It’s a Catch-22: cities want to improve conditions by investing in historically underserved neighborhoods, but doing so increases the value of property in the area, which in turn forces out longtime residents, most often poor Hispanic and Black people.

As the City of San Antonio prepares to disperse $150 million to developers for projects that would add much-needed affordable housing, it is hoping to slow that cycle of gentrification by creating a mechanism for bond spending that would mitigate the displacement of residents from their homes.

A glaring example of that displacement took place in 2016, after developers received city incentives for a luxury apartment complex planned for the site of a dilapidated mobile home park.

The development followed the roughly $300 million redevelopment of the Mission Reach, which in turn led to rising property values along the San Antonio River south of downtown.

While the developer paid nearly $1 million to relocate roughly 300 people from Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, the move triggered community protests and ultimately led to the formation of the city’s first task force focused on neighborhood-level gentrification and displacement.

That broad acknowledgment of the problem led indirectly to the city’s 10-year Strategic Housing Implementation Plan, which has identified 95,000 households who struggle to afford housing. The new assessment tool is aimed at preventing that number from growing.

It’s a difficult task and the assessment tool, still under development, will not be a magic bullet. For one thing, while it may be able to identify neighborhoods at higher risk of gentrification, there are few potential remedies the city can deploy that would keep people in their homes as property values rise.

And while the city is just one investor in a large pool of market forces, and so can’t stop developers from investing private money in neighborhoods, it can be more thoughtful about its own investments, including denying bond funding to projects that come with a high likelihood of displacement.

“What we have heard from community over and over and over again, going back to the [2018] housing policy framework, and certainly in the [implementation plan], was: we want [the city] to be very thoughtful with your investments, especially in these communities where there is sensitivity,” said Sara Wamsley Estrada, housing policy administrator for the city. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this tool.”

Anticipating displacement

The assessment tool will be part of the review process developers have to go through to receive housing bond funds for their projects, but because it’s only a pilot, it won’t count for points but scoring committee members will consider the results.

Developers will have to answer three questions as part of the assessment tool’s initial screening:

  • Does the project directly displace existing residents?
  • Is the site located in a census tract considered “at risk” for displacement?
  • Would the project increase the census tract population by 10% or more?

If the answer is yes to the first question, the project will be automatically disqualified from receiving bond funding. That’s because Council has made its policy clear, Wamsley Estrada said, that “we won’t be funding projects that cause direct displacement.”

Indirect displacement is more tricky to anticipate, but looks like what happened with the Soapworks and the Towne Center Apartments, now called Soap Factory Apartments, which were purchased in 2017 by a Houston-based company after the city and county invested millions in what is now the San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

The new owners raised rents after remodeling some apartments, forcing some residents to seek affordable housing elsewhere — not a simple task in a city with a dearth of such housing.

If a developer answers yes to the second or third questions, their project will likely receive a more in-depth analysis by city staff for ways to mitigate the risk.

That could be on-site supportive services for those who live there or in the neighborhood such as child care or connection to job training, said Veronica Garcia, interim director of the housing department.

Ultimately, City Council will select which projects to fund.

Growing teeth

The pilot assessment tool doesn’t quite hit the intent of what she proposed, but Lawson Picasso called it “a good starting point.”

Picasso, who served as a housing bond committee member representing District 2, and will remain involved by serving on the bond oversight commission and a selection committee, suggested the amendment requiring the assessment.

She would like to see it used to desegregate San Antonio’s economically segregated neighborhoods by encouraging affordable housing development in more affluent areas with better schools, as well as more careful housing development in neighborhoods facing displacement.

“We can’t utilize public funding and public dollars to continue to [further segregate] … communities,” she said. But that means making the assessment worth points in the scoring criteria for proposals.

“Let’s give this teeth,” she said. “If [displacement] is part of your scoring criteria … it holds developers accountable to actually have to do something — they can’t just say: ‘oh, yeah, we’re looking at it’ and brush it off and just check a box.”

Limitations of data

San Antonio certainly isn’t the only city to struggle with housing displacement.

It is looking to California, and similar assessment tools created by the Urban Displacement Project, a research initiative of the University of California Berkeley and the University of Toronto. San Antonio will use similar data and methodology regarding housing costs, income, racial demographics and education level to estimate which neighborhoods are most “at-risk” for displacement.

The City of San Antonio used research by The Urban Displacement Project to start work on its own Neighborhood Change & Displacement Tool.
The City of San Antonio used research by the Urban Displacement Project to start work on its own Neighborhood Change & Displacement Tool. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

This map, which will use metrics from income to housing inventory and evictions, is still under development; several city departments are collaborating, adding and subtracting metrics in consultation with data analysts and other housing groups to fine-tune the map to get a snapshot of a neighborhood.

“During this pilot phase, we really want to make sure that we’re hitting the intent of the council and bond committee in this,” Wamsley Estrada said. “So we will be watching this closely as we go through these first two rounds of bond funding,” tweaking the tool as necessary.

Leilah Powell, executive director of LISC San Antonio, the local chapter of a national nonprofit that finances affordable housing and community development projects, called the assessment “a really good step towards a more holistic understanding” of housing displacement. LISC provided input on the assessment.

But the data don’t always tell the whole story of a neighborhood, Powell said.

“There are populations that are definitely disadvantaged, but because of the way data is collected … they’re basically invisible,” she said. “For example, if you look around the Medical Center, there is a very large concentration of immigrants and refugees but [some of] those immigrants are classified as white.”

The map could indicate fewer people of color in a neighborhood — which is an indicator of lower displacement risk — but those populations are still quite vulnerable, Powell said, illustrating that this kind of tool can inherently only go so far to address displacement and sustainable city development.

“Ideally, we’d stop putting ourselves in this reactive position,” she said. “Ultimately, it would be great if we could move towards guided targeted investments that don’t require this kind of tool, because we’ve already had a thorough analysis of the areas we want to encourage development.”

That groundwork has been laid through the city’s SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan, which identified areas of growth; its housing plan; and VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Vision 2040 Long Range Plan.

Powell cautioned against forgetting lessons learned from developing these plans and ignoring ones learned through the displacement impact pilot.

“We are really good at creating a plan and then moving on to the next plan.”

Mark Carmona, the city’s chief housing officer, suggested that the assessment — or something similar — could be used for other city funding sources beyond the housing bond, such as other bond categories (streets, sidewalks, facilities, etc) and the city’s annual budget.

At the very least, Carmona hopes that the tool gets developers and officials to “start thinking about displacement on the front end, not the back end.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...