Four years ago, more than 63 elderly and disabled residents of a downtown San Antonio Housing Authority housing project moved out of the six-story building that they called home. There were structural problems, interior rain damage, broken cabinets and appliances, and a deteriorating plaster facade. The building lacked a fire sprinkler system and an out-of-date alarm system.
After spending those four years dispersed among various low-income housing projects across the city, about 1/3 of the residents moved back in to the Lofts at Marie McGuire after a $6 million renovation. New and returning residents were given an official welcome at a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday, attended City officials, SAHA board members and staff, and community members interested in checking out the new digs just two blocks north of the Alamo.
Each apartment now features new energy-efficient appliances, windows, doors, cabinets, countertops, plumbing, fixtures, and more. All six floors and community spaces are wheelchair accessible. Distress alarms have been installed in each bathroom. The building’s renovation, designed by Alamo Architects, has been certified by Build San Antonio Green as Level II with an Energy Star audit showing a 59% improvement in energy performance. Most of the exterior of the 1924 building now displays the original brick.
A confetti cannon showered Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 1 Councilmember Roberto Treviño, SAHA President and CEO Lourdes Castro Ramírez, and other federal and local leaders, and long-time resident Esmael Suarez, who said the renovation was “awesome, a 100% improvement. It’s safer, comfortable, and peaceful.”
Suarez said the renovation has lifted a maintenance burden from building management. “Before they were too busy,” he said over the music of a mariachi band performing in the new community room on the first floor.
“I have to admit I passed by this project a few times and … didn’t realize it was a SAHA project,” Taylor said to the crowd after the ribbon cutting. “I was just excited to see that there was some work going on in the downtown area.”
The project represents SAHA’s commitment to preserving and improving its housing stock, which currently provides low-income housing for more than 65,000 San Antonians. Beyond that, Taylor said, “it also showcases the beauty and history of our community by renovating a historic structure right here in the heart of our downtown.”
Keeping downtown demographically diverse is also an initiative Taylor is close to.
“We’re now finalizing the work on the Mayor’s Task Force on Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods,” Taylor said. “We know that preserving and enhancing a variety of rental housing is key to one of our most important goals, which is building stable, mixed income communities that offer opportunities to all San Antonians whether they’re Millennials, working parents or even grandmothers.”
There is an especially long waiting list for the Marie McGuire lofts, which is now fully leased, said one SAHA staffer while guiding a tour through one of the units. There are 18 efficiencies, 39 one-bedroom, and six two-bedroom units. Applicants for Section 8/low-income housing are determined eligible based on their income. Rent is approximately $500-700, but a U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) grant knocks that down to $212. Most residents at Marie McGuire rely on monthly federal disability or social security checks.
“We need to pay more attention to the elderly and make sure that we do everything possible for those that have gone before us,” said Morris Stribling, chair of SAHA’s Board of Commissioners.
Treviño, whose district encompasses downtown, echoed the importance of accessibility.
“As an architect, I believe accessibility is one of the key issues of our time. We know that we have an aging population and we need to address how we create better (more accessible) structures,” he said.
The project was originally estimated to cost $4.5 million, but contractors ran into obstacles working with the historic 1924 building that was originally a parking garage – energy efficient windows didn’t fit, electrical work was complicated, the west wall needed to be reinforced, and a host of other problems. SAHA acquired the building in the late 1970s and has needed upgrades for some time, said Ramírez.
“Working together with HUD, with our board, with the architectural firm, we were able to get the project on track,” she said. Ramírez will head to Washington D.C. soon as she was nominated by President Obama to become the next Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing in HUD.
There have been only two female CEOs of SAHA in its 70 years of operations. Ramírez is the second. Marie McGuire, the building’s namesake was the first. This renovation establishes the lofts as a far better tribute to her legacy.
A HUD Capital Fund grant funded the renovations.
“Updating housing for low-income seniors and the physically challenged also makes a profound statement,” said Pat DiGiovanni, CEO of Centro San Antonio. “Quality housing that provides safe, clean, and efficient physical environment and affordable rents should be the standard throughout the entire community … that’s what’s going to distinguish us from other places around the country.”
*Featured/top image: SAHA President and CEO Lourdes Castro Ramírez dances with long-time resident Esmael Suarez at the grand opening of SAHA’s Lofts at Marie McGuire. Photo by Iris Dimmick.