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San Antonio council delays ordinance requiring future housing developments to consider voucher holders 

click to enlarge City council is scheduled to vote on the income discrimination policy on April 29. - PHOTO BY BEN OLIVO / SAN ANTONIO HERON
  • Photo by Ben Olivo / San Antonio Heron
  • City council is scheduled to vote on the income discrimination policy on April 29.
The approval of an ordinance that would require future housing developments that receive city incentives to consider tenants with housing vouchers has been delayed by the City Council.

On Thursday, the council unanimously voted to move the ordinance to a special session on April 21 after some members contested the ordinance’s language and intent. 

The source of income discrimination ordinance, as it’s known, would require housing developments that use city tax incentives or fee waivers to accept federally subsidized housing vouchers from tenants, such as Section 8. If a tenant is denied a lease because they are using housing vouchers to pay rent, the housing provider can face a criminal charge punishable by a $500 fine, according to the ordinance’s current text.

» Background: Developers wanting city tax breaks may be required to take housing vouchers

Council members Manny Pelaez (District 8) and Clayton Perry (District 10) suggested to change the word “criminal” to “civil,” saying charging housing developers with a crime would turn people away from developing affordable housing in the city. 

“Why would I, as a developer, want to participate with you if you’re out there already loading a gun and putting it up against my head?” Pelaez said during the meeting. 

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said the ordinance would only apply to housing developments that accept incentives from the city going forward, and that developers would choose to participate if they wanted subsidies from the city.

Perry called the ordinance’s criminal offense statute “way out of line,” suggesting the ordinance be delayed until the language was changed. 

Veronica Soto, director of the Neighborhood & Housing Services Department, told council members that the ordinance was in line with the city’s housing policy framework document because it reduced housing discrimination. Pelaez said criminalizing housing developers for violating the ordinance did not align with the housing framework, calling the ordinance “woke policy” to appease nonprofit housing organizations. 

Houston said the policy would make available more housing backed by the city to lower-income households.

“One of the biggest concerns we have is there’s not enough affordable housing for that vulnerable population, and if our incentives are helping these affordable housing projects move forward, we want to make sure they’re participating in that (housing voucher) program,” Houston told Pelaez.

City Manager Erik Walsh also recommended there be an enforcement mechanism. 

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said the policy is grounded in equity and supported its passing. 

“This is just one of those policies that just makes sense,” Trevino said. 

Pelaez asked Soto if there was an example of housing discrimination that NHSD has documented. Soto said, “No.” But according to the San Antonio Housing Authority, only 57% of its housing voucher recipients are able to find housing within 120 days, a point Houston made during the discussion.

As of November 2020, there are 13,015 families using housing vouchers to pay rent in San Antonio, with another 7,627 households on a housing voucher waitlist. The Housing Authority of Bexar County issues 1,800 housing vouchers, with 7,000 currently waitlisted, according to a council agenda document. The same document cites a 2018 HUD study that found housing voucher recipients had a greater than 60% chance of being denied in high-poverty areas. 

The San Antonio Housing Trust, which partners with developers to produce housing for a mix of income levels, passed a similar ordinance on March 30 called the tenant protection policy. Like the city’s policy, the Housing Trust will not apply its own policy retroactively, only towards housing projects going forward. 

» Read more: Tax breaks for developers under scrutiny in San Antonio, Texas capitol

Pete Alanis, the trust’s executive director, told the Heron most Housing Trust properties now accept housing vouchers in following the tenant protection policy—if they did not previously.

“The majority of all the properties that the city has given tax incentive to practice income discrimination,” Rich Acosta, president of the nonprofit My City is My Home and the policy’s architect, said after the meeting. “Even if the voucher covers the rent, the renter doesn’t have criminal or past eviction, they will automatically say no. That’s what discrimination looks like.”

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, who agreed to delay voting on the ordinance, said there is still an urgency to address the ordinance. 

“The projects that this will apply to haven’t even been built yet. The sooner we can adopt this, the sooner we’ll see the benefits of it in the future,” Sandoval said. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the ordinance a “very fundamental and simple proposition,” noting the controversy surrounding incentives to developers in the first place.

“There is a considerable amount of unease in our community about incentives, public dollars being used to create development,” Nirenberg said. “We’ve had discussion after discussion about that, from the CCHIP (Center City Housing Incentive Policy) policy, ICRIP (Inner City Reinvestment Infill Policy), to the Housing Trust, and all that work is underway with our strategic housing incentive implementation plan.”

This story was originally published by the San Antonio Heron, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to informing its readers about the changes to downtown and the surrounding communities.

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