San Antonio and Bexar County now have millions of dollars to spend on housing paired with on-site services for chronically homeless people — but it’s unclear where that housing will go.

Even while there is a clear need and desire to house a community’s most vulnerable residents, advocates say neighborhoods across the U.S. have a long history of not-in-my-backyard attitudes that often prevent such projects from being developed.

Opponents of homeless housing projects often cite increased crime and lower property values when opposing projects in their neighborhoods.

A study performed by the San Antonio chapter of Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), a housing funder that consults for the city, demonstrated the need for 1,000 more units of this type — and the city has incorporated that number in its 10-year affordable housing plan.

Between the City of San Antonio’s voter-approved housing bond and the city’s and Bexar County’s federal coronavirus relief funding, the region now has $42.5 million to spend on permanent supportive housing.

But where this housing will go remains an open question, as several recent permanent supportive housing projects were scrapped just this year, largely due to neighborhood opposition.

The San Antonio area has seen a 77% increase in its chronically homeless population since 2020, according to the annual point-in-time homeless count carried out in March. “Chronically homeless” means someone has been homeless for at least one year and has a disabling condition, which can include a substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability or chronic physical illness or disability.

A “housing first” approach to this problem is at the core of permanent supportive housing.

But housing first “does not mean housing only,” Nikisha Baker, president and CEO of SAMMinistries, which has nearly 180 such units scattered throughout the city. “We walk alongside all of the clients and our permanent supportive housing programs to provide them with intensive ongoing case management and supportive services.”

SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker embraces with Sylvia Becerra in her apartment where Becerra has been living in for about six months. Becerra was experiencing homelessness while living out of her car.
Nikisha Baker, left, is president and CEO of SAMMinistries, which manages permanent supportive housing across the city. The nonprofit recently acquired the Hudson Apartments, off Blanco Road. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The concept of permanent supportive housing means providing long-term housing for chronically homeless people, along with support services such as addiction and mental health counseling that does not first require treatment or a clean drug test.

Multiple studies in the U.S. and Canada have shown that kind of no-strings-attached housing reduces the number of people living on the streets and in encampments.

Done right, these housing projects are safe and beneficial for their residents without degrading the surrounding neighborhoods, Baker said.

But making that case to nearby residents is easier said than done.

“How people feel about where they live and what’s important to them about safety and security in their home environment is very different when you present the math that permanent supportive housing reduces … engagement with criminal justice and the health care systems,” she said, “and actually goes on to stabilize them.”

Simply presenting neighborhoods with the facts about safety and outcomes rarely changes minds, Baker acknowledged. “A logical response to an emotional reaction … don’t go well together.”

Opposition in Five Points

Earlier this year, a permanent supportive housing development of 80 small apartments on San Pedro Avenue was abandoned after significant opposition from the Five Points Neighborhood Association. The project was one of four housing projects supported by the $20 million neighborhood improvement bond from 2017 — and the only one not built.

At first, Franklin Development proposed a five-story apartment complex that included two- and three-bedrooms for people earning 60% of the area median income or less — which the neighborhood supported, said Abe Juarez, president of the association.

“We were like: ‘that’s perfect,'” Juarez said. “That’s what we want in our neighborhood because it’s been neglected for so many years.”

But Franklin adjusted its project to improve its chances for housing tax credits that are necessary, developers say, to make affordable housing projects pencil out. The new plan was to partner with SAMMinistries to provide permanent supportive housing for youth aging out of foster care and veterans, according to a project summary from late January.

“We went from the family dynamic to single-[room], efficiency, low-income housing,” Juarez told the San Antonio Report. “We are already inundated with that in our neighborhood, which causes nothing but problems.”

He pointed to the nearby Villa Tranchese, an 11-story apartment building for seniors operated by Opportunity Home, which just changed its name from the San Antonio Housing Authority.

“There’s a lot of drug activity and prostitution activity [there] and it’s just bad,” Juarez said, and neighbors felt the revamped San Pedro project would just attract more of that activity.

But these types of projects are exactly what’s needed to get people off the street and reduce illicit activity, Baker said Monday during a panel discussion hosted by LISC San Antonio regarding NIMBYism and permanent supportive housing.

Many tents are set up as shelter under the I-37 underpass near Brooklyn Avenue. Photos taken on February 13, 2021.
Low-barrier permanent supportive housing can help people living on the streets become stably housed by getting the services they need. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“If you couple [housing] with ongoing supportive services, individuals — even those who are chronically homeless — are more likely to remain stably housed and be considered less of a nuisance to a neighborhood,” she said, noting that 92% of people housed by SAMMinistries remain housed.

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1), whose district includes the San Pedro site, said he was supportive of the project, but it was withdrawn from consideration in February, before City Council had a chance to vote to support the project, a necessary step to be considered for the tax credits.

Bravo said he had hoped to see if he could leverage additional investments in the neighborhood that the association wanted to see, such as street improvements, a park, public art or another amenity.

The city, including elected officials, need to do a better job educating the community to “get some buy-in” before seeds of misinformation and fear are planted, he said.

Franklin Development did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but city staff indicated that they are still working on options for developing the site at 425 San Pedro Ave, where an empty office building and tire shop currently sit. The city owns the land, and Franklin has an earnest money contract to purchase the property, which is eligible for $2.65 million in reimbursements for site work, utilities, paving or other infrastructure as part of the 2017 housing bond.

If Franklin is not able to develop the site into affordable housing, the city’s housing department could start all over again with a new developer, staff said.

