Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City officials are continuing to craft a city-wide short-term solution for tenants facing possible displacement due to rising rents, including those at a downtown apartment complex located next to the San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
The complex was recently purchased by the Houston-based Barvin Group, which is renovating the units and subsequently raising rents. Residents at the Soap Works and Towne Center Apartment Complex, now called the Soap Factory Apartments, are concerned that rent hikes will force them out of their homes as the property around the new downtown linear park becomes more desirable.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes the complex, previously proposed a plan to use funds from the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) to provide tenants short-term relief from the rent increases. However, that plan has been abandoned, with attention now focused on using federal community development block grant (CDBG) funds to provide emergency rent assistance.
After meeting with concerned residents last week, the City's Housing & Neighborhood Services department and Treviño hosted a community work session Tuesday night that gave tenants the opportunity to tell the City what solutions they would like to see in a short-term plan to keep them in their homes. About 13 tenants from the complex participated.
Maureen Galindo, a tenant and housing activist at the complex, said the event felt "awkward" and that the relocation plan "felt like the minimum amount that they can do to help us."
"There was no details as to what the [assistance] package was like," Galindo said. "It started off with the non-negotiables, which just kind of felt like there wasn't going to be any creative solutions to what's supposed to be a very flexible grant."
Treviño told the Rivard Report that the block grants are one possible solution and that he and City officials are continuing to look for other ways to help strapped tenants.
"We don't want to create a blanket approach, or blanket policy, that tries to solve it with one single policy," he said. "We know that these issues really deserve a lot of attention and require very specific approaches that may require us to deploy many different existing and new policies."
The TIRZ plan would have allowed the City to pay for improvements to specific public infrastructure components at the complex, such as sidewalks and parking lots. The idea was that the property owners would then take those savings and pass them onto the tenants.
Treviño said that proposal did not fit with Soap Factory's business model.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes community development block grants as a "flexible program that provides communities with resources to address a wide range of unique community development needs."
The San Antonio City Council voted last week to repurpose $465,000 in CDBG funding to administer and provide city-wide emergency rental assistance for up to two months.
"[We're] trying to be as creative as possible in seeking funding sources," Veronica Soto, the City's director of Neighborhood & Housing Services, told City Council last week. "We know there are perimeters that HUD provides, by which we can provide this assistance. We want [tenant] input so we can shape this final program design, knowing that there are lanes we have to stay in that HUD dictates as well."
Federal requirements for using the funds dictate that they may only be used for one time, short-term emergency grant payments, that recipients' household income may not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, and that rental payments may not exceed three consecutive months. The requirements also state that there must be documentation of emergency need in the form of eviction or late payment notices from landlords, a copy of proposed rent increase above an affordable level, or proof of financial hardship such as loss of employment or unexpected medical costs.
Tenants at the complex who participated in Tuesday night's session made recommendations such as having assistance begin when there's a 5 percent increase in rent, that seniors should have prioritized assistance funding, and that there should be funding for expenses such as moving fees and storage costs.
Treviño said that one request presented at the meeting, getting assistance paying for utility connections necessitated by moving to a new residence, has already been met.
"[CPS Energy] has committed to reduce, or even eliminate, the deposit and hookup expenses for residents who are moving due to the cost of the rent," Treviño said.
Participants also requested that the definition of emergency situations be expanded to include incarceration of a primary rent-payer, an inability to access funds, and with unexpected life occurrences like a divorce or eviction.
Soto told the participants that the City would present the findings and the Department of Human Service's plan to tenants on Monday.