San Antonio residents are casting their ballots on a $1.2 billion bond program containing six propositions. Tuesday is the final day of early voting ahead of the May 7 election and, with this much money on the line, residents should show up and make their voices heard.
Before we vote on $1.2 billion of debt, we should evaluate these propositions with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially since contradiction appears to be absent in our local government’s push to get these propositions passed.
After reading between the lines of this bond program, and after hearing overly optimistic messaging in the past few weeks, I’ve decided to vote against propositions D, E, and F.
An experiment in housing policy
Firstly, let’s get something straight: Prop F is not for $150 million. In actuality, it’s the first half of $300 million. According to the mayor’s housing plan, voters will be asked in 2027 to approve a second $150 million for affordable housing (see page 17). I guess $300 million would have caused sticker shock to the voters, and it should.
Proposition F isn’t a bond proposition for affordable housing; it’s an experiment in housing policy based on an improbable and rosy outlook. In City Hall’s rosy outlook, there are no interruptions to the global supply chain of building materials, there is no inflation for construction materials, and there is no rising cost of construction in San Antonio. The rosy outlook makes us believe that $300 million would turn the economic tides on the increasing prices of Texas homes.
Those who propel improbable plans tend to hide any shortcomings behind messages that appeal to emotion instead of reason. In a recent commentary, Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) is optimistic that Proposition F will, among other rosy outcomes, address gentrification, nudge the market equilibrium of housing to a lower price, get homeless people off the streets, and prevent the local government from wanting to demolish another 626 homes.
When we listen to Ron Nirenberg’s State of the City address, we hear the same kind of persuasion. He uses emotional appeals to talk about “need” and this “compassionate” housing plan that would “help thwart rising housing prices.” Yet, the mayor presents no historical evidence to prove beyond a doubt that Proposition F would lower housing prices or achieve these pie-in-the-sky social impacts. Necessity or compassion are not predictors of future performance.
The current cohort of politicians in City Hall has this habit of making bright and sunny projections that turn into failed moonshots. In a recent example, the city set a goal to place 10,000 workers into jobs under the Train for Jobs SA program. Despite necessity and compassion, ambitions eventually met reality, and the $65 million program had placed only 1,484 people into jobs as of April 2022.
You see, the rosy outlook emphasizes looking forward because looking to the past would reveal the truth: high hopes seldom pan out in public policy, and elaborate housing portfolios don’t necessarily produce compassionate situations or affordable housing. But sure, the rosy outlook says it’s okay to borrow $300 million to gamble on uncertain futures.
Inevitably, when the optimism doesn’t pan out, the people who engage in the rosy outlook have special tools to hedge their bets and save face. A common method is to extend the length of a program to reach target numbers, but the insidious method is to measure success as vaguely as possible. When we look at the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan, which Proposition F will finance in part, we find that the 100-plus metrics for success are merely “suggested performance measures,” a convenient phrasing that allows someone to move the goalposts of success. This is on-brand for a city that hides its economic development mistakes after misadventures in unbridled optimism.
I’m voting no on Proposition F for three reasons. One, I am not persuaded that borrowing money on lofty affordable housing programs will address the root causes of rising home prices. Two, the city has yet to create free policy alternatives for the building codes, zoning ordinances, and land use laws that contribute to our unaffordable housing crisis. And three, Proposition F is a lavish expansion of the local government. The City of San Antonio is not a housing authority, nor a real estate developer, nor a nonprofit, and it shouldn’t act as such.
Propositions D and E will fund major projects for the public library, cultural facilities, and public safety facilities. However, both propositions will borrow up to $5 million to improve the assets of two nonprofit organizations. In Proposition D, $2.75 million will go to the Magik Theatre’s renovation. In Proposition E, $2.25 Million could go to K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit organization from Florida.
The local government has no business indebting taxpayers for any nonprofit’s capital improvement projects, and most reasonable taxpayers wouldn’t support these debts if these projects were presented as individual propositions.
But local politicians bundled the debt with more important propositions, and are thus holding the voters hostage. Basically, if we want to fund improvements for libraries, police substations, and fire stations, then City Hall expects us to spend money on their friends, just like what Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) is having us do for his friend, the CEO of K9s for Warriors.
I’m voting no on Propositions D and E. Sorry, libraries. Sorry, public safety. As much as I support you, City Hall decided to pamper their friends under the same propositions, and I just can’t bring myself to support them.
A good city is not just built with good yeses, but with great noes. Let’s say no to Propositions D, E, and F. Let’s say no to incurring debt for two nonprofits’ capital improvements, no to cronyism, no to taking the people hostage with dubious bond items, no to housing experiments that masquerade as guaranteed interventions, and no to borrowing money without clearer ideas of what we plan to do with it. City Hall needs boundaries, and the voters need to keep their local government in line.