The YWCA San Antonio and the residents of a Westside neighborhood where the nonprofit group purchased a former convent say they want the same thing — to help women rise out of poverty. 

But the YWCA’s plan to establish supportive housing for impoverished women and an accompanying request for a zoning change has left neighbors wanting more answers about the people who would be living there and new structures that could be built near their homes.

“It is our job to ask the questions because this is coming into the neighborhood,” said Velma Peña, president of the Westwood Square Neighborhood Association and a longtime resident of the community where the property is located.

The neighborhood association and another one representing nearby residents are opposing the zoning change, saying they fear if it is approved they will be living next to a facility not unlike Haven for Hope.

The case represents a test for the city of San Antonio, which has sought to address poverty rates that are among the highest in the nation by instituting a new $200 million job training program but also opposes the zoning change sought by the YWCA.

In addition to housing for at least 24 women to start, the campus would offer job training, on-site childcare and financial counseling so that the young women could become financially self-sufficient. 

The YWCA San Antonio hopes to build housing units for women in poverty at the intersection of Castroville Road and Southwest 36th Street.
The YWCA San Antonio hopes to build housing units for women in poverty at the intersection of Castroville Road and Southwest 36th Street. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

YWCA officials say it is different from a transitional living environment like Haven for Hope or other permanent supportive housing programs in that the residents are able to care for themselves and would stay for longer periods.

Meanwhile, a handful of women have already put their names on a waiting list for housing through the program — including one who said that she’s just started a new job training program. Her stipend doesn’t cover the cost of rent so she’s staying with a friend while hunting for something else, so far to no avail.

“There were other places that I had called but they haven’t really called back or anything,” said Victoria Mesquiti. “I guess they’re already at capacity.”

‘New category of housing’

The YWCA San Antonio, the local chapter of a national organization, purchased St. Andrew’s Convent at 2318 Castroville Rd. last year. The former convent is made up of mostly 1960s-era buildings that once housed the religious women of the Missionary Catechists of the Divine Providence. 

The site’s existing living quarters and office space would give the nonprofit the room it needs to expand social service programming into housing for young adult women who are unemployed and not in school, disengaged from other services, and earning a low-to-moderate income.

It’s an effort the YWCA has been working on for three years, buying the property last year with proceeds from the sale of other property in San Antonio, and grants from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and others. The YWCA paid $1.6 million in cash for the 9-acre parcel and buildings. 

Not unlike the Missionary Catechists sisters who established the convent out of old Army barracks in 1951, the YWCA provides social services including childcare and early education services, youth programs and health care in the community. It has operated as a nonprofit in San Antonio for 45 years.

Francesca Rattray, CEO of the YWCA San Antonio, said the nuns embraced the idea of selling the property to “a like-minded organization, serving the community by serving women.”

She said the organization annually serves about 15,000 people in San Antonio, mostly on the West Side. The group has outgrown its office space at the Olga Madrid Community Center, 503 Castroville Rd., and wants to move staff to the St. Andrew’s property to make room for more child care in the Madrid center. 

But the greater part of their vision for the convent is to serve as a residence but also a job training site. “I like to think we are creating a new category of housing,” Rattray said.

Women could live in the property’s 24 dorm-style housing units until they are ready to rent or purchase a home of their own. That might be in “tiny houses” built on the property or in houses the YWCA finds within the neighborhood. 

She stresses that the YWCA’s vision is not for transitional housing of the type offered by Haven for Hope, where people overcoming addiction and chronic homelessness reside for only six months to two years.

“From the beginning, our goal has been to try to be a gateway to independence,” Rattray said. 

Not ‘against people’

The lack of specific details concerning what the property could become, and what else is eventually built there, has driven concerns from the neighborhood associations in Westwood Square and Los Jardines.

In December, the YWCA submitted a request for rezoning the property, from multifamily to commercial, which would permit its use as a human services campus. 

To the north across Castroville Road and to the west across 36th street, other properties are already zoned for commercial use. But to the east, across 35th Street, is Westwood Square, a neighborhood of 1950s-era single-family homes with backyards facing the convent. It is zoned residential as is the south edge of the property where it borders nine parcels with homes built between 1940 and 2005. 

Earlier this year, YWCA leaders met with neighbors and the District 5 council office to discuss their plans and seek input and ideas. It was at a second meeting that Westwood Square and Los Jardines residents voiced their concerns about what could be built on the undeveloped 7 acres of the property and how much buffer would exist between potential new structures and existing homes. 

But their biggest concern is what door a zoning change will open to future uses of the property, uses that may look more like a transitional living center. They want assurances that won’t happen and Peña said it’s unfair that area residents have been characterized in some news reports as “NIMBYs,” an acronym for “not in my backyard.”

“Of course there are concerns, but it doesn’t mean we’re against people,” she said.

Blanche Ovalle listenBlanche Ovalle listens to Dora Gomez as she details the YWCA’s plan to support impoverished women by housing them in a neighboring lot. Ovalle signed a letter of support which will be presented to city staff this week.s to Dora Gomez as she details the YWCA’s plan to support impoverished women by housing them in a neighboring lot. Ovalle signed a letter of support which will be presented to city staff this week.
Blanche Ovalle listens to Dora Gomez as she details the YWCA’s plan to support impoverished women by housing them in a neighboring lot. Ovalle signed a letter of support which will be presented to city staff this week. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

They asked for a master plan, about drainage and where the child care center would be located. Would it be possible to rezone the property for “light commercial,” they asked, which is a less-intense use than the C-2 designation the YWCA was requesting? 