Failure at East Side’s Garden Inn

The city ran into a similar issue this summer on the East Side when it tried to purchase a motel and convert it into permanent supportive housing.

The Garden Inn off of North W.W. White Road had the right zoning, room for expansion and is on a bus route. Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), whose district includes the East Side, supported the project.

“So we thought: perfect, right?” said Melody Woosley, human services director. But a council member’s support is “just not enough.”

A local television news segment highlighted the project ahead of the first community meeting, Woosley said. “We anticipated four attendees at the first meeting and over 30 residents came.”

But attempts to educate the community about why permanent supportive housing is needed didn’t move the needle on support, underscoring the emotional component of NIMBYism.

“Even opponents of the Garden Inn [project] voiced that they want to see unsheltered people get help and housed. They just didn’t want it to happen there,” Woosley said.

Next time, she said. the city will focus on logistics, with better maps and renderings of the development, emphasize security measures and share examples of similar, successful projects in other cities.

The city won’t have to look far: Austin is home to Community First Village, a 51-acre master-planned neighborhood featuring hundreds of units operated by Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and Terrace at Oak Springs, an apartment complex with 50 fully-furnished, single occupancy efficiency apartments. Both have on-site health care clinics and case management.

The failure of the Garden Inn project does not halt San Antonio’s quest to house chronically homeless individuals. San Antonio has already launched a competitive process for developers to apply for the $25 million included in the 2022 housing bond for permanent supportive housing.

It’s possible that the money slated for the Garden Inn, which was part of a federal coronavirus relief grant, could instead fund a project that isn’t selected to receive bond money, Woosley said.

Towne Twin Village opens this fall

There are large swaths of land in Bexar County that would have been easier to find and cheaper to buy than inside Interstate Loop 410, but the Housing First Community Coalition wanted to build a permanent supportive housing campus near the people it already served, said Edward Gonzales, executive director of the coalition.

“Access to housing for the people served at Catholic Worker House and others living in encampments is nonexistent so it only made sense that we be inside San Antonio city limits,” Gonzales said in an email.

The Coalition was founded by volunteers and supporters of the Catholic Worker House, which has been serving homeless individuals on the East Side since 1985.

The Towne Twin Village will feature tiny, 500-square-foot homes, apartments and RVs plus amenities including an interfaith chapel, community garden, event space and health clinic. Once completed, Towne Twin Village will be the largest single-site permanent supportive housing campus in San Antonio. In November, residents are expected to start moving in, Gonzales said.

Construction continues on Towne Twin Village a housing first community concept of permanent supportive housing (PSH).
Construction continues on Towne Twin Village, which will include tiny homes and apartments, a chapel, community garden, event space and a health clinic. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio

He hopes that the project will demonstrate that a “housing first” approach can work — for the residents and the surrounding neighborhoods.

But Towne Twin also ran into its fair share of resistance, which was anticipated, he said, so the coalition made sure staff was available to answer the community’s questions.

Without communication, neighbors start to become suspicious, he said, and think “You’re trying to hide something.”

Now, some of “those very angry, very heated, very passionate neighborhood folks” are asking to participate in activities on the campus, said Gonzales. “If they hear that somebody’s talking negatively about our project, they’re the first ones to defend it.”

But some minds will not be changed.

YWCA zoning battle

Francesca Rattray, CEO of YWCA San Antonio, understands and respects where she believes the NIMBY mindset comes from: a deep sense of urgency and advocacy for where you live.

As the nonprofit prepared to open a housing and services complex for women on the West Side, residents pointed to the jail, Haven for Hope and other nonprofits aimed at low-income populations already located on the West Side.

YWCA encountered a significant “misinformation campaign,” including “flyers that said that we were going to be a methadone clinic and a migrant shelter — and that was just not the case,” she said. “YWCA has built a reputation of trust over the last 110 years that it’s been in San Antonio. And so it was painful to really hear what the community was saying about this organization.”

The zoning change needed to convert the former convent was unanimously approved in March by City Council, despite significant pushback from nearby neighborhoods. Council members often side with neighborhoods within their districts, but Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who represents much of the West Side, did not.

“Safe housing is pivotal when exiting an abusive situation or exiting the foster care system and into a more stable situation for one to empower themselves,” Castillo said at the time. “This project aligns perfectly with the city’s … domestic violence [goals], the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan and the workforce training program.”

While YWCA won the zoning battle, Rattray is not sure they won over the community.

“We have since reached out to the neighborhood associations to engage them in our work and invite them to several community events that we’ve had on-site and have not really received a response,” she said during the panel. “I’m not really sure even explaining what the project was and what it wasn’t really made a difference.”

Making the case over time

SAMMinistries, well seasoned in creating and managing permanent supportive housing, has learned the hard way not to overly publicize its projects, Baker said.

It recently acquired the Hudson Apartments off Blanco Road near its Transitional Living and Learning Center “without much public fanfare,” she said, “because when SAMMinistries acquired the Transitional Living Learning Center, now nearly 24 years ago, there was lots of public outcry.”

Castle Hills residents were concerned about the same things that neighborhoods cite today, she said. “Lowering property values, introducing elements of crime, all those kinds of negative stereotypes that go along with individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness.”

About 40 families call the center home and many of those Castle Hills neighbors volunteer and bring donations across the street.

“We have become a part of the community,” Baker said.

Political will and education about permanent supportive housing won’t always override emotions, but examples of neighbors who have changed their minds may help others change theirs, said Baker.

“The largest hurdle that we have to overcome as a community is education on what permanent supportive housing really is and what it means,” she said. “If we can do that, I think that we can start the shift to better understanding.”

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...