High-Density Development Can Help Solve SA’s Affordable Housing Shortage

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A residential house and newly constructed high density infill development project on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A residential house and recently constructed high density infill development project on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood.

San Antonio is the greatest city on earth. Full disclosure: I’m from here and may be slightly biased. As great as this city is, we have our share of problems, and I’m not talking about the heat, the traffic, or the parking.

What I find most disturbing is our city’s rank as the most segregated among the nation’s largest cities by income, race, education, and a few other metrics. We’ve also got an affordable housing shortage on our hands, and the city’s population is expected to double in the coming decades.

To prepare for this influx, San Antonio is in the process of implementing a comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow, to address these and a myriad of other concerns for the greater metro area. Many groups have an interest in this conversation but my concern is regarding one group in particular.

Neighborhood associations in theory are a great thing; they bring people together in the interest of the common good. In fact, I helped form the Uptown Neighborhood Association just last year. However, when participation is dominated by a disproportionately small set of people, in this case property owners, the agenda tends to skew in the favor of the privileged few who own property while the largest and most vulnerable group – tenants – suffers the consequences.

Cynthia Spielman, former president of the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association, wrote in a recent op-ed that a group of nearly 30 neighborhood association leaders – most of them homeowners – formed the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition “because, from the outset, the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has not included meaningful representation from neighborhoods and has repeatedly vowed to eliminate existing Neighborhood Plans.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. City staff have gone to great lengths to include input from all relevant parties. I currently sit on the planning team for the Midtown Regional Center, a sub-area identified in SA Tomorrow, where a portion of the projected growth is expected to concentrate.

Approximately 20 planning team members represent the following organizations: University of the Incarnate Word, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, NRP Group, Tobin Hill/St. Mary’s Business Owners Association, San Antonio College, Silver Ventures, FRED Committee, Witte Museum, Brackenridge Park Conservancy, VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio River Authority, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, two at-large members, as well as the Government Hill and Westfort alliances  and Five Points, Mahncke Park, Uptown, and Tobin Hill neighborhood associations.

Neighborhood associations are well represented, comprising some 35 percent of the team. Furthermore, we decided early on neighborhood plans would be incorporated in the new plan and shortcomings of existing plans would be improved upon.

Current neighborhood plans systematically remove dense, affordable housing from urban neighborhoods and carry on our city’s long legacy of segregation. Any new homes built within the areas of these neighborhood plans are subject to stricter building codes under the guise of neighborhood preservation. I’m a preservationist, and love our city’s history, so I’ll skip to the part where it all comes down to parking.

Parking is important and traffic is a bummer, I concur. But I’d argue that more important than parking for cars is housing for people, many of whom don’t have the privilege of owning a car. There it is.

If new housing is required to include parking – 1.5 parking spots per residential unit to be exact – then the neighborhood plans and the ordinances that come with them make it illegal to build anything but houses for people with cars.

“But the new construction we’re seeing isn’t affordable,” says the NIMBY (Not-in-my-backyard). Take the new homes at 930 W. Craig Pl. for example. Heightened ordinances, including parking requirements, make construction more costly, so the end product, too, is more costly.

High-density development is not what is driving tenants out; in fact, new developments like this are slowing the rate at which tenants are pushed out. Since the homes in question compare in price to an updated single-family home, it stands to reason these new homeowners might also have been in the market for an old house. Many of these old houses have evolved into multi-family homes with add-ons upon add-ons and casitas out back.

In this case, a new homebuyer can potentially displace half a dozen families, easy. Neighborhood associations celebrate this kind of change and welcome the addition of new owners to their ranks. Owners and cars win out over vulnerable tenants, pedestrians, and cyclists.

To perpetuate this broken system would be tragic. Please join me in prioritizing the needs of people over the needs of cars.


26 thoughts on “High-Density Development Can Help Solve SA’s Affordable Housing Shortage

  1. Your argument is flawed. Developers did not have higher costs and thus, higher prices at W Craig because of parking requirements. They had higher prices because they built luxury units at an average BCAD value of $301,000 each. They replaced two homes with a value under $250K each with 6 homes at a significantly higher value. Oh yeah, and replaced single family in the middle of a block with three story modern buildings. So now the neighborhood is permanently changed by luxury condos, forcing prices up in the area. What happens when this occurs? Taxes go up. Which means rents go up. Which forces the renters to pay more or go somewhere else. Which speaks directly to affordability in our urban neighborhoods.

