Conversation: Renting in San Antonio’s Urban Core

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Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Google Maps image.

Google Maps

Tobin Hill, San Antonio.

biopicClaudia Loya is an intelligent, vivacious and publicly engaged young woman – a prime example of the “young professional” that city officials, urban planners, and talent and economic geographers say is essential to growth, revitalization and a sustainable future for San Antonio. Just about every conversation of urban renaissance focuses on the energy and economic importance of young professionals, artists, and other “creatives” that cities desire these days.

Housing – as we’re told by many of the same sources – is key to San Antonio’s downtown revitalization efforts. The City has an entire department devoted to the urban core, The Center City Development Office, which manages and facilitates programs like the Center City Housing Incentive Program (CCHIP), infill development workshops, and in partnership with Centro San Antonio. It executes strategic plans and frameworks to achieve the SA2020 goal of adding 5,000 residential units to the center city.

It’s also the cornerstone of the Downtown Alliance motto: “Live, work, shop, and be entertained downtown.”

The infrastructure for more downtown housing is there, but here’s the paradox: a growing population of young professionals and creatives can’t afford the housing that seems tailor-made for them.

The city wants – craves – more young professionals like Claudia downtown.

Claudia Loya, Awesome SA Dean and communications associate at the San Antonio Area Foundation.

Claudia Loya, Awesome SA Dean and communications associate at the San Antonio Area Foundation.

Claudia works in the Pearl Brewery complex – the poster child of urban live/work/eat/shop mini-communities –  as a communications associate for the San Antonio Area Foundation. But she commutes from her rental unit 15 miles northwest of downtown near I-10 and Huebner, close to the main campus of UTSA. She splits the monthly $1,000 rent with her roommate for a “huge” space … but she drives pretty much everywhere.

“I’m downtown everyday for work and I see how much fun it is downtown,” Claudia said. “The Pearl is such a tease – I can work here, but I can’t afford to live here.”

A 537 sq. ft. studio apartment at the Can Plant at the Pearl is $1,025.

A 680 sq. ft. studio at the Cevallos Lofts at the southern edge of Southtown is $1,150.

The Pearl

The Pearl, where city planning meets innovative urban development. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After bills, expenses and some discretionary spending, Claudia said she’s looking for something in the $800-850 range – without roommates.

“I’m still good friends with my college roommates, I wouldn’t mind living with them, but I feel like the next step for me is to go off and live on my own,” she said.

She’s found apartments for $600 downtown, but they’re very small efficiencies in an awkward locations – like right next to a highway. “And if you find a big space, it’s in a shady area,” Claudia said, “I’d like to feel safe out after dark.”

Holiday lights on the Steel House Lofts.

Holiday lights on the Steel House Lofts, December 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

More and more areas downtown are getting safer, though, she said. “My friends and I go downtown all the time – on the weekends, to friends’ houses. A few years ago, we would have never considered it.”

Not everyone can live downtown – and not everyone wants to. At the same time, living downtown, being close to so much activity and able to walk or ride a bike to work isn’t a right – it’s a privilege that carries a price tag.

Downtown rentals will always be more expensive, said Debra Maltz, owner of the downtown real estate agency, Centro Properties. Maltz had been selling and leasing to people in San Antonio’s urban core since 1978 – before the concept of urban revitalization began to sink in during the ’80s. We asked Maltz to talk to the Rivard Report about the issues Claudia and other frustrated downtown-wannabes express when the subject arises, which is does with increasing frequency.

RR: When did you decide to make the leap and start Centro Properties? Did it take long to make the business a success?

Debra Maltz of Centro Properties.

Debra Maltz of Centro Properties. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

MALTZ: Hap Veltman, my mentor, started the business back in 1978. He was ahead of his time in everything he pursued. Centro Properties has continued to grow over the years. It has been and still is such a joy to work downtown.

RR: Let’s say I’m a 26-year-old young professional, or maybe a young couple, moving here from another state to work at Rackspace. We want to live downtown, somewhere we can walk to restaurants and bars, ride our bikes, and find something affordable to rent. Where do we start?

First is to identify what you can afford (qualify for) to rent. Many young people don’t understand what the requirements are – if you’re going to a realtor, they’ll need proof of income. That is when a lot of young people first realize credit and background checks really are relevant.

Once you determine what you can afford, then you need to find places in your rental range.

RR: That brings us to the subject of cost. San Antonio has a reputation nationally of being a real estate bargain, but young professionals moving here sometimes say they are priced out of downtown living. What’s your view on that? Do you have some figures on the range of rents for someone who wants to live along Broadway, downtown or in Southtown?

