Imagine an invitation to buy an empty lot in Lavaca, one of San Antonio’s most desirable inner city residential neighborhoods, at an affordable price designed to attract first-time home owners of modest income.
Now, imagine 26 such residential lots, all located on a single street within half a mile of the Tower of the Americas and Southtown. It’s about to happen.
Sometime this month, the San Antonio Housing Authority will offer 26 housing lots, prime Lavaca real estate, for sale. The lots, located on Leigh Street, are on the back side of the former Victoria Courts housing project, which now includes two multifamily apartment complexes, Hemisview Village and Refugio Place, as well as 28 townhomes at Artisan Park.
The San Antonio Housing Authority will be selling off the lots in the next 30 days, and five of the properties are reserved for those making between 80 and 120 percent of the average median income, or $40-70,000.
Leigh Street, and Victoria Courts in general, wasn’t always so desirable. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Victoria Courts was 36 acres of unattractive, crime-ridden public housing. Then in 1999, SAHA relocated the residents and demolished the complex.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development awarded SAHA a HOPE Grant of nearly $19 million. With the funds, SAHA made plans to build mixed-income, multifamily complexes and townhomes in a departure from the traditional centralized public housing project.
Victoria Courts and Leigh Street are aimed at multiple income brackets. In addition to the five Leigh Street properties for buyers with set income levels, Refugio Place has 50 percent affordable housing (60 percent of AMI), and Hemisview Village reserves 25 percent of its units for the same income level tenants.
Those figures are lower than other SAHA projects, such as Sutton Oaks on the Eastside, which reserves 75 percent of its units for affordable housing. SAHA officials say the goals are different in Lavaca, where its goals are more driven by the SA2020 agenda of attracting more young professionals to live downtown.
More high-income residents at the location where Southtown meets downtown means more money spent in both locations, and potentially less crime to deter visitors. For a city on the rise, strengthening the residential community directly around Hemisfair Park is seen as an important step in developing the area to its full economic potential.
Some are skeptical of the community that emerges from such rapid and centralized development, especially in historic neighborhoods such as Lavaca. One Lavaca resident who asked to remain anonymous said, “They want an instant organic neighborhood that seems like it fits in, but the instant nature may make it impossible.”
Other residents are more optimistic. Laurel Smyth, who purchased a townhome in Artisan Park as part of the Victoria Courts development said, “My neighborhood is awesome. I know everyone, and lots of us go outside to sit on the porch or walk to First Friday together.”
According to Smyth, SAHA has been responsive to residents’ wishes and supporting community building. For example, SAHA disclosed its intentions to turn the remaining Artisan Park homes into an apartment complex, but when the current residents protested, SAHA held several public meetings and reversed its decision.
While the Victoria Courts redevelopment is centrally planned and built, residents have retained lots of autonomy. Anyone who buys a Leigh Street lot will control the design of their home within these guidelines.
The final step in bringing the Leigh Street home lots to market was HUD’s “disposition approval”, the federal housing agency’s agreement that the Leigh Street properties can be sold off to the public because no HOPE grant funds were used. With HUD’s approval , SAHA is ready to welcome new residents to the neighborhood who as homeowners will have considerable influence over the future look of their street.
Water mains, curbs, and sidewalks are already installed, improvements paid for by the City of San Antonio and a TIRZ, or tax increment reinvestment zone, which uses enhanced property tax revenues to reimburse developers, like SAHA, for infrastructure improvements.
SAHA will list the residential lots through Kuper Sotheby’s Realty. Debra Maltz and John Barrera will be the listing agents. Interested buyers will submit a sealed bid for an individual lot to SAHA. SAHA Director of Development Bradford McMurray recommends that a particularly competitive bid will demonstrate a buyer’s ability to purchase. A purchase or mortgage pre-approval from a bank would enhance any bid.
“The intent is to create a competitive process, giving everyone an equal chance,” he said.
Once selected, a potential buyer will have 30 days to submit financing and 90 days to submit a rough draft of the home’s design. City approval will come within five months. Winning bidders will find themselves building homes within site of the Tower of Americas in the city’s oldest residential neighborhood.
If you are aiming for one of the more affordable five residential lots, you will have to go through SAHA’s income certification process, which includes submitting bank statements to verify income.
Those fearful of gentrification may view Victoria Courts and the sale of the Leigh Street lots as evidence of the wealthy taking downtown from the poor. Some might doubt the efficacy of the mixed-income model and see it as public entitlements interfering with free-market development. Both sides will find fault with the approach, designed to keep downtown a place for people of all socio-economic levels.
SAHA officials knew an open market approach would have limited sales to the wealthiest downtown residents and not contributed to a mixed-income community. They also knew a public housing project would ultimately prove to be a detriment to the vibrancy and security of the neighborhood.
Minimum bids for the Leigh Street properties range from $24-35,000, about one-fourth the market price of other Lavaca lots for ale, according to a random check by the Rivard Report. Winning bids, however, might be higher. The sales revenues, of course, will help fund other SAHA project around the city.