Mayor Ivy Taylor sits at the head of the table as she chairs the Mayor's Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods. Photo by Page Graham.

During Thursday’s meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods, a draft report was distributed and discussed. Most notable amongst the proposals was a suggestion to pursue an affordable housing bond in 2017.

City Center Development and Operations Department Director Lori Houston distributed the draft proposal to the committee members, the final form of which is scheduled to be delivered to the City Council Quality of Life Committee on Feb. 17.

According to the proposal, Austin and Dallas have issued similar affordable housing bonds in the past. A report by the Dallas Office of Economic Development claims that their 2006 $18.8 million bond yielded $94 in estimated private development, with 600 affordable housing units being built. Austin garnered $250 million in affordable housing development from a $55 million bond, in an unattributed claim.

Of course, a bond proposal like this in San Antonio would be subject to voter approval. Given the current political climate, whether a bond like this could pass is anyone’s guess.

Short-term objectives of the Task Force’s report include establishing:

  • A Housing Summit
  • A Relocation Assistance Policy
  • A Tenant Council (either an existing or new organization)
  • A commission to track implementation of task force recommendations

Long-term, the Task Force recommends:

  • That the City implement an inclusionary housing policy
  • An affordable housing bond program for 2017
  • A policy for alternative housing types to encourage affordability that includes code amendments

Task Force feedback was solicited by Houston, which is comprised of both Council members and citizens from stakeholder organizations and communities. Mayor Ivy Taylor indicated she didn’t think the Mission Trails residents would have been eligible for the Relocation Policy, but Houston indicated otherwise. Task Force member Rod Radle wanted the city to do a better job of notifying tenants of a pending rezoning.

CCDO Director Lori Houston presents the draft report to the Task Force. Photo by Page Graham.
CCDO Director Lori Houston presents the draft report to the Task Force. Photo by Page Graham.

A presentation about the tenants’ council proposal was made by a City Planning and Community Development Department staff member. These councils were developed to communicate tenant issues with landlords. The Austin Tenants’ Council, which started in 1972, was discussed. Over the last 20 years, its primary source of funding has come from federal Fair Housing organizations. As such, it isn’t currently operating like a tenants’ council, but rather a fair housing advocacy group.

According to the presentation, there are currently two programs in San Antonio that provide similar services: the City-run Housing Counseling Program and the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio. These programs provide fair housing education to landlords and tenants, along with working to resolve issues like improper lockouts and seizures, or filing discrimination claims to HUD. Forms such as sample leases are also provided. Case management is also provided to those who are displaced and seek relocation assistance.

It was recommended that these two organizations should be designated as resources to residents who are impacted by changes to neighborhoods, essentially becoming a form of tenants’ councils.

The City currently has five dedicated staffers in their program, who are all bilingual, and the Fair Housing Council, directed by Sandra Tamez, has six employees.

The panel seemed unaware that these services even existed. Discussions centered around improving this awareness problem. It was indicated that there is already outreach to nonprofit services, including the 211 community service hotline. They also host presentations to landlords and renters through organizations like the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR).

John Dugan addresses the Task Force. Photo by Page Graham.
A City Planning and Community Development Department staff member addresses the Task Force. Photo by Page Graham.

District 1 Councilmember Roberto Treviño spoke about the level of intimidation that many people feel when it comes to approaching the city for assistance. Task Force member Nettie Hinton also expressed her lack of knowledge of the available support services, specifically a lack of liaison with the NAACP. Radle also said that he had never encountered these organizations in his 45 years of community advocacy.

Taylor suggested that more information would be needed before making a decision about how to leverage the capabilities of these organizations. All members of the task force agreed.

Ed Guzman, an attorney with the City Attorney’s office, made a presentation on legal issues, including the concept of the City requiring a certain amount of affordable housing units in every multifamily housing project. As it turns out, Texas state law has expressly forbidden this practice since 2005.

On the other hand, financial assistance provided by the city can be used as a form of encouragement. The city can permit higher-density housing for developers willing to add low-income/affordable units.

Guzman then discussed his research on Homestead Preservation and Reinvestment Zones in Austin and Dallas, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2007. This law allowed these cities to use the zones as a form of land trust, where homeowners can retain their property. It would require future legislation for San Antonio to also do this. Neither Dallas nor Austin seem to be utilizing it in any meaningful way, according to Guzman.

A land trust in this context would be an organization – private or nonprofit – that works to conserve land/property by purchasing or aiding in the purchase or maintenance of conservation easements.

Richard Milk, director of policy and planning at San Antonio Housing Authority, suggested that the Task Force should incorporate concepts such as land trusts in the draft report.

Guzman also pointed out that the City cannot engage in “contract zoning,” where a zoning change will be offered in exchange for developing affordable housing units – no quid pro quo agreements are allowed. Incentives, however, can be offered without a promise of a zoning change.

Radle indicated that, in any case, developers who are doing high-end residential projects are simply not interested in affordable housing incentives.

With regards to rent control, Guzman indicated that it is specifically prohibited in Texas, except in the case of a housing disaster. Not only that, it would be temporary and would have to be approved by the Governor.

Guzman went on to explain how rent control is used in Manhattan and in some parts of California, for different purposes. “It can be a useful tool,” he said, “but it can be difficult to implement.”

Every allowable tax exemption is an amendment to the Texas Constitution. Cities are not allowed to offer any other exemptions than these, limiting the amount of options available.

Neighborhood Empowerment Zones were brought up by Task Force member Jackie Gorman, executive director for San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE). She indicated that the homeowners must approach the taxing entity to seek property tax relief, rather than vice versa. More research will be made on this topic by Guzman and Task Force member Carlos Contreras, they said.

Hinton addressed the issue of the numerous vacant lots in the Eastside that have been purchased and developed, such as the Cherry Street Modern townhomes near the Hays Street Bridge. Not only did she express dismay at their prices in the $190,000 range, she also decried their aesthetic appeal, stopping short of calling them ugly.

The Cherry Street Modern homes in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
The Cherry Street Modern homes in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Brantley Hightower.

Taylor expressed a strong difference of opinion. She feels that these new townhomes are good for the area, bringing a dozen new families into the neighborhood, and that no one was displaced in the process. However, she said the City should work maintain a balance for people of all economic levels to live in the same area.

Hinton remained adamant that this kind of development is not keeping the “nature and culture” of the neighborhood intact.

Overall, the meeting resulted in a mixed bag of ideas being put forth and roadblocks being discovered. For better or for worse, the Texas Legislature has limited the power a City has when it comes to housing issues. The potential for an affordable housing bond issue received no dissent amongst Task Force members, but again, it would have to be approved by voters.

The next Task Force meetings will be Feb. 3 and Feb. 12 at 3:30 pm at City Hall. Taylor stressed that they want to send a report to the Quality of Life Committee by the Feb. 17.

*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor sits at the head of the table as she chairs the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods. Photo by Page Graham.

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Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...