Peña said asking those kinds of questions is all they can do. “We are just neighborhood associations, we do not have lobbyists, we do not have lawyers,” she said. “We just have to do the research ourselves.”

About the zoning

The C-2 zoning designation permits development ranging from a liquor store and gaming facility to a gas station and tire repair shop within buildings of unlimited size. The YWCA’s request for a conditional use designation, known as “CD,” would also permit its use as a human services campus.

The property is not eligible for C-1, light commercial, because the existing structures exceed the 5,000 square feet size limit of that zoning designation. 

A city staff report states that rezoning could have “adverse impacts” on the neighborhood and that the proposed use is not consistent with the development pattern of the surrounding area. 

Zoning for a human services campus is not appropriate for the property, it continues, given the adjacent single-family dwellings to the south.

After city staffers recommended that the Zoning Commission deny the request at a Feb. 1 meeting, and neighbors asked for more time to review the issue, a representative for YWCA requested a postponement to Feb. 15. 

In the interim, Rattray said the YWCA is working to provide neighbors with more information about the services that will be provided at the main building, and also renderings of what the undeveloped acreage could look like. 

A team from the YWCA has been going door-to-door, gathering signatures of support — they have 25 so far — and meeting with residents. On Saturday, the YWCA hosted an open house at the convent; four residents attended.

Rattray said they are considering another open house next weekend as they also determine whether to postpone the zoning request once more to give them more time to meet with neighbors.

“We understand the history in this neighborhood and on the West Side — that the community doesn’t get consulted on what’s going to be going in, and they get left with what nobody wants and sometimes … things are promised and not delivered,” Rattray said. “But we’ve been open that we want to work with them and create services that can be useful for the whole community.”

Disconnected youth and women

Victoria Mesquiti heard about the YWCA’s plans during a recent newscast and added it to the long list of other housing assistance programs she’s been calling. 

Injured in a car crash in 2005, Mesquiti lost the job she said she was really good at — selling cars at a local dealership — and has struggled ever since. She tried going back to college but the coursework was too difficult. 

In late January, Mesquiti, 41, began a two-month job training program that pays $15 an hour for up to 30 hours a week. She hopes to land a good-paying job when she’s done.

For now, renting a room from a friend on the South Side is what she can afford. “Right now, all I’m trying to do is just try to just get myself situated with getting school done and everything,” she said. 

Mesquiti is one of at least 10 women so far who have called the YWCA to inquire about the program, Rattray said.

Though the organization is targeting women ages 17 to 25 from among the estimated 30,000 disconnected youth in San Antonio, she said clients such as Mesquiti who are older would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Young women who work in the YWCA’s child care center might also be eligible to reside on the campus.

Those women accepted into the program could make their home at the center for up to four years while they receive services such as job training, health care, child care and financial literacy classes. 

City Council member Teri Castillo (D5) raises a fist after being sworn into office during a swearing-in ceremony of city leaders in June.
City Council member Teri Castillo (D5) raises a fist after being sworn into office in June. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Councilwoman Teri Castillo, who represents District 5, where the property is located, would not comment on the zoning case because it is ongoing. A spokesman confirmed that her office has been facilitating conversations among everyone involved, but called the YWCA on Tuesday to cancel a scheduled meeting for that evening. 

Not another Haven 

One potential solution to address the neighbors’ concerns would be to place deed restrictions on the property. But an attorney representing the YWCA said it’s too soon to consider that option.

“[Agreeing to] certain terms … and deed restrictions can be problematic because, 50 years from now, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Caroline McDonald, associate attorney with Brown & Ortiz. “There are problematic terms in deed restrictions throughout the city that have been basically deemed not enforceable.”

Also complicating the issue in the YWCA case is how a “human services campus” is broadly described in the Unified Development Code (UDC), which guides development practices citywide. The current definition is meant to cover a place that encompasses all aspects of the kinds of social services provided within a transitional living center.

For that reason, McDonald thinks that part of the code needs to be amended. “When users come in like the YWCA, they’re not going to be doing everything that’s listed under the human services campus definition, so I just think it’s time that there’s some new language [put] in the code,” McDonald said.

The city is in the midst of revamping the UDC, which it does every five years. Attorney James McKnight, also with Brown & Ortiz, has submitted a proposed amendment to the UDC’s definition of a human services campus that would require the owner to submit a site plan specifying the kinds of uses that will take place on the property. 

Zoning cases involving human services campuses are always tough, but McDonald thinks there’s a “path forward” for this one, she said. “And I hope that we can get it done because I think the YWCA would be great for the community and the city.”

Peña said the residents are trying to keep an open mind because the YWCA wants to help women, something that is important to the community.

“It’s hard because you’re going to try and do the best that you can for your neighborhood,” Peña said. “It’s always the little guys and they know that they’ve got all the power. We have our voices, but at the end of the day, they make all the decisions for us.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.