Urban sprawl, affordable housing, and sidewalks were among the top issues that City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) emphasized Tuesday during the Rivard Report‘s final edition of “Conversations with the Council.”
Robert Rivard, publisher of the Rivard Report, spoke with Treviño in front of more than 50 people, including several students, at Trinity University’s Chapman Auditorium.
Balancing home ownership with multi-family residential options, and addressing gentrification and rising home valuations in the center city received the bulk of the night’s attention.
Treviño said implementation of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan will make a big impact on how San Antonio develops over the next few decades. But a successful implementation will rely greatly on how the City interacts with partnering government entities, such as the Bexar County Appraisal District.
“We need to be conscious of how the City does property taxes,” he said of the City’s authority over a portion of total property tax rates.
There are ongoing discussions on how best to address increasing appraisal values through BCAD, Treviño said, but because the City has no authority over the appraisal district, it would have to look to the Texas Legislature for some kind of remedy.
He added that fast-rising appraisals can affect what level of private-sector investment goes into a particular part of town, such as more high-end residential development.
“We’ve got to be smarter about planning, and planning requires collaboration,” he said.
Rivard brought up gentrification, and how some residents may feel pushed out of their neighborhood because of rising appraisals or area development that may spur increased rents in multi-family properties.
Treviño said homeowners age 65 and older can take advantage of a homestead exemption, or freeze on all local taxes. The problem is that many eligible people are unaware that they must apply for the exemption – one of many issues in the realm of property tax rights on which the councilman has been trying to educate his constituents.
“There’s a large percentage of people who haven’t taken advantage of the over-65 exemption,” he said, adding that his district office provides information via email and traditional mail about the appraisal process and tools helpful to taxpayers.
Where homeowners have some avenues to reduce their taxes, renters’ fates lie in the hands of their property owners, Treviño said. He said he encourages home ownership wherever possible, but understands that it is not realistic for many.
In that case, a balance between affordable home ownership and rental opportunities is vital to maintaining the character of existing center city neighborhoods, Treviño said.
“We don’t want it to be 80 percent rental and 20 percent home ownership,” Treviño explained. “That tends to shift the balance in favor of high property taxes.”
Treviño said local government has a few tools, such as San Antonio Housing Trust Fund and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) monies, available to encourage the development of affordable housing.
“We have a lot of flexibility with different funding sources, but we’re going to keep looking to see what else can provide that flexibility,” he added. “That’s what we want as a city because different parts of the city are facing different stressors or issues.”
Treviño said encouraging the development of affordable housing is a complex issue because stakeholders must consider a variety of factors such as land values, scale of and materials used for potential buildings, and the local government’s role.
“Our [city] codes – do they encourage that? Probably not,” he said. “That’s why I want codes that are performance-based so that it allow for more incredible designs and innovation that we may not have thought about. We may see materials in a new way.”
An audience member asked about sidewalks and whether the City will be able to develop more sidewalks and better connect them to the Howard Peak Greenway Trails system that’s growing citywide. Treviño recently called for accelerating how the City funds, builds, and repairs sidewalks.
“It’s really quite amazing to see it come together,” Treviño said of the system. He added that more trails and sidewalks increase safety for pedestrians, and promote exercise and decreased use of cars, with the latter meaning fewer exhaust emissions.
“It’s certainly a good investment and I’ll continue to support it,” he said.
Treviño spoke critically of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s petition drive that proposes caps on City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s salary and tenure, forcing contract negotiations, and reducing requirements for citizens to put proposed ordinances to a public vote.
If the firefighters union were to succeed, Treviño said, it would put questionable or controversial ordinances to a public vote and, thus, adversely affect the ability of City leaders and staff to consider those issues in a thoughtful manner.
“It’s really meant to confuse people, and that’s really unfortunate,” Treviño said of the “San Antonio First” campaign. “One of the things we talk about in my [district] office is [how] we can best [inform] the community on the work we do – to translate or interpret some of the information.”
Another attendee asked about the plan to reimagine Alamo Plaza. Treviño said stakeholders will spend the next few months in meetings and fleshing out the next phase of redevelopment.
“Stay tuned, we’re very excited,” Treviño said, calling Alamo Plaza one of the city’s most significant projects in many regards.
“The work that’s being done is very considerate of things like trees, the heat that’s generated in our city, the interpretation of elements like glass walls, which is not part of the master plan adoption,” Treviño said. “What I think is going to occur is something the community feels they’ve been part of it as well.”