In one of her last meetings as a City Council member, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) slammed a colleague on Tuesday for applying different standards to affordable housing projects based on their location.

“You get on the dais and you think you know what other people need, and it makes me furious,” she said at a Tuesday San Antonio Housing Trust Public Facility Corporation (PFC) meeting via videoconference.

Gonzales sharply criticized Councilman John Courage (D9) after he moved to approve a mixed-income housing project in his home district but pushed to delay approval on a similar project in District 2 named the Friedrich Lofts. Both projects include some affordable housing units for people making below the area median income (AMI). Courage sought to delay the project because it didn’t include as many affordable housing units as he believed nearby residents wanted. Gonzales took umbrage with that assumption.

“There’s no reason to delay [the Friedrich Lofts],” she said during the meeting, “and I can’t come up with anything else — that it’s just flat-out racism that you can have some things and we can’t. And I’ll leave it at that.”

After the meeting, Gonzales walked back the charge of racism, but not her main argument.

“It’s incredible hypocrisy to say that we need more affordability in our districts but he doesn’t need affordability in his,” she said later by phone. “His excuse is that the people that live there can’t afford it. And I’ve heard this argument a number of times, but the reality is that people in our community who do well for themselves have to leave because we don’t have quality product that’s market rate.”

Courage objected immediately to Gonzales’ comments. 

“Now that’s going across the line,” he said during the meeting. “That is definitely going over the line … playing the race card in this.”

Councilman John Courage (D9) speaks during a City Council session in February 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It makes no sense,” Gonzales shot back as Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), the board president, attempted to restore order.

Gonzales, who was the sole vote against delaying approval of the project, said she has spoken with Courage about similar issues before.

Had the Friedrich Lofts been in her district, Gonzales said she would have gone to Courage privately to discuss his concerns. But because it was not, she said she was surprised by his stance on the project.

“This is why we have such income segregation in the city,” she said. “… If we’re going to continue on that model and say that we can only have housing for poor people in District 5, then we’re going to continue with the problem of segregation.

“And that’s why I called it racist. That’s not exactly the term I was looking for; I think I could have articulated it a little better, but I wanted to get the point across that that’s bullshit. And I’m not going to let it go.”

Along with Gonzales and Courage, the PFC board is made up of three other City Council members: Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1); Viagran, who also serves as board president; and Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4). The board is a city-affiliated nonprofit that works to develop affordable housing in partnership with private companies, exempting property taxes on those projects.

This will be the last meeting for Gonzales and Viagran as they have served their maximum Council terms, and Treviño, who lost his runoff earlier this month. Treviño did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Courage argued during the meeting that developers should keep average area income across different parts of the city in mind. He said he plans to work with the Friedrich Lofts developer to increase the number of units that are priced for 60% AMI or lower.

“I know the community said they wanted development but I would imagine when those discussions were held, they didn’t anticipate something like this where only 14 units would benefit people who live in the community,” Courage said. “I’m sure their expectation was building something where maybe 30% or 40% of the people who live around there might be better able to benefit from it, not less than 10%.”

The Friedrich Lofts apartment complex (right) will be located behind and next to the historic Friedrich building (left) at 1617 East Commerce Street.
The Friedrich Lofts apartment complex (right) would be located behind and next to the historic Friedrich building (left) at 1617 E. Commerce St. Credit: Courtesy / Provident Realty Advisors

Of the 350 units planned for Ridgeline Flats, which the PFC unanimously approved Tuesday, 140 units will be priced for people making 80% or less of the AMI while 36 will be priced for those making 60% or less. The Friedrich Lofts, on the other hand, will have 165 units priced for people making 80% or less AMI and 14 for people making 60% or less AMI out of a total of 358 units.

“If we had more affordable units [in District 2], then somebody might be priced out of their house because the values of properties go up but they might be able to afford to move into a nice apartment in that area and stay in a community – unless everything is at market rate,” he said. “There’s a lot to think about.”

Gonzales said it was “unfair and disrespectful” to District 2 residents to delay the project, allowing the former manufacturing site of the Friedrich air conditioning company to remain “a blight” when a housing development proposal has already been vetted.

Pete Alanis, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Trust, recommended the project for approval.

“It’s been vacant for 31 years,” he said. “It’s probably going to continue to be sitting that way moving forward, so why not put that property to a use?

“I know that there have been a number of attempts in the past to redevelop the Friedrich and all of the attempts have been unsuccessful. We are as close as that property has ever been to a redevelopment opportunity, and hopefully when the new board reconstitutes itself maybe we’ll have an opportunity to continue addressing the needs of that community.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.