    • First off, they didn’t replace two homes for the six condos…it was a vacant lot. $300,000 is not a significantly higher value than $250,000. 6 homes is better than 2, even if that was the case. Secondly, when you add more units (homes) to a neighborhood it actually broadens the tax base, which keeps property taxes from skyrocketing for everyone. When you limit the number of units (homes) and stick to single family near high demand areas this actually causes property taxes to rise at a steeper rate – economics 101.

      • Gus, your understanding of how properties are assessed for tax purposes is incorrect. You assume that the appraisal district starts with a total tax base valuation they must meet and then apportions that amount across all properties to generate a certain around of revenue for taxing jurisdictions. In this scenario, more properties would always be a good thing because the share of the overall burden would be uniformly reduced. In actuality, the appraisal district looks at comparable properties in similar neighborhoods and assigns a value. Individual taxing jurisdictions then adjust their rate up or down (in San Antonio, generally down for the past several decades) to generate revenue sufficient to cover their budgets. So a new home next door to yours that’s more expensive than yours will likely increase your assessment and thus your taxes, just as it will likely increase the sales price of your home or the amount you can borrow against it.

        • Yes, I don’t disagree. However, given there is XX amount of dollars needed for city, county and school revenue through taxes – if there is a broader tax base, that slows the rise of taxes necessary for everyone to meet the XX dollar demand.

      • That’s not Econ 101. The BCAD could care less and doesn’t spread out the tax base. The are very good at guessing what you paid for the house and appraise it at that value. Once that happens every single house near the new house eventually winds up with the newer square foot value.

        But here’s a real economics lesson. Beware of unintended consequences. Do you remember the adage “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”. The same theory sort of applies to this subject. If we don’t add housing “downtown” (which by the way needs a definition, I think we should classify everything as “inner city” and the boundaries would be everything inside Loop 410), the prices will skyrocket out of control because there will be no supply. We must building housing stock downtown either through ownership or rental. Who are we building the new public transportation for? Answer: The people that are moving here. There is nothing more reliable that a free market. Let the free market decide and also encourage the city to disband all the angry, in-fighting, maniacal neighborhood associations. All they do in embarrass themselves.

  2. Maxwell, thank you for this. It is so refreshing to read logic when it comes to the realities of development and the ways supply-and-demand actually function when it comes to housing. I’m so over the myth that continues to be perpetuated that new development causes home prices to go up, when in fact, the new development is responding to the already-increased demand and already-increasing prices.
    In the example of 930 W. Craig that you mention, sure I concede that the architecture may be insensitive to the neighborhood’s existing vernacular, but any assertion that six units where there was one is somehow the worst outcome for an urban neighborhood is quite telling of who folks like Cynthia Spielman believe they’re for. I see comments that compare the prices of the new units to the price of the unit it replaced, but fail to account for how much the replaced unit would actually cost if it were fully restored and renovated to modern standards and finishes.
    Anyway, thanks again.

  3. Tearing down existing homes and replacing with skinny houses or condo’s undermines the existing neighborhoods. We need to preserve the feel of this city. Mistakes made by the city are just whisked away by oopses. And then they go on making the same errors in judgement again ie. Set backs from the streets or heights of buildings. People choose to live in certain neighborhoods for specific reasons the city shouldn’t be able to randomly change the feel of these neighborhoods to increase the population density. I’ve lived in Mahncke Park since 2001 and I’ve seen this area improve drastically over the years. Now the infiltration of condos and skinny houses has placed our homes in jeopardy. Developers are buying homes and tearing them down to replace them with multiple dwellings. Stop this undermining.

    • Sharon, please tell me how “skinny houses” undermine existing neighborhoods. Last I checked, no one declared the bungalow the only real contributor to neighborhoods.

