José Martínez speaks at a Highland Park Neighborhood Association meeting at Bode Community Center.
José Martínez speaks at a Highland Park Neighborhood Association meeting at Bode Community Center in March 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The City of San Antonio’s Neighborhood Engagement Unit has a visibility problem, according to most of the neighborhood leaders who commented during a public meeting Thursday. They hadn’t heard of nor met a member of the four-person team.

The engagement team, established in 2018 under the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, is aimed at “working with the neighborhood associations to address their areas of concern,” according to City documents. It maintains an updated registry of neighborhood and homeowners associations as well as community organizations, operates a Neighborhood Leadership Academy that teaches residents how to navigate through city services, and – until 2020 – hosted an annual Neighborhood Summit.

“I had no idea that there were neighborhood engagement officers,” wrote Grace Rose Gonzales, president of the Keystone Neighborhood Association, in a letter to City Council’s Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee.

With more than 400 current registered associations throughout the city – up from 277 in 2018 – the housing officers are spread thin. Still, the team was able to present information at more than 250 community events, neighborhood associations’ meetings, and events citywide, said Veronica Soto, director of the housing department.

Before the pandemic, some community members raised concerns regarding neighborhood communication with the City and conflicting association boundaries. Some neighborhood groups share a geographic boundary with an association that is already officially registered with the City and therefore can’t register. That triggered a policy review. 

The team was about to launch a public input tour to find out how it can improve and what kind of resources and communications it could start providing when the pandemic hit last year. They were shifted to assist in the housing department’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program for six months.

But the engagement team started to resume its regular work in December by launching an input survey and hosting three virtual meetings that month.

Communication and education about upcoming development projects and policy discussions needed to happen more frequently and in a timelier fashion, according to those surveyed. They said contentious zoning or project proposals often take residents by surprise, sparking heated exchanges at commission meetings.

Preliminary concepts for the revamped Neighborhood Engagement Unit include an enhanced online notification system for developments, groups meetings with association presidents, a leadership mentor program, and regular roundtables with neighborhood leaders and developers. These could serve as workshops and provide technical assistance on topics like development, planning, zoning, and conflict resolution.

“This is preliminary. We’re still going to go back out into the neighborhoods and run this by them,” Soto said, adding the outreach would include collecting more ideas.

That includes the part of the survey that showed 67 percent of the 197 respondents said they thought neighborhood association boundaries should not overlap with those of another group. For the East Side’s Government Hill, that may prove to be another contentious issue. Government Hill Alliance is the official neighborhood association recognized by the City but the Government Hill Community Association, which often clashes with the Alliance, also seeks recognition.

Neighborhood leaders who submitted comments to the committee said the engagement team should do more to guide neighborhoods through contentious issues.

The department will continue to collect community feedback through March and return to the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee in April with a list of recommendations for the engagement team, Soto said.

The committee also received an update on how a $10.2 million Community Development Block Grant will be reallocated in the wake of the pandemic.

Pending Council approval next week, the City plans to allocate $4.6 million to enhance the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, $2 million for affordable rental housing, $1 million for homeownership development, $900,000 for owner-occupied home rehabilitation, $900,000 to maintain a temporary shelter for homeless people at a hotel, $425,000 for minor home repair, $189,000 for housing counseling and foreclosure prevention, and $159,000 to continue its eviction intervention program.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), a fierce advocate for the housing assistance fund who chairs the committee, said he would rather use the $3 million allocated for affordable rental housing and homeownership development toward the Emergency Housing Assistance Program.

Treviño acknowledged the need for more affordable housing, but “we don’t have enough money to even make a dent” in that need as compared to the ongoing eviction emergency.

A federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in effect until Jan. 31, 2021, but that doesn’t absolve tenants from paying back rent.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said the City should not pause work on affordable housing, noting that the current emergency fund should last through March and the new administration at the federal level makes her “optimistic” that more funding for emergency housing is coming.

She and Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan voted against Treviño’s motion to shift $3 million back into the emergency fund. Councilman John Courage (D9) voted alongside Treviño for a tie vote, but the motion failed.

The allocation is already on next week’s Council agenda and will likely be discussed again on Thursday ahead of its vote.

If the allocation is approved as recommended by staff, the City will have amassed $81.4 million for its emergency housing fund. A similar state program that starts this month brings that total to $87.8 million.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org