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We’re not calling it the Gentrification Task Force.
Though it would be much easier to say than Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods, the word “gentrification” carries too much baggage. It literally refers to gentry, or ruling class, with a negative connotation of displacing low-income residents. For an issue that has already sparked a fair amount of heated debate, it might be best to check those bags at the gate.
It seems that members of the task force, which include City Council members, City staff, and citizens, have done just that. The task force met for the fourth time Thursday, and it was clear members were set on following the call of former Mayor Julián Castro and Mayor Ivy Taylor, articulated in her first meeting with the task force:
Identify policies and programs that encourage investment in inner city neighborhoods, but minimize or prevent displacement of people or adverse impacts related to history, culture, and quality of life of unique neighborhoods.
Put another way: The City welcomes investment in inner city neighborhoods, but not at the expense of current residents. It’s the task force’s challenge to find out how to mitigate the consequences of gentrifi – er, changing neighborhood demographics.
At its core, the issue is rising property taxes in low-income neighborhoods brought on by increased investment in neighborhood properties. No home is an island (well, some literally are). When a home is suddenly worth a lot more, neighborhood property taxes based on property values increase.
“Theoretically, that’s what is happening,” said task force chair and District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal. “You should not be priced out of your neighborhood.”
More than tax formulas are at stake. These are human lives that contribute to a neighborhood’s culture and history. The formulation of this task force sends the message that San Antonio will not passively chalk it up to the free market cycle of evolving neighborhoods.
Some cite the $75 million mixed-use development that displaced Mission Trail Mobile Home Park residents as an example of why the City needs policies to avoid abrupt and unintended economic evictions. Yet little attention has been paid to the out-of-state landlord who allowed the community to exist amid such neglect for years.
Five issues emerged from the 90-minute discussion. Keep in mind these are very preliminary, fluid ideas – expect future change and combinations:
- The role of taxes in redevelopment
- Workforce housing
- Mitigate human cost of revitalization/mass displacement
- Policies that govern future development
- Dedicated funding
First, the group tackled taxes. Property tax pressure on homeowners, the effect on renters, and how public schools fit into the discussion were highlighted. City staff was asked to organize a later presentation on current local tax policies, abatements and exceptions.
“Let’s put ‘myth’ up there, too,” said Susan Sheeran. It’s unclear what exactly constitutes a property improvement that’s going to result in a new evaluation. Bernal wrote down “Myth or Reality” off to the side of the list on the white board he used to visually organize the group’s thoughts.
San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) Executive Director Jackie Gorman pointed out that it’s not only long-time residents who should have some sort of protection from rising taxes.
“Early adopters,” she said, referring to those who move to a neighborhood – Dignowity Hill, for example – to buy/renovate homes early on. “We need to protect those urban pioneers so that their initial investment doesn’t get priced out.”
Gorman also volunteered to help research, alongside City staff, property tax policies that have been implemented in other cities to be presented at a future meeting.
Then came workforce housing, which started out as “affordable” housing on the whiteboard. Another word with a lot of baggage. Affordable housing comes with a formula to decide subsidy eligibility and a “wait list of 20,000 families,” said community activist Rod Radle, the former executive director of the nonprofit San Antonio Alternative Housing Corporation.
The group agreed that the term “workforce” will be used to describe the population that isn’t quite poor enough to qualify for affordable housing or has not received any assistance.
Radle then called for an analysis of income and rent/mortgage averages throughout the city – from there, patterns might emerge.
Different data sets are required for this particular topic, the group agreed, including information on the current workforce housing stock: How many units are available, how much is rent/mortgage, where is it located, and “are we taking care of it?”
These two priorities – taxes and workforce housing – “bookend nicely,” Bernal said. The tax side will address changing neighborhoods. Workforce housing will address the general concern of ensuring that low-income populations have places to live across the city – be it mixed income housing or housing priced below market rate rentals.
Another Mission Trail Mobile Home Park situation could arise, task force members agreed, and the City needs policies in place to guide officeholders.
“People are going to be asked to move in huge numbers,” Radle said.
Before the close of the meeting, former Councilmember María Berriozábal suggested to a receptive group that a community input meeting be held sometime soon.
“Don’t tell them anything, just listen,” she said.
She also looked forward to organizing a tour of neighborhoods undergoing revitalization for the task force to experience change, up close and personal.
The next meeting will be held Thursday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. in the Municipal Plaza Building. This “mass displacement” concept will be discussed further and presentations on workforce housing will be heard, continuing down the list of themes.