San Antonio’s largest and oldest public housing project is one step closer to demolition, the San Antonio Housing Authority board voted on Thursday. The decision drew ire from community activists who say the move would displace thousands of vulnerable residents of the Alazán Courts projects on the City’s West Side.
After roughly 10 months of resident input on the Alazán Courts redevelopment project, the board will vote again next year on whether to follow through with the plan that will take several more years to implement, officials said.
The 5-2 vote came after more than 4 hours of board member discussion and community member comments. Most of the nearly 70 people who signed up to speak pleaded with the board to reject even considering demolition or delay the vote.
Their top concern was that the temporary relocation of the more than 1,200 residents would leave many vulnerable tenants homeless as they struggle to find affordable or public housing in already strained systems.
“I believe we need to invest in people and not displace them,” San Antonio native Juany Torres. A similar scenario played out several years ago when residents of Wheatley Courts were displaced for the yearslong demolition and construction of East Meadows, Torres noted. “There are horror stories of people who left Wheatley Courts becoming homeless.”
She questioned SAHA’s ability to fund and ensure Alazán resident relocations.
“We must learn from our history and our past mistakes,” she said.
SAHA has learned several valuable lessons from previous relocation efforts, said Brandee Perez, SAHA’s chief operating officer. 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.
“We have made a commitment that our outreach to residents when it comes to relocation will actually start 18 to 24 months prior to relocation to a new unit,” Perez said. “We will be having meeting with our families starting to explain the options they have.”
During the Wheatley Courts transition process, SAHA partnered with several organizations to ensure their placement, but this time, the agency will centralize support, she said.
Outgoing SAHA President and CEO David Nisivoccia said that engagement will likely start even sooner this month and the agency plans on hiring more staff next year to assist with the process.
“We’ve got to make sure they are as successful as they can be, and we’re informed about what [thier] obstacles may be,” Nisivoccia said.
Residents will be given an option between moving to another SAHA property or using a Section 8 housing voucher to live in a privately-owned apartment or home, he said.
“Once vacancies start occurring [at other SAHA properties], we’ll basically put them on a freeze so we’ll have available units,” he said. Residents who choose the voucher option will be given top priority on the waitlist.
When SAHA first started preparing for Alazán’s redevelopment in 2016, the agency started looking for potential projects on the West Side to prepare, said Lorraine Robles, director of development services and neighborhood revitalization.
Its Mira Vista project, located further west on Culebra Road, will have 312 affordable units available when it’s completed in Spring 2022; Tampico Apartments will have 136 units in July 2022; Legacy at Alazán (formerly Alazán Lofts), which started construction this week next to Alazán, will have 80 units in May 2022; Artisan at Ruiz will have 102 affordable units online by the end of 2020; and the final phase of San Juan Homes redevelopment, Garden at San Juan, will have 252 units.
Not all of these units will be affordable to the average Alazán resident, whose yearly income is nearly $8,800, Robles said, but SAHA expects most residents will choose a voucher.
“We’re proposing relocation, demolition, and redevelopment in two phases,” she said. “We would not be moving 500 families out in one time. It would be years apart.”
A comprehensive survey of residents’ needs will be conducted next year to inform their moves and what they’d like the new Alazán development to look like. If the SAHA board approves of the plan, an application for demolition and construction will then be submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has the final say.
For many residents and community members, their protest of the potential demolition boiled down to a lack of trust in SAHA to keep their promises.
Leticia Sanchez, a co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association, said the Alazán residents haven’t been fully informed by SAHA on the challenges of relocation. The association has been working closely with several Alazán residents.
“Certainly our Alazán residents deserve better quality housing, but not at the expense of losing their homes,” Sanchez said. “The reality is that there is not sufficient public housing in San Antonio to accommodate all of the residents that [will be] displaced.”
Board chair Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman said that while there had been several previous meetings about the project, it’s clear that SAHA has not provided enough information to the residents and the public about its plans.
“What we don’t want is fear in the community and that’s what we’ve heard today,” Guzman said. “We need to understand that and we need to really show the community that this is a new SAHA.”
Guzman and several other commissioners started their tenure on the board this or last year.
“We are intentionally not going to commit the errors of the past,” she added. “We plan to do better in communicating, including the community, and being able to provide the West Side a housing area where they can proud and the children can be proud.”
Several current Alazán residents who spoke during the meeting said they were looking forward to the redevelopment, including Janet Garcia, who said the deteriorating housing complex will eventually fall into disrepair and need to be demolished anyway.
“It needs to change, and it needs to change today,” she said.
Faced with a truncated timeline due to the coronavirus pandemic, SAHA officials said they had to act fast in order to take advantage of $44 million in federal bonds that was set aside for the agency last year. Those bonds, which expire at the end of 2022, only pay for the first phase of the project. The agency would apply again in two to three years for the second phase.
Others criticized the mixed-income approach that SAHA has taken with several recent projects, including Legacy at Alazàn, that involves partnering with private developers to offer both market-rate and affordable units.
“Evidence from around the country, and increasingly from here, is that the mixed-income model … used to address intergenerational poverty and lack of social mobility is fatally flawed,” said Christine Drennon, director of Trinity University’s urban studies program. “Couldn’t we be the new leader … to offer our own alternatives and determine how to maintain and keep public housing?”
But it’s still unclear how many families Alazán will house – if it will continue to be purely public housing, or if SAHA will implement a mixed-income model, Perez said. That will be determined during the community engagement process and through analysis of the neighborhood’s needs.
The single- and two-story units, built in the late 1930s, are too small and outdated to be renovated up to SAHA’s standards, said Hector Martinez, director of construction services and sustainability.
“Over the many decades there have been numerous exterior and interior upgrades,” Martinez said, but the cinder block walls have no insulation and make impactful upgrades, such as central air conditioning and other work, cost-prohibitive.
The new units would be bigger and energy-efficient, Martinez said.
SAHA plans to keep the historic on-site administrative building as well as one of the original Alazán units that will be used as a museum. Other possible new amenities include a pool and a playground.
While commissioners agreed that something needed to be done, commissioners Ruth Rodriguez and Olga Kaufmann said they needed more information before they could support the plan.
But Thursday’s vote was not the final OK from the commission to proceed with the project, attorney Jim Plummer explained. Rather, it approves the process to get the information that commissioners need.
“You aren’t binding yourself to any specific project or program or anything else at this time other than [that] you’re going to do some form of redevelopment,” Plummer said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do just to begin that process,” including resident engagement, architectural design, and relocation planning.
“We need that information so that the commissioners can make an informed decision about whether or not ultimately this project is the one they want to do,” he said.