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Mayor’s Task Force Lays Out a Path for San Antonio to Fix Its Housing Woes — Now It’s Time to Execute 

click to enlarge BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
A year in the making, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force last week issued a report that gives S.A. a blueprint for its first comprehensive housing plan.

The unveiling comes as the city struggles to keep pace with growth that’s rapidly outpaced housing supply — especially for low- and middle-income residents. And, importantly, the document acknowledges the socioeconomic segregation at the root of the problem, something local leaders have historically been loath to discuss.

With home ownership rates sliding from 61 percent to 54 percent between 2005 and 2016, the time is right for bold moves to fix the city’s housing woes. And experts say that’s just what will be required to make the task force’s recommendations work.

“[Nirenberg’s] heart is in the right place,” said Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, an advocate for affordable housing. “It’s now a question of whether the priorities are going to mirror what’s in his heart.”

The report lays out an ambitious year-long path to implement policies that tackle displacement, gentrification, rising property values and other problems. It also advocates a ten-year plan to make housing a top City priority and recommends coming up with some serious public funding — try $1 billion — to make it happen.

“We’re including both policy and a road map for action,” said task force chair Lourdes Castro Ramirez, who once led the San Antonio Housing Authority and served at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The first year is critically important, but to address an issue as complex as housing is also going to require a long view.”

The task force recommendations are:
  • Create a coordinated city housing system, including a “housing chief” and a one-stop center for housing information.
  • Develop a 10-year funding plan to develop and preserve affordable housing that draws on multiple sources, including city bonds.
  • Build and maintain more affordable housing units for both rental and purchase — including homes for vulnerable residents.
  • Protect neighborhoods, including addressing the strain of rising property taxes.
  • Create a governance system to hold the city’s housing operations accountable to the public.

Some of those ideas draw on successful policies implemented in Los Angeles, Denver and New York, but much is homegrown. The task force sought input from hundreds of residents via community meetings and working groups.
The recommendations go to city council next month for debate. The progressive-dominated, Nirenberg-friendly council is a receptive audience. But much depends on whether the plan is adopted in full or whether council, daunted by the scope and price tag, moves it forward in an incomplete or watered-down state.

Ticking Clock

Certainly, now would seem to be the time to act.

The average sales price for a house here climbed 7 percent, year over year, to $218,000 in July, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. As of 2016, 165,000 of all San Antonio households were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, which economists consider a budgetary red line.

Calvert said he’s impressed with the scope of the task force’s plan, but he cautions that the economic injustices that created the crisis will take a long time to undo. That means city leaders also need to lobby for changes at the state level in conjunction with its plan.

He points to Democratic state Rep. Diego Bernal’s proposed legislation that would freeze property taxes for people who have lived in their houses for at least 15 years and whose property tax payments went up 120 percent or more during that time.

For his part, Calvert is pushing for an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would index residents’ net property tax bills to inflation.

Working Together

Even if council adopts the task force’s recommendations unchanged, the city faces the arduous task of figuring out how they will work with its existing neighborhood plans, said Christine Drennan, director of Trinity University’s urban studies program. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, San Antonio turned its focus to developing individual neighborhood plans to protect the character and future of San Antonio’s urban core communities. But those existing plans may contradict the aims of the new policy. “We’ve never had a citywide housing policy before, but as we implement it, we have to recognize that it’s sitting on top of what came before,” said Drennan, who worked with the task force during its early stages.

One challenge will be ensuring that new developments fit the character of existing neighborhoods without giving residents of wealthier areas an excuse to slam the door on lower-income residents.

Drennan also would like to see the city tie in the housing policy with its efforts to create new jobs and remedy public transportation woes — all of which are efforts to ready the city for the 1 million new residents it’s expected to gain over the next 25 years. New housing, no matter how affordable or well-intentioned, can contribute to sprawl and its ills.

“How do we conceptualize a way to make that all work together?” she asks. “My fear is that we just may end up kicking this all down the road.”

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