Verónica Soto, who was hired five years ago to lead the City of San Antonio’s newly formed housing department, will soon be packing her bags for Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
It was a career opportunity she couldn’t pass up, but Soto said she will miss San Antonio and her colleagues.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Soto told the Housing Commission on Wednesday as the group took a moment to recognize her service. But, she continued, “I’m only happy when I’m challenged — so I’ve been very happy here.”
Soto led the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department through historically challenging times, establishing a nationally recognized emergency housing assistance program in response to the sudden and overwhelming need caused by the pandemic.
Under her leadership, the department grew four-fold, created the neighborhood engagement team, a right to counsel program aimed at eviction mitigation, refinanced federal loans to provide more gap financing, made the case for tax increment reinvestment zone funds to be used for affordable housing and established a “risk mitigation fund” in 2019 that eventually became the Emergency Housing Assistance Program during the pandemic.
But steering the housing department through a global pandemic in a city that was already suffering from a lack of affordable housing was far from the first challenging curveball Soto encountered after she arrived in San Antonio in the summer of 2017.
A surprise announcement
When Soto, now 49, first took the job in July of that year, it was to oversee neighborhood engagement and implementation of the $20 million neighborhood improvement bond approved by voters earlier that year.
Just a few weeks after she was hired, however, newly-elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced the formation of his Housing Policy Task Force, charged to develop a “comprehensive, compassionate” housing strategy so the city could address its burgeoning housing crisis.
“[Nirenberg] didn’t tell anyone he was going to do that — I remember my bosses being surprised,” Soto told the San Antonio Report. Her role shifted to include facilitating the task force’s meetings with data and logistics.
That massive undertaking ultimately led to a 10-year, $3.9 billion set of recommendations. Soto was then charged with developing the implementation plan, which was approved by city council late last year.
“That task force really set the groundwork for the big asks of future budgets,” Soto said, allowing the department to grow enough to properly administer the ambitious housing plan, engage the community and develop additional programs based on community needs.
When she was hired, she had about 40 people on staff; now there are 165.
A sudden, then sustained crisis
Soto said the risk mitigation fund, established in 2019, laid the groundwork that allowed the emergency housing assistance program to be successful — but even with that foundation, no one was fully prepared for the tremendous, sustained need.
Immediate changes were needed to keep up with the thousands of applications pouring in from residents seeking assistance, Soto said. In April 2020, when the nascent program was using local funding, it took 45 days to send checks to landlords.
Soto worked with the city’s finance department to cut through some red tape and redundancies and asked city management for more staff to process applications.
“By the time that federal money from Treasury was available, we had a very well-oiled machine,” she said. Demand slowed slightly when vaccines became available last year, and some applications were processed in as few as three days.
The program has processed more than 103,000 applications and distributed more than $201 million to residents for housing, utilities, internet and cash payments, according to the program’s online dashboard.
A caring problem solver
Ian Benavidez, who will become an interim deputy director in the department when Soto leaves, said Soto’s skills reach far beyond city planning (she was a city planner in El Paso and New Mexico), interpreting policy and bureaucratic navigation.
“What’s more important is, she is a very good critical thinker,” Benavidez said, “so she was able to solve problems” for a city doing cutting edge affordable housing work.
She also fostered a culture of accountability and compassion, he said.
Throughout the pandemic — when most staff was working from home, disconnected from each other — Soto made it a point to call every single employee in her department.
“She took time out of her day to call and make sure everybody was doing well,” he said. “That’s leading by example and understanding that everybody in your department matters.”
“Vero will be missed,” Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told the San Antonio Report. “She … managed and developed numerous housing production and rehab programs for our community. More importantly, she developed a knowledgeable team that will continue the work she started.”
Veronica Garcia, the department’s deputy director, will take over as interim director until City Manager Erik Walsh appoints a permanent replacement. Soto’s last day with the city is May 6.
Buttoning things up
Soto was first approached by the Treasury in August last year. She didn’t say “no” but she did say “not now.”
“I wanted to make sure the bond was something that goes forward,” she said, and an assistant director had also recently left the department. “I’m not the type to leave things unsettled. I like things buttoned up.”
The Treasury recently created an Office of Recovery Programs to manage all funds related to pandemic recovery; Soto will serve as a director overseeing the department’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the Housing Assistance Fund.
Soto, who earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard and attended Princeton for grad school, has a deep connection to the issue of affordable housing.
“I know what it’s like to be displaced,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be homeless. I know what it’s like to live in a car.”
Passionate about housing
Born in El Paso, she grew up straddling the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Juárez and by fourth grade, I was in a poor neighborhood in El Paso,” she said.
Her family would eventually move back to Juárez after they were kicked out of a house after her aunt called code enforcement to complain about bugs in the rental house and it ended up being condemned. They had two days to pack up.
“My mom still wanted us to have an education, so we would drive to school in El Paso,” she said. Her 16-year-old brother drove, commuting for more than an hour each way with Soto, then 13, and her nine-year-old sister.
“It was not always worth it to go back [at night] so we would find a phone booth … call [my father’s] taxi stand and say we’re staying in the car. That’s what I did for six months. And I was the stinky kid in middle school.”
Those early experiences inform her approach to her work, she said: to have empathy, treat people with dignity, “and not assume we know everything.”
“I don’t want a nine-year-old Vero on the Southside to be like, ‘code enforcement kicked us out of our house.’ Or ‘a flood destroyed our house and now I’m homeless.’ It informed my work and it’s part of why I’m passionate about housing.”