San Antonio Housing Authority officials called on the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and other groups to end the “hate-speech-driven public display” in protest to the agency’s plans to redevelop a historic West Side housing complex.

In an open letter sent to Esperanza Executive Director Graciela Sánchez, SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia and board chair Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman cited comments at protests and in public meetings that associated SAHA with the Holocaust and used profanity. They also pointed out misinformation spread by the group regarding SAHA’s plans and policies.

“While we empathize with the Center’s desire to preserve traditional public housing, the deliberate negative and false rhetoric has ballooned out of proportion and is no longer productive to the community dialogue necessary to collaborate in preserving affordable housing in the near Westside,” Nisivoccia and Guzman wrote. “The community dialogue is essential throughout the city as the affordable housing crisis continues to ravage our city and cities across America.”

Download the five-page letter here.

During a march near the property under protest, Alazán Courts, on Nov. 21, people chanted, “SAHA lies, people die,” “mi barrio no se vende” (my neighborhood is not for sale), and held signs that read, “Stop the housing holocaust.” Nisivoccia and Guzman also cited an incident when an organizer called SAHA staff “Gestapo Nazis” last summer.

“No one has died and it is highly disrespectful and insensitive to the Jewish community to use such inflammatory language,” they wrote.

On Wednesday, Sanchez said the letter was “unprofessional” for singling her out and “is just deflecting from the well-grounded criticisms of the policies and practices of SAHA. They can attack us and deny us, that’s typical, but they’re not responding to the concerns people have of SAHA going back several years.”

She plans on crafting a formal response in partnership with other organizations this week.

The protests and presence at public meetings were organized by a coalition of groups, including Esperanza, the Historic Westside Residents Association, the Party for Socialism and Liberation San Antonio, and San Antonio Tenants Union.

“We all collaborate,” Sanchez said.

A march and car caravan of protestors make their way down South Flores from SAHA to protest outside of the home of David Nisivoccia, the CEO of SAHA in November. Credit: Bria Woods for the San Antonio Report

She did not endorse the comparison to Nazi Germany or the Holocaust, but said protesters were exercising their freedom of speech.

“People say what they need to say and it’s within their rights,” she said. “There are major consequences [to displacement] including death, including homelessness.”

Nisivoccia and Guzman also challenged Sanchez’s credentials as a West Side resident and claimed most of the residents association was comprised of her family members.

While Sanchez recently moved near her parents after living in Southtown for decades, she noted, “I am a fourth-generation Westsider.”

Sanchez founded the Esperanza Center in 1987 with Chicana activists. It facilitates cultural art events and aims to preserve and protect San Antonio’s unique history. Its headquarters are located on San Pedro Avenue just north of downtown, but it operates Rinconcito de Esperanza as a hub for its West Side activities, including an artist studio blocks away from Alazán.

“How dare they talk about where I live or don’t live?” she said. “The only people that are members of the residents association are residents.”

More than 1,200 residents live in Alazán Courts, the city’s largest and oldest public housing project, which is slated for demolition and redevelopment in the coming years. SAHA plans to temporarily relocate residents while it reconstructs the 80-year-old complex with updated amenities. It announced its plan to demolish the housing project in 2017 and has since held several public meetings.

Esperanza and the Historic Westside Residents Association, which is co-chaired by Sanchez’s sister, have led protests calling for SAHA to instead renovate the complex. They claim that SAHA’s plan will put vulnerable tenants at a high risk for homelessness, gentrify the West Side, and decrease affordable housing stock.

SAHA has several projects in the pipeline that are slated to accommodate Alazán residents, who have varying incomes below 80 percent of the average median income (AMI), during demolition and construction.

“In total, SAHA is building 1,082 new affordable units in the Westside which will be ready for Alazan residents to temporarily relocate to in 2022,” Nisivoccia and Guzman wrote. SAHA is planning to build the new Alazan Courts in two phases and current residents will have first-choice on whether to move back.

Sanchez and some tenants are not convinced that plan will work.

Protestors have pointed to the unsuccessful re-housing of all residents after the demolition and construction of the East Meadows project on the East Side as an example of what could happen at Alazán.

“They haven’t proved to us that they [can be] successful,” Sanchez said, adding that the residents could lose access to social networks and services offered by nonprofits built up around Alazán.

SAHA officials acknowledged during a board meeting in November that valuable lessons were learned from that effort. The main lesson was to engage with residents much earlier in the process to make sure they have what they need to move —relocation assistance, an understanding of new rental terms, and repayment plans if residents are in arrears, said Brandee Perez, SAHA’s chief operating officer.

Nearly 70 people signed up to speak during that meeting. Some current residents spoke in favor of rebuilding the aging complex, which SAHA officials have said would be too costly and inefficient to renovate. Most, however, pleaded with the board to reject even considering demolition or delay the vote, including current Alazán residents and Jessica Guerrero, chair of the City’s Housing Commission.

“SAHA’s current timeline will accelerate housing instability … [and] decrease our city’s … precious supply of affordable housing,” said Guerrero, a workers and tenants rights activist.

In their letter, Nisivoccia and Guzman refuted similar claims from Sanchez.

“Once the new Alazan Courts are built into a mixed-income community, units available to rent will be affordable for residents receiving housing assistance and will include others who cannot afford market rate or qualify for housing assistance,” they wrote. “To help the families with the lowest income and to have enough funds to operate the property, new communities have to have some units with higher rental units to offset the costs. We aim to provide affordable housing for all residents, between the 30% – 80% AMI levels.”

SAHA started pursuing partnerships with private developers to build mixed-income projects in the early 2000s. Those projects generate revenue to subsidize very low-income housing, maintain its existing buildings, sustain resident service programs, and build up SAHA’s reserve fund, said Nisivoccia, who will leave to take a job in Denver next month.

SAHA took this mixed-income approach with Legacy at Alazàn, which will include 88 units. Of those, 48 will be public housing, eight will be market-rate apartments, and the rest will be allocated for renters making a fraction of the area’s median income.

The true motivation of this approach is profit for developers who want to sell units in up-and-coming neighborhoods, Sanchez said. Alazán Creek improvements are expected to be complete next year and more development on the West Side is expected.

“A wealthy person should live next door to [a poor person so they] can learn to be better? It’s an insult,” she said. “That’s the excuse they use so they can demolish and displace.” 

But private developers, if engaged for the project, will not own Alazán, Nisivoccia and Guzman said.

“We know it is fairly provocative to use the word gentrification but that is not what is happening at the Alazan Courts or near Westside,” they wrote. “The very definition of gentrification inherently means a for-profit-driven act to bring wealthier individuals to a neighborhood. The new Alazan Courts will still house low-income SAHA residents seeking affordable housing and it will still be owned by SAHA, a non-profit organization providing public and subsidized housing.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org