Is This the End of Low-Income Housing Along San Pedro Creek?

click to enlarge Soapwork's historic leasing office. - CAPSTONE
Soapwork's historic leasing office.
Falling shingles. Busted sidewalks. Unmarked wet paint. Construction vehicles taking up tenant parking spaces.

These are just a few of the complaints tenants at the Soapworks Apartments have raised since their buildings were bought by a new real estate company in October. Almost immediately, the new owners began renovating the 381-unit apartment complex with the tenants still living inside.

It seems like the beginning of what longtime residents have feared ever since Bexar County unveiled plans for the $125-million San Pedro Creek Improvement Project in 2013: That turning their neighboring drainage ditch into a "world-class" park (akin to the River Walk's Mission Reach) will ultimately price community members out of their neighborhood. As the sole apartment complex along the creek, Soapworks has inevitably become the first to feel the impact of a project with the tagline, "Connecting Communities."

On Tuesday, December 19, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved an additional $19.8 million for construction of the second segment of the San Pedro Creek project.

It’s become a vicious cycle in San Antonio: the city or county finances a restoration project meant to better the community, and private investors scramble to buy up the land around it, scattering the original residents who were supposed to benefit from the project their tax dollars paid for. What’s worse, no one’s quite sure how to stop it.

Lydia Garza, 64, is currently paying around $650 a month for her Soapworks studio apartment. Shortly after new owners Capstone Real Estate took over, Garza was informed her rent would increase around $250 in April — that is, if she wanted to renew her lease.

"We knew it was coming," said Garza, who's lived in Soapworks for six years. "We just didn't think it would be this bad."

Garza fits the profile of many of the residents at the 381-unit apartment complex (which includes Towne Center apartments across W Martin St.) who have lived there for decades. Most units fall under federal "affordable housing" standards, many of the residents are elderly, and many have some type of disability. It's not an unusual demographic for rentals in San Antonio, where the number of people 65 and older living under the poverty level is 4 percent higher than the national average — and the amount of 65+ San Antonians living with a disability is 7 percent higher than the national average.

Older tenants have expressed their fears of falling down or being hit by roofing with Capstone, the new property management company. Some have complained that their cars have been towed to make room for construction vehicles. But they don't feel like they're being heard.

"The environment is unsafe, the rents are going up ... the managers should at least level with the these people," said Rosa Rosales, former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who's helped advocate on behalf of tenants to Soapworks management.

Capstone has yet to return the Current's request for comment.

The apartment's brand new website promises new tenants a list of "coming soon" add-ons to the complex, including a coffee bar, fitness center, surveillance system and "WiFi Lounge."

The biggest selling point on the site, however: "Soapworks and Towne Center Apartments is [sic] situated on the bank of the San Pedro Creek Development in San Antonio, which is currently being transformed into a natural creek habitat and world-class linear park."

Garza estimates that at least 50 tenants have left after Capstone took over — many wanting to leave before the rents continue to climb. She and other tenants suspect the company will eventually raze the old buildings (some over a hundred years old, leftover from when the property was an actual soap factory) to build a shiny, new complex for higher-paying clientele.

"At this point, I just want some help finding a new place to live," Garza said.

Dissatisfied with the response they've received from their new property managers, a group of Soapworks tenants met last week with District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño to voice their concerns.

Treviño told the Current that the city can possibly help with some of the issues — he's already met with the city's Department of Human Services to discuss giving tenants relocation funds to help with a move. If tenants choose to move to more affordable housing, it's unlikely they'll be able to remain in the same neighborhood.

Going forward, Treviño said, it's important developers are considerate to the communities they swoop in on.

"It's time we start making bold statements as a city to get developers being more mindful to issues of affordability," he said. "The city can communicate what it needs and expects from developers to help shape that expectation."

But do developers have to listen?

No. In San Antonio, there's no way for city officials to regulate developers who're hoping to cash in on publicly-funded projects like San Pedro Creek. Unlike many cities, San Antonio's charter only allows city bond money to be spent on public works, a category that explicitly doesn't include housing. Thanks to this charter rule, it's impossible for the city to mandate affordable housing be built along the redeveloped creek — or any newly hip corner of town (see Dignowity Hill).

Councilman John Courage, who represents District 9, has said he wants to edit the city charter to finally change this rule before San Antonio's low-income housing stock truly goes extinct.

"Until we revise the city charter, we can't be a real partner in housing construction," Courage told the Current in October. "Once we acquire housing financing the city can control, then we'll have a little more say."

In the meantime, older San Antonians who've long relied on their close proximity to downtown resources — and the social safety net of a tight-knit community — have little backing.

In Garza's words: "We're being erased."