Search the words “affordable housing crisis” coupled with the U.S. city of your choice and you’ll find plenty to read. Is there anything more challenging for local government than providing adequate affordable housing?

San Antonio, like all major U.S. cities, has a huge supply-and-demand problem. Public housing supply has declined steadily since the 1960s. Private sector developers now play the leading role in building affordable housing, and to make projects work, incentives are key, as is minimizing regulatory roadblocks.

That’s an issue coming to the forefront now as city planners consider 230 or more proposed amendments to the city’s uniform development code, which is considered out of date and which developers say can be an impediment to accelerating affordable housing starts.

Scarcity, of course, drives up costs. First-time homebuyers find themselves priced out of the market, while people who can least afford higher rents face the threat of eviction.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that, on average, nearly one-third of all U.S. households are renters, most unable to afford home ownership, and half of those households are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and thus considered “cost burdened.” The cost of housing is driving people deeper into poverty.

A federal moratorium on evictions enabled countless families to avoid disaster in the first year of the pandemic, and locally, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) extended the moratorium six times. The final extension expires Feb. 28. SAHA issued a Wednesday press release warning that 4,000 families risk eviction for nonpayment of rent once that deadline arrives.

The looming deadline seems potentially disastrous for families who earn less than $200 a week, or $10,000 a year, yet the total unpaid rent is only $5 million, or about $1,250 per household. Surely, a city looking to invest $3 billion in affordable housing over the next decade can find a way to ameliorate $5 million in debt that threatens to leave thousands more in search of housing they will not find.

Source: SAHA

The city’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program (EHAP) is set to close on Feb. 28, too, so it’s unclear where renters can seek assistance.

There are 58,500 families on the SAHA waiting list now, dramatically up from the pre-pandemic figure of 34,000, a measure of how many units would be needed just to meet the demand at the very bottom of the housing market. To put that number in context, SAHA directly manages 6,062 units at 70 public housing projects, while 14,162 families receive Section 8 housing vouchers to offset their rent.

There are an additional 3,644 units managed by SAHA within 27 privately owned mixed-income apartment complexes, and 5,332 units that SAHA and area nonprofits manage in 26 other properties.

Add it all up and the City of San Antonio aims to double the volume of affordable housing in the city over the next decade.

The city expects to spend $3.2 billion to build 28,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, with $150 million of that sum going before voters in the 2022 municipal bond. The latter sum will be used to preserve housing at risk of demolition, build more housing for the homeless, and acquire and build more affordable rental units.

In the city’s recently approved Strategic Housing Implementation Plan (SHIP), more than half of the proposed new units — 15,000 — will be rentals, while the remaining 13,000 will be owner-occupied houses. That comes to $114,285 per unit.

This table outlines the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan's targets for housing production and preservation by income level.
This table outlines the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan’s targets for housing production and preservation by income level. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

City Council’s December approval of SHIP came more than three years after it approved a long-term housing policy framework, a key initiative championed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

As ambitious as it all sounds, it won’t meet the city’s housing needs. New housing starts, both for home ownership and for rentals, simply cannot keep pace with San Antonio’s rapid growth.

No one anywhere seems to have found the magic formula, although cities everywhere are trying new approaches, especially since the pandemic made a bad situation far worse and unleashed a torrent of federal emergency relief funding to cities.

The challenge for San Antonio, assuming voters support the 2022 bond and continue to support the broader housing initiatives, is to take the necessary measures to make sure the affordable housing crisis and homelessness problem do not grow worse in the short term as the city emerges from the pandemic.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.