As Ema Avila sat on her new couch, her daughter Layla, 2, practiced opening and closing the doors in their new home. One-year-old Alijah followed his sister, watching in amazement. He’s not quite tall enough to reach the knob. 

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

It was the first time the family had a home they could call their own.

The family moved into their new three-bedroom home at the end of November after spending two months helping crews from Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio build it. Avila’s Craftsman-style home is one of 167 in the Lenwood Heights subdivision off Acme Road north of the Los Jardines neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side.

Before that, she and her children were living with her mom and her sister on the East Side while her husband, Antonio Arizola, was living with his family. Arizola didn’t make enough as a store manager at Family Dollar to pay rent on an apartment that could accommodate the entire family, and Avila is staying home with the two children for now to save on daycare costs.

Avila, 25, was the first in her family to earn a college degree, a bachelor’s in criminal justice and psychology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She hopes eventually to attend the police academy and put her degree to work.

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She learned of Habitat through her sister, who had purchased a home through the organization, becoming the first in the family to own a home. Avila and Arizola thought that was the best long-term decision for their family, and despite the cramped and awkward living arrangement, they decided to wait it out.

Avila and Arizola applied twice before their application was approved to buy a roughly $80,000 home. Habitat builds and sells homes at cost while providing zero-interest mortgages.

“I wouldn’t be able to buy a home otherwise,” Avila said. “We literally would have had to live paycheck to paycheck. Having kids, I feel like you can’t live like that because you never know what’s going to come up.”

Ema Avila tends to her daughter Layla, 2, in their new backyard as development continues on future Habitat for Humanity lots. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Moving from a parent’s rental home to a brand-new home in a far West Side subdivision is not the typical path for low-income families.

While homeownership is a proven way to build wealth and economic opportunity, low-income families have been sectioned off through lending practices such as redlining and city planning rules. Consequently, they have been kept away from wealthier neighborhoods with better schools, infrastructure, food options, and health care systems. 

While house prices and rents have increased throughout the San Antonio area, incomes haven’t kept pace, giving those living in poverty fewer housing options.

All of this combined has systematically widened the divide between the haves and the have nots for decades, leaving low-income families in a generational spiral that’s difficult to stop.

Zoned Out

Zoning defines the terms of use – residential, commercial or industrial – for a certain property. And while zoning was established to separate potentially harmful commercial uses from neighborhoods, it also was used to separate non-whites from whites and wealth from poverty. 

“Our housing was developed under incredibly exploitative terms,” said Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University.

In the early 1930s, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored program used to refinance homes for homeowners facing foreclosure, was tasked by the federal government to review its lending practices based on risk levels in 239 cities, including San Antonio, which was surveyed between 1935 and 1936.

The HOLC created color-coded maps representing varying levels of credit risk. Neighborhoods denoted in red were considered “hazardous” for lenders and often consisted of older, dilapidated homes occupied by residents who had low incomes and were often racial minorities. People from these neighborhoods attempting to get mortgages were often denied, which inhibited their upward mobility and created a pattern of concentrated generational poverty.

Ultimately, that created the underpinnings of how San Antonio developed: poor residents and residents with means in disparate clusters, Drennon said. Today, San Antonio’s poorest zip codes are in the South, East, and West sides of town.

To break the generational poverty cycle, some large East and West Coast cities have implemented so-called “inclusionary zoning.” These rules require market-rate or luxury home developers to build some affordable units or pay into a public fund that develops affordable housing.

However, state law prohibits such mandates in Texas. 

“Sometimes zoning can suppress housing supply because it doesn’t allow a city to have more density,” said Veronica Soto, director of the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. 

In modern terms, density often conjures thoughts of mid- or high-rise apartment complexes, but according to Soto, what’s often needed to house lower-income families is the “missing middle” of duplexes, accessory dwelling units, and other smaller structures.

Low-density residential zoning on a lot – such as single-family – means the cost of that land is wrapped into one housing unit. Higher density allows the cost to be spread among more households.

What is “affordable housing?”