  4. “What I find most disturbing is our city’s rank as the most segregated among the nation’s largest cities by income, race, education, and a few other metrics. We’ve also got an affordable housing shortage on our hands, and the city’s population is expected to double in the coming decades”. and “Current neighborhood plans systematically remove dense, affordable housing from urban neighborhoods and carry on our city’s long legacy of segregation.”
    I believe this is your issue in terms of housing. I live in a central location that is very diverse racially. Perhaps somewhat economically. As our real estate goes up in value the new residence may have more than older residence. This has been my experience no matter where I have lived. The more you pay for your home, the more likely you are to care about your investment. I find it very sad, being a non-San Antonian, to see the decline of so many of the older, most beautiful neighborhoods. I believe San Antonio is one of the most unique cities I have ever lived in, unique in its rich culture and embracement of the arts, which are the two things that enrich my life personally. However, it is also a city rich in history that is for the most part preserved. I am also grateful for this. However on the residential front, and this is I am sure maybe economically driven, the lack of maintenance on many beautiful architecturally significant structure is the saddest part. With this in mind, I can certainly understand why some might be cautious about certain neighborhoods. I adore so many of these wonderful old neighborhoods and do not want to see them lose their charm. However, when a home is in such bad condition due to 75 plus years of neglect what can a person do to preserve it within reason, economically? I commend so many of the millennials and younger generations for their devotion to maintaining many of these homes, this doesn’t happen cheaply.
    I believe mixed income is a pipe dream. That is the only segregation I see in this city. Race is a non-issue. Education and income are intertwined.
    Those developers skinny townhouse models are very far from affordable.
    However, growth is something we all must accept and contend with.
    Neighborhood associations and the city can see that the designs proposed are sensitive to the adjacent structures. Otherwise, areas such as many streets in Southtown will be completely transformed from their original historic appearance.

  5. Amen. Everyone wants a nicer neighborhood, but no one wants any money invested to fix it up-that’s gentrification. Everyone wants a close-knit neighborhood, but no one wants to understand private property rights or have multi-family housing near them. Everyone wants the good old days, and no one wants change. Change happens. Without higher density and low-cost rental housing, the city cannot sustain the businesses and mass-transit that the mayor seek to, in fact, make the city better. The economics and numbers are clear.

    We put life back into a dying community. We invested heavily in a boarded up, falling down shack. Our investment helped an infirmed elderly woman live out her last days not in a condemned house, but in dignity. We are long-term residents heavily involved in community, politics, and neighborhood preservation. We serve on community boards, teach free tennis to kids at McFarlin, volunteer fixing up homes on the east side, feed the transient immigrant women and children at our local church, care for families at the Strong Foundation, and mentor children in SAISD schools. We ride the bus, we walk to work. We mow the lawns of neighbors who can’t.

    You know what we are to some of you? We are the bad guys, the ‘transplants,’ the ‘gentrifiers,’ the rich driving out the poor.

    You want me to go? Sorry, we are here to stay.

  6. Thank you for the accurate and thoughtful article. It is an important issue that urbanites need to be aware of, instead of stopping development and growth. The growth is inevitable and necessary for the future of urban San Antonio.

  7. Thank you for the article, Max. These are issues that San Antonio Neighborhoods for Everyone (SANE) are concerned with. (www.sane-satx.org)
    “Current neighborhood plans systematically remove dense, affordable housing from urban neighborhoods and carry on our city’s long legacy of segregation.”
    When reading through many of the SA neighborhood plans, I was disappointed to see that most of them call for the downzone of duplexes, triplexes and quads to single family homes. This is very exclusionary and could lead to involuntary displacement. It happened to homes 1/2 a block from me. A five plex was converted back to a single family home – now it is an unoccupied airbnb. We lost five units from this one building in our neighborhood; I wonder if the neighborhood assoc was concerned about that displacement that occurred.

    The neighborhood plans also call for complete streets (which SANE is all for), but they fail to make the connection of complete streets to density, land use, and development patterns. The connection matters, as it influences how walkable and safe for people walking a place is.

  8. I agree with the reader who states “Tearing down existing homes and replacing with skinny houses or condo’s undermines the existing neighborhoods”.

    In my old neighborhood, Northwood, the City allows new homes in big back yards of existing homes. New City Odinance 35-515 (h)(1) of UDC changed approval of “flag lots” from variance-board required to non-variance-board required. My neighbor got mud in his swimming pool after a heavy rain and after a “back yard home” was built.

    Maxwell states “To perpetuate this broken system would be tragic. Please join me in prioritizing the needs of people over the needs of cars.”

