Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Bexar County is looking for help as it considers developing policies to addresses affordable housing needs, and a unanimous vote by County Commissioners means it can hire a consultant and form a citizens committee to do so.
But that vote Tuesday came after a lengthy presentation and debate among Commissioners that touched on a myriad of social issues, and had some Commissioners wondering about core County commitments.
The item arose as the County continues to reshape its economic incentive packages for both developers and job creators. The County decided to put a hold on providing economic incentives after an October vote that gave Credit Human, a credit union, nearly $3 million in County tax abatements to move its headquarters from the Northside of San Antonio to a new lot across from the Pearl.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) began publicly criticizing his fellow Commissioners in January for crafting what he called a renewed incentive policy that continues to encourage luxury and market-rate housing developments rather than encouraging mixed-income and affordable housing developments. He organized a special presentation for Tuesday's meeting delivered by educators and community activists concerned about shortages in affordable housing and historical economic segregation.
"I have been trying to work for three years, patiently, with this Court on affordable housing issues," Calvert said at the Tuesday meeting. "When I asked for low to moderate affordable housing to be included in our incentive policy, it was not. And that’s not acceptable anymore."
The County expects to formally consider a new incentive policy proposal in late March.
Throughout the nearly three-hour discussion on the special agenda item, Commissioners largely agreed that the issue of affordable housing deserved more consideration and study. But Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) wondered whether the issue is a core county concern, and rejected the notion that the County has no policies seeking to provide affordable housing.
"Through Merced and some other places, the county has given over $2 million dollars in affordable housing for seniors," Wolff said. "That's just one program. There's also the Bexar County Housing Authority."
He also pointed out that consistently lowering the County's tax rate also can benefit residents directly, giving them more money to maintain their homes.
Yet Calvert and several speakers argued more needs to be done, including giving more tax dollars to owner-occupied housing rehabilitation programs.
Christine Drennon, chair of the urban studies department at Trinity University, presented the Commissioners with a historical analysis of federal policy showing how decades of racial segregation in neighborhoods continues to segregate the city economically.
"Public policy produced our current situation in the housing crisis, and public policy must now alleviate it," Drennon said.
Calvert also invited developers into the discussion. Peter French, development director at GrayStreet Partners, argued that developing incentive policies to build in existing neighborhoods is the best way to maintain San Antonio's affordability.
"Every unit of new housing that gets built creates a unit of affordable housing," French said. "However, the most affordable housing that can be built is housing that doesn't have to be built at all."
The County is not alone in reconsidering its development incentives. The City Council in January decided to stop providing incentives for downtown developments through the Center City Housing Incentive Policy.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg convened a housing task force in October to formulate recommendations for addressing housing affordability, neighborhood rehabilitation, and gentrification.
"We've got to have the City of San Antonio at the table," said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. "All of these problems, almost all of them, are within the City of San Antonio."