Affordable housing can have many definitions, but a general rule used by public and private agency officials is that if someone pays more than 30 percent of their income, then that housing is not “affordable” to them. Transportation costs – the time and money spent on getting to and from work – can also be associated with housing, raising housing costs.

The area median income (AMI) is often used to establish income limits for affordable housing units. It compares an individual’s or family’s income to that of the surrounding community. The AMI for an individual in the San Antonio region is $49,700; for a family of four it’s $71,000.

The federal threshold for poverty is much lower – ranging from $13,064 for an individual and $25,465 for a family of four.

But that doesn’t mean all those units will be affordable, said Cynthia Spielman, who serves on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition. It also depends on where they are located.

“The three-story condos [going up in urban core neighborhoods] aren’t being purchased by anyone living in poverty,” she said.

The advocacy group, comprised of urban core neighborhood association leaders and preservationists, was formed to provide a stronger voice in the future of their neighborhoods.

“Density doesn’t necessarily help affordability,” Spielman said, because even the densest development near downtown will still be able to rent or be for sale at higher prices because the area is desirable – and it will still drive up area property values.

Incentives should be directed towards stabilizing the existing housing stock, she added.

“The most affordable housing is the housing we have now,” she said, noting a recent local study that found homes built before the 1960s represent 33 percent of the households that make 60 percent or less of area median income (AMI).

Credit: Image: Bonnie Arbittier/ San Antonio Report – Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

A Changing Housing Market

In San Antonio’s modern real estate market, value is no longer tied to the size of the home or the lot, said Noel Poyo, executive director of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB). It’s also tied to access to amenities and a growing desire to live a more walkable, urban lifestyle. 

“Now the idea of living in a small shotgun home in the East Side is cool,” Poyo said.

As neighborhoods near downtown become more desirable, low-income urban core residents are vulnerable to displacement, he said. “The market is solving our reinvestment problem, but it’s not solving the displacement problem.”

Homes atypical of near downtown neighborhoods such as Denver Heights are being built on vacant lots and razed housing units. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Across San Antonio, home values are increasing and driving up annual property tax bills, according to the Bexar County Appraisal District. Rents are going up as well. Between 2008 and 2018, median rents in San Antonio increased from $860 to $1,002, according to census data compiled by Apartment List. The median sales price of a home in the San Antonio area increased by an average of 4.7 percent per year between 2005 and 2016 ($120,000 to $180,000), according to the City’s housing report.

Meanwhile, wages and income are not keeping pace. The City’s AMI increased by an average of just 1.9 percent per year ($40,100 to $49,300).

Since adopting its housing policy framework in 2018, the City has bolstered funding for initiatives that help low-income families buy homes, fix their aging homes, and find emergency housing help.

NALCAB contributed research to the task force and developed a vulnerability study, which identified affordable housing stock at-risk to rising prices. The two most at-risk types of housing were government-subsidized housing that is approaching the end of affordability requirements and so-called “naturally occurring” affordable housing that’s typically older or in less-desirable neighborhoods.

Homes that are located near downtown or near recent investments in infrastructure or amenities are especially at risk to fast-rising property taxes, the report found. 

Noel Poyo, executive director of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Because the increasing velocity of rising property tax bills in changing neighborhoods is starting to impact the middle class, the issue of housing affordability is getting more attention, Poyo said.

“In San Antonio, we still have this opportunity to be aware of how markets change and our public investments can impact the city,” he said. “We’ve got the time to figure this out, but we don’t have forever.”

In a perfect world, affordable housing would be available wherever housing is available, said Jasón Arechiga, senior vice president of Cleveland-based developer NRP Group, one of the largest developers of low-income rental housing in San Antonio.

“You don’t want to ignore the areas that are already poor” or the established “wealthy” areas, Arechiga said. “I think that’s a good goal, but we really should … introduce mixed-income housing responsibly.”

Residents of some neighborhoods don’t want to see any affordable housing nearby, because they associate affordable housing with the crime-ridden public housing projects of the 1970s and ‘80s, Arechiga said.