Young people just out of college, brand new in the workforce, want to live in lots of activity – and they want it walkable. Usually they come to me with a range of $600-700. So, small units are the first to go, they’re the most affordable.

To find anything under a $1.50/sq. ft  is pretty hard, $1.70/sq. ft is the average.

A lot of people aren’t concerned with space – it’s about location and it’s more of a lifestyle choice. So there are a lot of compromises, too – do you want the amenities (gym, pool, laundry, parking) or do you want the price to go down? A one-bedroom with all the amenities doesn’t exist for $600.

The average apartment in the center/core city is way over $800 for one bedroom. The number is more like $900-$1,000 for an average 650 square feet.  You have to make $3,000 a month to qualify for that (by the standard “don’t spend more than one-third of your income on rent” rule). Couples and roommates have a much better bet. Sometimes that’s the first baby step you take: get a roommate. For the longest time, younger people could rent downtown easily, but the market has changed.

It’s more expensive because it’s more valuable, the closer in to the city you get.

RR: It seems like every few months a new apartment development is opening up.

MALTZ: Yes, it has been that way and that is because we have had a lot of pent-up demand. I think we still have a few more projects to go before we notice a flattening in the market demand. This has been so great for downtown.

The Exchange Building at 152 East Pecan St., is also home to Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Exchange Building at 152 East Pecan St., is also home to Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Newer properties opening up like Cevallos, Steelhouse Lofts, 1880 Broadway all have the fitness center, the gym, the pool. Older properties, like the Exchange Building downtown, are more centrally located, but may not have the granite countertops of your dreams, parking and appliances.

RR: How should young professionals evaluate all these different developments in terms of value and lifestyle choices?

This is a personal decision, really, about their lifestyle and, of course, what they can afford. I know some couples that want to be on the cutting edge and are willing to take a forward leap into their living space decision. The biggest factor that I hear from people looking to rent is that they want a sense of community. They want to enjoy their surroundings. In investigating all the new complexes, and there are quite a few, they are pretty competitive in price and what they offer .

There are still some older projects that have a lot to offer as well — if they have a vacancy.

RR: Isn’t it true that individuals generally are going to pay lower per square foot rents in older homes that have apartments versus new construction with all the community amenities that come with the developments? So, if a couple of restaurant workers are looking for a deal, is their best bet driving Southtown streets looking for a “For Rent” sign on a house? That doesn’t seem like a very practical way to house hunt.

MALTZ: Yes, actually, that is what I would recommend  – or try Craigslist.com for a private owner renting their space. Again this goes back to what you can afford (qualify for) and what your expectations are. Real estate agents can, of course, be of help, but many apartments with very low rents wouldn’t use agents.

RR: Do you represent properties that are in neighborhoods just starting to undergo the gentrification process? I wonder what your thoughts are about the future of the near-Eastside, or neighborhoods like Lone Star?

Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Google Maps image.

Google Maps

Tobin Hill, San Antonio. Google Maps image.

I always tell interested people to look at the outskirts of the current popular areas as that is where the next wave will be. Follow the artists, especially, as they never have money, but they do have great ideas and taste and they are always willing to take the risks! I love Dignowity Hill, Denver Heights, Government Hill to the east and I like Roosevelt Park area to the south. I still think Tobin Hill is untapped to the north.

RR: You always have interesting, one-of-a-kind properties right in the heart of the downtown for sale or rent. Do you think the day is coming when some of the shuttered or underutilized buildings will be converted to lofts and apartments for rent that will make downtown more accessible and affordable?

One can hope! Converting “shuttered and underutilized utilized buildings” is not an easy prospect as you might imagine, but it appears with the new incentives that the City is offering , the idea is making some headway for some interested people. I have had a few conversations with potential developers interested in taking the risk. The idea of more affordable rents for young professionals right out of college is becoming a topic of interest as well. Obviously, it is all about the economics of the development as it has to make sense for the developer.

RR: What do you tell young couples with a school-age child who are concerned about the quality of public schools in the urban core?

I would suggest they do some investigation of the possibilities in SAISD. I think they are really trying hard to make the schools better and as a parent, getting involved in making the change is crucial. Of course, not everyone is interested in the pioneer spirit, but I think more and more folks are seeing the positive results of putting their efforts behind a school and being a part of turning a school around. Bonham Academy is a prime example!

RR: How do you handle the question, “When is downtown going to get a grocery store’?

