With a unanimous vote, City Council approved a contentious zoning change that will allow a residential learning center for impoverished women to be built on the city’s West Side.

“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,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), whose district includes the property at 2318 Castroville Road.

YWCA San Antonio plans to build a “live and learn center” to serve women ages 17 to 25 who are unemployed and not in school, women with young children or who are aging out of foster care, said Francesca Rattray, CEO of the nonprofit. The former St. Andrew’s Convent will house about 25 women semi-permanently — up to four years — in dorm-style rooms at a time until they can become independent.

“This project aligns perfectly with the city’s … domestic violence [goals], the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan and the workforce training program,” Castillo said.

The 9-acre property will be rezoned from multifamily to commercial with conditional use for a human services campus. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) did not attend the vote.

A site plan shows the future layout of the Women’s Live and Learn Center.
A site plan shows the future layout of the Women’s Live and Learn Center. Credit: Courtesy / YWCA

Area neighborhood associations asked for council to delay its vote to allow for more resident awareness and to solidify an agreement that, should YWCA San Antonio sell the property, the property won’t become a homeless shelter or other use permitted in human services campuses.

Rattray said the nonprofit would apply deed restrictions to prohibit uses such as emergency sheltering, animal care or alcohol and drug abuse services.

Velma Peña, president of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood was concerned that even with those restrictions, it would be up to the neighbors to sue a future owner if they violate the agreement.

“The city does not enforce these deed restrictions,” Peña told the San Antonio Report after the meeting. “We would have to hire a lawyer … we don’t have money.”

But YWCA San Antonio has no plans to sell the property, Rattray said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Construction and rehabilitation are expected to start this spring and conclude in March next year. YWCA plans to form a community advisory council that will inform the site’s master plan for 7 acres of the property that are currently undeveloped. Any major changes to the site plan would require City Council approval.

A majority of the community advisory council will be residents of surrounding neighborhoods, she said. “I really do not want the process with the community to be contentious going forward.”

The neighborhood has no problem with the YWCA’s mission to help women, but the neighborhood engagement process was flawed, Peña said. “All we wanted to do as neighborhood presidents was do our due diligence right by the community, that they knew exactly what was going to transpire.”

YWCA, the city’s development department, Castillo and the neighborhood associations have hosted at least 10 meetings about the project since January. The councilwoman and her staff canvassed the surrounding neighborhood three times and knocked on an estimated 150 doors, a District 5 spokesperson said.

Corin Reyes, director of health equity for the YWCA, left, speaks with a resident on Thursday as they block walk to garner support for the nonprofit’s plan to support impoverished women with housing.
Corin Reyes, director of health equity for YWCA San Antonio, left, speaks with a resident in February as they block walk to garner support for the nonprofit’s plan to support impoverished women with housing. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Residents of nearby neighborhoods residents have debated YWCA San Antonio’s proposed project since plans for the facility emerged earlier this year. Some opposed to the project cited concerns Thursday that it will function as a homeless shelter, bring loitering and crime to the neighborhood and ultimately lower their property values.

“Whoever told you that lied to you,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said to neighbors who spoke against the change. “That’s just not the way it works. These women show up to these very sacred places and do very serious work and they take it super seriously. They’re secure. These places are clean.”

The nonprofit plans to provide on-site child care, job training, physical and mental health care, financial literacy resources and homeownership training. There are also plans to build nine 600-700 square-foot homes on the property that might be available for campus residents to purchase.

“That is a model we’re still working on,” Rattray said. “We own the land; they would buy the building [and] stay there for a short period of time to build their credit and then be able to go out and buy another home.”

City staff advised against the proposed zoning change, saying it could have “adverse impacts” on the neighborhood and that the proposed use is not consistent with the development pattern — mostly single-family residences — of the surrounding area, according to a city report.

The Zoning Commission approved the zoning change in February.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org