The NIMBY – not in my backyard – mentality isn’t as prevalent in San Antonio as it is in other Texas cities, he said, but there’s still a negative attitude toward affordable housing and density in some neighborhoods.

“Sometimes people couch their objection into traffic, overcrowding schools, tearing down trees, lowering property values, viewshed, drainage, or impervious cover,” he said, but it’s usually about not wanting low-income neighbors.

Removing Barriers

Since the housing policy framework was approved, a committee was formed to look for changes in the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC) that would make it easier for developers to build affordable housing.

The “removing barriers” committee, as it’s often called, is considering a number of changes, including relaxing restrictions on accessory dwelling units – smaller homes on the same lot as a single-family home, sometimes called “mother-in-law homes.” 

After the 2020 UDC changes, the committee also will consider how by-right zoning could be used in San Antonio. That policy would allow the development of affordable housing in certain areas without special review and approval from local governmental bodies.

To make constructing affordable housing financially viable, most affordable housing developers seek critical tax credits from local and federal governments that help subsidize such projects.

One of the biggest obstacles affordable housing developers face here is getting City Council to support their applications for those credits, Arechiga said. 

He would like to see that support be made automatic but is cautious of opening the market to predatory developers who would use the relaxed application process to build shoddy housing. The easier or more profitable it is to build affordable housing, the more low-quality builders will participate. 

“You’re going to get people in there that will just [think], ‘What can I do to make money?’” he said.

Another strategy to increase affordable housing would be to incentivize growth away from downtown and neighborhoods already burdened by increasing property taxes, said Jim Bailey, a local architect who is a member of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force.

“The decade of downtown is over,” Bailey said.

Neighborhoods proximal to downtown have seen an influx of developers as the City grapples with affordable housing, rising property taxes, and gentrification Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Instead, the City should expand programs such as the Center City Housing Incentive Program to 13 areas identified as regional employment centers in the City’s SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan, Bailey said.

“What this allows you to do is incremental development over time – it’s not this massive capital dump in this limited geographic area that [impacts inner-city neighborhoods],” Bailey said.

Most properties in these regional centers are zoned commercial, but the City could create a rule that would allow residential uses by-right on underutilized, commercially zoned property, he said.

Those housing development incentives should also align with transportation corridors outlined in SA Tomorrow and VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Vision 2040 Plan, Bailey said.

“Transportation is a key cost in housing,” he said. Someone could be saving money on rent by finding a cheaper apartment outside Loop 1604, but spending more on a vehicle, gas, parking, and the opportunity cost of a long commute to a job near downtown. 

Finding Stability

Funded through home payments, charitable donations, and government money, Habitat for Humanity acquires acreage wherever it can develop, said President and CEO Natalie Griffith, though it focuses on areas where it receives the most applications.

“We want to be where a large number of applicants live,” Griffith said. 

About 3,300 families applied for a home in 2019 and 70 qualified, she said.

Habitat requires new homeowners to participate in building their home alongside professional builders, plumbers, and electricians. This “sweat equity” provides a greater sense of ownership for first-time home buyers and teaches them some basic home operation and repair skills.  They also end up helping their neighbors with construction.

Building your own home is an “extremely meaningful experience,” Griffith said. “It’s pretty motivating and it’s pretty moving when you show up each weekend [to volunteers who are] there for the sole reason to help build your home. By the time they close, every family puts in about 300 hours of sweat equity.”

The home Avila built through Habitat for Humanity, and her sister’s, likely will be in their families for generations, she said.

“For as much as we worked to get it, it better be,” she said, laughing.

Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity has built homes with more than 1,120 local families. 

But filling the housing gap will take a collaborative effort between public, private, and nonprofit agencies, Soto said.

In 2016, the market lacked 32,000 housing units for people making less than 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) and another 2,400 units for people making less than 60 percent AMI, according to the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force report.

The more affordable units become available, whether to rent or to buy, the more stability families like Avila’s can find.

Avila moved around a lot when she was growing up in San Antonio, but she wants to raise her children in a permanent home.

“I went to five different elementary schools,” Avila said. “The rent would go up, so mom would have to find something cheaper.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org