I say soon, very soon…In the meantime most of us get in our car and go the store and there are good stores within a close drive like Central Market or the H-E-B on San Pedro and Olmos. I also tell them to check out Uncommon Fare at Cevallos Lofts.

Uncommon Fare, 301 E. Cevallos St. unit 169, offers high-end but basic grocery needs to Cevallos loft tenants and surrounding community. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Uncommon Fare, 301 E. Cevallos St. unit 169, offers high-end but basic grocery needs to Cevallos loft tenants and surrounding community. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

RR: If H-E-B or another company does build a grocery store, do you see such a development, or the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park, driving up the cost of renting in the urban core as more people get excited about all the changes?

I think rental rates are in direct relationship to the market. Our rents were pretty depressed for a long time and they are definitely going up. Demand and supply drive the market and it is apparent in what is happening in downtown right now. A store will be a boom for everyone.

RR: Will you give up your favorite neighborhood spots for us to share with others? What are your favorite indoor/outdoor places to hang?

I love Gwendolyn for lunch in the heart of downtown, Liberty Bar , Cascabel in King William, along with Monterrey and Taco Haven in Lavaca and The Luxury in River North. No shortage of great food spots! Anywhere on the new southern part of the river and the northern part of the river is just delightful to sit and people watch, walk and ride a B Cycle.

 

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at iris@rivardreport.com.

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Where I Live: Towers at the Majestic

Where I Live: Lone Star / South Flores Arts District

Out Of Town Attack on Streetcars

Urban Renaissance: Taking Stock of 2012

Where I Live: Southtown

Where I Live: A Happy Working Wife & Mom in Lavaca

Where I Live: The Judson Candy Factory Lofts

 

Click here for a full list of our “Where I Live” series.

 

3 thoughts on “Conversation: Renting in San Antonio’s Urban Core

  1. Interesting read. I find the title a bit mis leading but the article good.

    When you say young middle class professionals I think of white collar creative class workers, they usually make 50-150k in which case they make enough to pay rent at almost any place downtown.

    I think what would be interesting to add to this article is the comparison of the costs of spaces outside of downtown that are still really nice places to live. Artessa being one, spaces by La Cantera, off Blanco by the whole foods out there. And in general places to rent by large shopping centers.

    While this might sound boring, I think it would bring insight into why people think downtown prices are expensive when in reality they are not. Any major downtown costs at least 2 dollars a square foot. When I lived in the gables west downtown in Austin it was about 1300 for 650sq feet. Granted I had direct access to the trails with out crossing the street and could walk one street over to whole foods downtown.

    I think a common mistake here being made by developers is the non “organic” approaches they are taking to building out new spaces to live. I feel often they really do not take into consideration the people they are displacing and the social and cultural effects it may have on our city. In order to maintain a melting pot of cultures and social strata I believe we need to look past the idea of just focusing on getting young creative professionals to live downtown.

    A more rounded approach needs to be understood at a larger level.

    A good example of this is with the bridge on the east side. Developers are missing the point and are not listening to the community. They are creating an un needed alienization of a community. They should be listening and finding compromise. While capitalism is great, our town has a large historic culture as well and I think displacing one community for another is a big mistake.

    I am currently working on an art installation that exemplifies this situation.

    My focus is the Lonestar Brewery. What people do not understand about many of these Chicano neighborhoods, while they might have certain connotations, many of the people who live in these neighborhoods own their houses, have little debt and do not work off of our new cultures “debt” based practices.

    So this idea that developers want to come and in “redevelop” these spaces to create condos for middle class professionals to buy is potentially a crock! In actuality they are creating a space for young middle class professionals to continue this proliferation of debt by building 200-500k condos for this class of people to finance (and once all sold the developers have their money and run) and this debt based culture has this social class parking their financed Lexus/Porshce, credit card purchased fixed gear bikes and furniture all in their little condo half to a quarter the size of where debt free people were living.

    So what has really been accomplished other then the rich getting richer?

    Just something to think about…

    And student loans and the creative class, lets not even get started on that…

    • Joey, Thanks for the comment. We rewrote the headline. When we redesign the site (soon, we hope) I think we will brand these Q&As as “Conversations” to set them apart from other things we do. They always feature one interesting person, their work, and, we hope, a unique viewpoint. We are always looking for others. –RR

  2. Joey’s comment about maintaining a melting pot of cultures and social strata is fascinating. My understanding is that a melting pot rarely results from the gentrification of a neighborhood, but it is a worthwhile objective.

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