonio Housing Authority, which swapped land with the school district for a more appropriate site elsewhere.
Later, the neighborhood association successfully took on the San Antonio Children’s Shelter, which was located on an otherwise residential street. The issue was not the children, but the adult who ran it. We understood that he couldn’t help that children whose parents were arrested for a variety of crimes were delivered to the shelter at all hours. But we did feel that he could, for example, arrange for the huge commercial trash collection trucks to perform their window-rattling job some time after dawn. Nor did two houses need to be razed for administrative offices.
And we got the City to ban the tour buses that rumbled noisily through the neighborhood. Some parked with their diesel engines running in front of homes to maintain air conditioning as passengers dismounted to inspect local sites. Some drivers were, to our amusement, inventive in the stories they would tell over loudspeakers. At least one announced that heiress Sandra West is buried in the side yard of her lovely former home in the 400 block of King William Street – sitting in the front seat of her Ferrari. It’s not true, of course. She’s buried in her Ferrari at an historic East Side cemetery.
Through these decades, King William has transitioned, which is to say slowly gentrified. What had been a decaying neighborhood in which modest cottages were sprinkled among once-grand mansions cut up into cheap apartments is now a vibrant neighborhood of once-again grand mansions and stylish renovated cottages. It remains a neighborhood with a wide range of incomes, but the range has moved up from Section 8-to-wealthy to middle-class-to-really wealthy.
It has also become a neighborhood of restaurants ranging from inexpensive Tex-Mex to pricey high cuisine, as well as art galleries and fancy popsicle emporiums. As a result, fights once necessitated by the fact that the neighborhood was viewed as disposable are now necessitated by the fact that it is viewed as precious.
So what is the fight for which my neighbors will gird at Thursday’s City Council meeting? It’s over short-term rentals – Airbnb, HomeAway, and similar platforms. One of the first items on the agenda is to pass an ordinance to regulate STRs that has been in the works for more than a year.
In the past few years, King William and the adjacent Lavaca neighborhood have seen short-term rentals quietly but aggressively infiltrate our housing stock. And with our location within an easy stroll to the River Walk, the Henry B. González Convention Center, the heart of downtown, and Hemisfair, we feel we are in danger of an explosion of STRs.
Some are in carriage houses owned by longtime residents who can well use the extra income to pay the increased taxes that have accompanied sharply rising home values.
Others are in the neighborhood’s many smaller houses, which have been protected from destruction by the strict regulations of a historic district. These are not occupied, but are rented out, often by owners who don’t live in the neighborhood. Many have realtor-style lock boxes, so the customers never even meet the owners.
They are, pure and simple, businesses. That doesn’t make the businessmen and women who own them evil. But it does make their interests as much contrary to the neighborhood’s as would any other business that took over the houses.
To understand the reason, ask yourself what makes a good neighborhood? The answer is simple. It is neighbors.
Very few of us choose to live in houses surrounded by commercial buildings. We choose to be surrounded by neighbors. Most, if not all, become friends. We can socialize with them, borrow a cup of sugar from them, keep our eyes out for them when they travel, and fight city hall with them.
In King William, renters are an important part of the neighborhood. It is how young people enter and become part of the community. My wife and I both moved in as renters in the early 1980s, before we knew each other and before we could afford to buy a home.
But now, at a time when San Antonio’s housing stock is lagging its growth, many of the small rental houses are becoming non-owner-occupied STRs. The economics are inescapable.
These are some of the reasons that the King William Association board, after hearing from neighbors, voted to oppose the City’s sanctioning of any non-owner-occupied STRs in our neighborhood. It was a consensus, but not a unanimous consensus. (Some have argued that regulations are an infringement of property rights. I have little patience for the argument. What has made King William so attractive to those who would monetize it is precisely that those of us who have bought homes here did so with the understanding that we would follow the historic district’s restrictions on our property rights – not the least of these is that we cannot tear down the small houses that are being bought up for STRs.)
The ordinance City staff is presenting to City Council divides STRs into two types. Type 1 is owner-occupied. Type 2 is not. There are few restrictions on Type 1, but the ordinance would limit the density of Type 2 units.
The summary sheet presented by the staff says no more than 12.5 percent of a “block face” could be made up of Type 2 units. In other words, on each side of the block only one of eight houses could be Type 2 short-term rentals. Read literally, any block that has fewer than eight houses on it can have no Type 2 unit.
It’s a compromise, but these days Washington reminds us almost daily of the limitations of government without compromise.
About 25 years ago, our neighborhood went through extended and intense negotiations over a very similar issue: the regulation of bed-and-breakfasts. We agreed to similar density rules. But these rules often were not enforced. Many of the B&Bs did not last, and others are now listed with online services such as Airbnb.
Because of the online services, the new short-term rentals appear more of a threat than the old-style B&Bs turned out to be. If so, this compromise will only serve if the new regulations are enforced.
Otherwise, we’ll have to man the barricades once again – even if weakened by having fewer neighbors and more moneyed interests lined up against us.