Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio City Council on Thursday voted 8-1 to accept a new housing policy framework aimed at closing the gap between the cost of housing and what residents can afford.
Most Council members lauded the Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force for its year-long work on the policy that includes recommendations to create a “one-stop” housing center, add an executive position in the city manager’s office to oversee housing, increase funding for payment assistance and housing rehabilitation programs, incentivize developers who build low-income housing, provide displacement assistance, change the City charter to allow bond money to be used for housing construction, and address fees and restrictive zoning rules.
Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) voted against the measure. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who was absent from the dais as the vote was happening, said he did not support the measure. Both said the City shouldn't subsidize housing.
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) did not attend the vote, but told the Rivard Report he would support the task force recommendations.
Estimates for the 10-year funding plan outlined in the report approach $3.9 billion in public and private funding. Click here to read the 56-page report. City Council did not approve funding for implementation on Thursday; rather, it approved framework for how to allocate it. It will be up to this and future City Councils to fund implementation.
"If we do not take action, an affordable housing crisis looms large," Mayor Ron Nirenberg said ahead of the vote. He started the task force last year because, he said, “truly all San Antonians need a place to call home."
The five-member task force comprises former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Lourdes Castro Ramirez as chairwoman, Pape-Dawson Engineers President Gene Dawson, former Councilwoman María Berriozábal, Vantage Bank Texas Senior Vice President Noah Garcia, and Alamo Architects Associate Principal Jim Bailey. The group was charged last August with creating comprehensive, compassionate policies with help from 100 members of five technical working groups.
"This was not a consultant-led process, this was a community-led process," Ramirez said, citing the dozens of stakeholder and public meetings hosted over the past year. "We are simply not producing enough attainable housing to keep up with demand."
About 165,000 San Antonians are overburdened with housing expenses – meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, mortgage payments, and other costs associated with housing, such as electricity, Ramirez said, and some families are being displaced by rising rents.
"When we do not pay attention to the housing affordability gap … what we see at the end are homeless people," Berriozábal said.
The City's proposed 2019 fiscal year budget, slated for approval next week, includes several initiatives outlined in the task force's report. While the task force called for $20 million more in investment from the annual budget and 18 positions in the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, the proposed budget includes 13 City staff positions, with 10 funded by the City and three by the federal government.
So far, the executive position recommended is not included in City Manager Sheryl Sculley's budget proposal. Sculley has said a more phased-in approach to implementation would be the safer fiscal move. In the meantime, Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni and Neighborhood and Housing Services Director Veronica Soto will work on the implementation of a three-year plan they have developed, Sculley has said.
Zanoni will serve as an interim leader of housing until a more permanent housing expert is found and vetted, he said, but that process could take several months. Meanwhile, he's ready to "get things in motion," he told the Rivard Report after the vote.
"We have a good commitment through this resolution [passed today] and through conversations with staff and the task force that we are going to place a chief – a high level executive – in the City of San Antonio who will be now overseeing the entire, consolidated, vertical housing [system]," Nirenberg told reporters after the vote.
This piece of the recommendations is important, Berriozábal said earlier, because it will create accountability in the City government beyond City Council members who come and go.
It is now the City and Council's job to implement the recommendations, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said, adding "we need to do better, be bolder."
The task force's policy framework includes a charge to amend the City charter to allow for direct spending on housing projects to the tune of $250 million in housing bonds over the next 10 years. That change has received broad Council support in the past.
The 10-year plan's $1 billion in public sources includes that bond funding, $485 million from the City’s general fund (annual budget), property tax exemptions (approximately $58.5 million), City fee waivers ($133 million), and revenue from a specific loan fund ($113 million).
The private contribution – largely in the form of developer investment – is expected to be around $2.8 billion, according to the report.
After the vote, Nirenberg told reporters that the City's goal is to create a "healthy, quality, affordable, sustainable housing environment for the city of San Antonio, which means that you have an efficient governmental policy-making environment that works hand in hand with the private sector to produce [those] homes."
Brockhouse reiterated his opinion that the "core function" of City government does not include funding affordable housing but that it should encourage policies that make it easier for developers to produce such housing.
But task force member Dawson, a developer, said housing should be represented at the top levels of city funding and management – as high as water, electricity, and transportation.
"Available, affordable, obtainable housing drives our economy," Dawson said.
Brockhouse and Perry did agree with the task force on a review of rules and regulations that could be limiting housing development.
"Our involvement slows up the process," Brockhouse said.
Perry said after the vote he respected the work of the people involved in formulating the policy, but that he has "a philosophical issue with the recommendation to commit general funds to this effort. This issue truly has no end date and further strains an already limited General Fund.
"The City has yet to see the success or failure of our $20 million Neighborhood Improvements Bond Program and without such data, I do not believe that we can make an accurate assessment of how a municipality should or could address affordable housing."
The top priority of city government, Councilman John Courage (D9) said, is to keep its residents safe.
"People who are living in substandard housing .... are they living in safe or healthy or secure, livable environments? No," he said, adding that housing vulnerability can contribute to crime and health problems.
The City Housing Commission, created under former Mayor Julián Castro, will oversee the implementation of these recommendations, according to the report.
"The good news for San Antonio ... [is that] things are not as bad here as they are in a lot of cities," Castro said, drawing on his experience as HUD secretary under former President Barack Obama when he visited several major cities struggling with displacement and homelessness. "Y’all still have the opportunity to change things."