Several local housing advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to tell Mayor Ron Nirenberg not to appoint former City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales as chair of the San Antonio Housing Commission.
“That appointment would be an absolute shift in direction from the direction that the Housing Commission and other related efforts are taking right now” toward more affordable housing and community participation, said former commission chair Jessica Guerrero, a longtime housing justice advocate. “[Gonzales is] not going to preserve what little progress we’ve been able to eke out within this structure.”
Gonzales, who represented District 5 for eight years, confirmed during an interview with the San Antonio Report that she applied for the position but has not spoken with the mayor about it since before she left office in June.
“Mayor Nirenberg plans to announce several appointments next week, but he does not plan to discuss them before the announcement,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a text. The mayor appoints all members of the Housing Commission.
Guerrero, housing advocate Sofia Lopez, and Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center pointed to Gonzales’ performance on the San Antonio Housing Trust. As a member of that board, Gonzales supported public-private partnerships that produced rental units that were unaffordable for poorer residents.
The Trust provides subsidies to private developers if they reserve a portion of units for low-income residents.
“Shirley Gonzales is not the affordable housing champion we need,” Lopez said.
She said she heard a rumor that Gonzales, who served the maximum four terms on Council, would be given the two-year, unpaid position.
The modern Housing Commission serves as a public oversight board to guide the implementation of the Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force’s recommendations and to engage the public. The commission provides advice and recommendations to City Council on affordable housing issues and policies.
Guerrero said she met with Nirenberg right before the press conference.
“I was just informed by the mayor that he will not be reappointing me as chair,” she said. Her term expired in May. “I’m happy to move on, as long as … the new chair is someone who will continue to move the commission and all of these other related efforts in the direction that we so painstakingly have been able to move them towards.”
The mayor “didn’t ask me for recommendations,” she told the San Antonio Report after the press conference.
Activists cited Gonzales’ support of the now-defunct redevelopment of the Alazán Courts, a Westside historic San Antonio Housing Authority complex; Tampico Lofts, a new, 200-unit Housing Authority development on the West Side; and the Friedrich Lofts on the East Side, among others, as cause for concern. These projects will inevitably lead to higher property taxes and resident displacement, Lopez said. The group wants to see projects that promote more sustainable, affordable housing.
The Housing Trust and its related entities have supported nearly 9,500 housing units that are already built or planned with various income restrictions. Of those, nearly half are reserved for residents who make 60% or less of the area median income (AMI), but just 207 (a little over 2%) of those units were reserved for the city’s poorest residents who earn 30% of the AMI or less.
Gonzales said she found the opposition “so strange.”
While on Council, she said she was always looking for ways to boost affordable housing. Gonzales supported the Housing Task Force’s recommendations, initiated a pilot program for affordable housing and another pilot program to fix up shotgun houses, and started a home title clearance program.
Her work on the Housing Trust is often misrepresented, she said.
“Many of those projects, especially in the Housing Trust, were routinely presented as economic development projects” that were not focused solely on affordability, Gonzales said. “Originally we were not doing deep, affordable projects.”
If appointed, she said she would “continue to listen to the community and try to really focus our efforts on [producing units for people who earn] 50% and below [ the area median income] because it has not been the focus for many, many years.”
Her potential role on the commission would be very different from her work on Council.
“I would be acting … mostly as a representative of the mayor,” she said.
But that’s part of what concerns housing activists.
“The last thing that I want to see — or any of the people in my community want to see — is some kind of political back-scratching, whereby Ron is looking out for his political future, [and] he’s looking out for the political future of his ally,” Lopez said.