    Please see the website, NaureTrailMaps.net”, for ways to meet the needs of people over the needs of cars. At the home page, click or touch map 67 for meeting transportation needs of people with routes of buses, river barges, and nature trails.

  9. How is tearing down existing homes and building houses that are more expensive helping to “desegregate” San Antonio?
    It seems to me that just makes mobility unavailable to people who need moderately priced housing. As long as developers (those are the guys who make the money) can easily destroy existing residential property they will. Then they will build shiny new very much more expensive houses that are trendy. Buyers for those homes often are from outside San Antonio. How does this help “desegregate” housing in San Antonio?

  10. Home ownership should instill pride in ones home by the families living in them. Unfortunately, the opposite is seen in older neighborhoods where the children have fled to the suburbs, leaving the parents to fend and repair for themselves. In the past, many of these homes were purchased and rented as section 8 properties. Upkeep was minimal, and the government check was always on time. There was no pride in upkeep, by tenant or landlord. Businesses in these neighborhoods fled to the suburbs with the children of the original homeowners. Those businesses were replaced by used car lots, tire shops, auto repair shops for the abundance of used cars in the neighborhood, rent to own stores, dollar stores, pawn shops and the like. Enter the gentrifiers…saviors of economically ravaged, city ignored neighborhoods. With millions of dollars being spent yearly on the downtown tourist trade, the surrounding neighborhoods are now reaping the benefits.
    These same neighborhoods are now hot properties, long overlooked by the city. Businessmen are looking for a alternate to the cookie-cutter hotel room and the flippers are obliging. Restaurants are flocking to the southtown area, with no shortage of customers. Kitschy shops are sprouting up among the bars and bike shops, making parking a hassle, with Via (Viva) filling the transportation gap.

    Now we have the twisted issue of a neighborhood association near Mission San Jose that is aligning itself with fixed income housing developers to build affordable housing along the World Heritage Corridor. Those same neighbors who fought tooth and nail to keep the upscale apartments out of their backyards are now pushing for the housing to be build in an area where
    five section 8 housing projects have existed for over 30 years. With those developments come the typical support businesses. Used car lots, tire shops, auto repair shops for the abundance of used cars in the neighborhood, rent to own stores, dollar stores, pawn shops and the like. Rezoning interest by city to control the old businesses has set up a war of sorts in the neighborhood. The neighborhood association sides with the city. The twist is that those neighbors would also like to join the ranks of the AirBNB landlords.

    Were it not for the city trying to control the types of businesses along the corridor after years of ignorance by zoning, our neighborhood might be included in the above article.

  11. Max, since you have quoted me, I feel compelled to answer. The quote you use from a recent commentary in NOWCastSA was about the formation of the SATomorrow Plan, not the formation of the sub area plans. They are different processes. It would be helpful if you got the facts straight and not place my words in a different context than the one for which it was intended.

    You have misrepresented my views when you imply I am anti-density or affordable housing. I feel we can have it all. We do not need to destroy legacy neighborhoods, neighborhoods that give San Antonio its character and history, that have strong resilient and diverse communities, to promote density. Most of the downtown neighborhoods have a plan for density in the corridors or other places that make sense. And if you are promoting the new Comprehensive Plan (and we should – it is basically a great blueprint for our future), then you realize that the Regional Centers are the places to accommodate more density and in fact state that targeting housing in these centers will take pressure off of downtown neighborhoods. Because the regional centers are centered on jobs and opportunities, it is appropriate that they be the target for affordable housing to help combat the economic segregation in our city and the lack of opportunity. SA Tomorrow Transportation Land Use Plan’s goals help link regional centers together. I agree with you on the need to find alternatives to cars.

    I simply do not understand a kind of willful misrepresentation that seems to occur every time this conversation takes place. We all want opportunity and diverse neighborhoods in which residents do not need to be dependent on cars as the only transportation resource. Many of us already live in them and are working hard to combat displacement. In Beacon Hill newcomers and legacy neighbors have come together to work for compatible infill for density as well as the protection of a historic neighborhood. This is a win-win for all of our community. We should all be working together.

