(From left) Mike Flores, Palo Alto College President, speaks on stage next to Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force Members Lourdes Castro Ramirez, Gene Dawson, María Berriozábal, Noah Garcia, Jim Bailey, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) at the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force Public Meeting.
(From left) Mike Flores, chancellor-elect of the Alamo Colleges, speaks on stage next to Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force Members Lourdes Castro Ramirez, Gene Dawson, María Berriozábal, Noah Garcia, Jim Bailey, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At least three-fourths of the crowd of about 100 people gathered at Palo Alto College on Saturday signaled general support for recommendations proposed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force.

The appointed task force will finalize a more condensed list of recommendations designed to help the City of San Antonio form a comprehensive policy, which will guide future development of affordable housing and help address issues such as gentrification and displacement.

The recommendations from five technical working groups are based on the overarching topics of developing and preserving housing for stable, equitable, and resilient neighborhoods; removing barriers to housing affordability and supply; creating a transparent, coordinated housing system for all, including special/vulnerable populations; and identifying new housing funds and finance mechanisms for housing affordability and supply.

“I created the Mayor’s Housing Task Force because I believe we must address the affordability challenge so that San Antonians can find quality places to live regardless of their income level,” Nirenberg said, kicking off Saturday’s meeting.

While City officials for years have off and on discussed how best to develop a policy on affordable housing, this task force represents the first time a group has come up with a comprehensive list of proposals.

“This truly has been unprecedented and historic,” said task force Chairwoman Lourdes Castro Ramirez, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Barack Obama.

The five-member task force recruited residents to serve on the technical working groups. Together, the groups spent the last few months poring over data and receiving public input to arrive at 26 recommendations. Details behind each recommendation can be found here.

The data, gathered mainly from federal government sources, reveal an increasing gap between the average household’s ability to afford basic housing and the rising costs of owning or renting most any type of home. The data also show that the local housing stock is failing to keep up with the growing demand of an expanding population.

The task force will next present the recommendations to the full City Council on June 20. Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) told the crowd Saturday that the new policy could help especially low-income and elderly residents age in place and withstand effects of redevelopment and growth, such as displacement.

The policy, he said, could contribute to a wider range of options when it comes to affordable housing for homeowners and renters in San Antonio, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

The federal government defines affordable housing as a living situation where basic housing costs make up no more than 30 percent of a person’s income.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) whispers to Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) on stage.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) whispers to Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) on stage. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In its recent budget goal-setting session, the Council acknowledged that affordable housing is a critical issue that must be resolved.

“We realize there’s going to be a problem with affordable housing, quality and stock, but there’ll be a crisis if we don’t get ahead of it,” Saldaña said.

According to Verónica Soto, director of the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, one of the biggest problems is that housing costs are outpacing incomes locally. The house price index – the movement of single-family home prices – has risen 109 percent over the last 17 years nationwide. That reflects home prices in all regions and impacts the consumer price index.

The median or average household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has increased only 36 percent nationwide from 2001 to 2016.

“It’s the affordability gap that we’re concerned about,” Soto said.

Editor’s note: The information for the data visualizations in this article was not presented by Soto. It was obtained from a presentation delivered to City Council regarding the 2019 budget.

According to the latest American Community Survey, the median household income for the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area was $56,105 in 2016. The San Antonio median household income was $460 lower than the median statewide household income, and $1,512 less than the U.S. median household income.

According to the HUD department, the average maximum affordable sales price for a four-person household in Bexar County is $180,700.

“But we know no new homes built in our community are sold at that price,” Soto said.

Neighborhood & Housing Services Department Director Veronica Soto describes the challenges of affordable housing to City Council.
Neighborhood & Housing Services Department Director Verónica Soto describes the challenges of affordable housing to City Council in August 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio metro area’s population soared to 1.49 million in 2016. From 2005 to 2016, the City recorded an average of 14,900 new jobs made available annually. During that same time frame, the city’s overall housing supply added 6,600 housing units yearly.

However, over those same years, only 12 percent of new householders were homeowners, with the rate of homeownership declining from 61 percent to 54 percent.

The challenge here, Soto said, is that many new arrivals cannot find housing affordable to them inside San Antonio city limits, particularly single-family homes.

So, those people move to unincorporated areas of Bexar County, small incorporated towns, and suburbs to find a better quality of affordable housing stock. In other words, overall housing supply is not keeping pace with population and job growth, Soto said.

So-called cost-burdened households spend an average of $330 more per month on housing than they can afford, Soto said. The federal government defines cost-burdened as families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, and may have difficulty affording basics such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

To that end, Soto said 21 percent of local homeowners, and 48 percent of local renters, are cost-burdened.

A few of the recommendations show an attempt to have all stakeholders – the City, housing providers, non-governmental housing agencies, and potential and existing homeowners and renters – on the same page on the issue of making affordable, quality housing more available.

One working group recommended creating a one-stop center, with a virtual and physical presence, that provides access and information to all housing service providers and potential users.

“We really see this process as a policy-making process and an educational process,” Ramirez said.

Ximenes and Associates, a local consulting firm, facilitated Saturday’s meeting, guiding attendees in instant polling on the recommendations.

With a remote clicker, people indicated thumbs up, thumbs down, or undecided on each proposal. A few recommendations garnered thumbs up approval in the 70th-percentile range. But most recommendations got audience approval in the 80-percent or higher range.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks to Gabriella Lohan, a COPS/Metro Alliance member, before the program begins.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks to Gabriella Lohan, a COPS/Metro Alliance member, before the program begins. Credit: Edmond Ortiz / San Antonio Report

Andy Sarabia, a founding member of COPS/Metro Alliance, encouraged attendees Saturday to rally support for recommendations by sharing their sentiments with their local elected leaders and City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

“I urge you to contact your Council person to get behind this,” he said. “We’ve got the mayor, who seems to be behind this, but do not forget the city manager. The city manager has a big say in all this. Together, we can put this over the top.”

A final affordable housing policy could include references to the City using taxpayer funds to support housing. The City charter does not currently allow for that and would have to be amended in a public election to provide that option.

The City’s Charter Review Commission has been asked to consider that and other potential charter revisions ahead of an amendment election this November.

But Nirenberg and task force members told reporters that the firefighter union’s successful petition for three charter election items means the housing bond, among other proposed amendments, may have to be put on the back burner.

“The self-serving fire union petitions are preventing anything productive from being placed onto the ballot for charter reform, including housing issues,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. In early May, Nirenberg said the fire union’s and other charter amendment items would not appear on the same ballot. “Only until the fire union petitions are defeated by the public in November can we proceed with putting citizen-composed charter reforms onto the ballot.”

Task force member Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers, echoed Nirenberg’s remarks.

“There are several initiatives that the mayor has going forward and those have been pushed back, and the housing bond is one of those,” he said.

“Not only that, those proposed amendments will prevent the City from doing long-term planning, long-term investments on issues on the horizon because they’re be subject to instantaneous referendum.”

The mayor and Council are due to get a final report and implementation plan on the recommendations in July. The final report would be released to the public during an August hearing.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.