    I want to commend you on your mention of the vulnerability of renters. Renters make up almost 48% of those in housing and they do not have anywhere to turn for advocacy or help. As a member of the Equitable and Resilient Neighborhoods Working Group for the Mayor’s Housing Task Force, I can assure you we dedicated a lot of time working on renters’ issues. We have worked on protecting rent housing in Beacon Hill with our NCD updates.

    Can we stop with the NIMBY name calling and the false accusations which polarizes positions and thus making it more difficult to build consensus that is necessary to build a future for this city, one that is about a vision that makes this city thrive and endure?

    • You make some great points, Cynthia. This is a really complicated set of issues. None of the solutions to any of the problems are black or white and none of this fits neatly into a simple narrative that we might try to import from other metros as a shortcut. Fortunately, we as a community have really begun to engage and to learn from one another. This conversation we’re having about what our beloved city will be in 25 years is difficult but it’s really really important that we have it.

    • you state above: “I simply do not understand a kind of willful misrepresentation that seems to occur every time this conversation takes place.” and, in the Nowcast article you state: “Unfortunately, despite the assurances of Treviño and Nirenberg and the plan’s own directive, the SA Tomorrow Sub-Area Plan process is about to eliminate and replace our existing Neighborhood and Community plans.”

      You are concerned about misrepresentation, yet your article misrepresents what has been said all along with the planning process. No one said the neighborhood plans were to be eliminated. From what I have heard at meetings, they are doing an inventory of policies and strategies within the plans. They are going to incorporate the policies within the neighborhood plans that are consistent with the comprehensive plan into the sub area plans. How is that unreasonable, or elimination?

      Many of the neighborhood plans were written almost two decades ago without much consideration of future planning for population growth. I certainly wasn’t involved in that process and I plan to stay here for decades to come, and my children and grandchildren will be here for decades to come – they didn’t get to provide input in the neighborhood plans. Doing an updated comprehensive plan and following it with more specified land use plans is a good thing for the city moving forward, incorporating more voices, and progressing into the 21st century.

      You might admit that the neighborhood plans have some very odd policies – such as converting duplexes, triplexes and quads back to single family homes to promote more home ownership. This is very exclusive and leads to displacement of renters. So, there are policies that need to be revisited to bring us into a future that inclusive of everyone, and I think SA Tomorrow is doing a great job at that. I know on the Westside they have gone above and beyond with reaching out to various neighborhood groups.

      Yes, everyone is not going to be happy, but a compromise is good. I apologize, but I don’t see Tier 1 as compromising, especially after viewing this meeting…http://nowcastsa.com/blogs/webcast-neighborhood-leaders-gear-city-discards-and-rewrites-neighborhood-plans
      In viewing this meeting, it also appears that Tier 1 is not very inclusive of diverse groups of people, yet they seem to highly influence decisions of our politicians/council members. My hope is that all voices will be heard in this process, not just Tier 1.

      • Dawn:

        Thank you for your critical assessment of the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition but some corrections are in order to assure that we have a balanced approach toward this group.

        The Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition is a group of 40 neighborhood associations from various parts of the city: the west side, the south side, the east side, the north side and downtown. The Coalition was formed to advocate on behalf of neighborhoods with the main purpose of promoting: communication, cooperation , education, dialogue and support between neighborhoods on issues that confront neighborhoods.

        From my neighborhood experience; our neighborhood association participation seems to be all inclusive: homeowners, renters, business owners, students, artists, property owners who live inside and outside of the neighborhood and neighbors of all various SES. I believe other neighborhood associations to be of somewhat similar makeup. These are the type of neighborhood associations that comprise the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition.

        So…..to say that ” Tier 1 is not very inclusive of diverse groups of people ” is not based on a reality that I have experienced within my neighborhood association and the diversity I have experienced within the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition.

        Furthermore, the fact that you are viewing a forum on NowCastSA is a testament to the openness, transparency and inclusiveness that is being offered by the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition……a big step by the Coalition to open itself to public critique but a step willing to take for the sake of neighborhood preservation.

        Maybe its time to take off the gloves and have a chat over coffee with T1NC. You might have more in common with T1NC than you think.


    • “If the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has its way, our neighborhoods, instead of being of unique identities, will simply be part of a larger Sub-Area Plan, subject to the development vision of others.“

      “The explanation given by the Planning Department when challenged on the status of neighborhood plans is a lot like when a loved one dies, and people tell you that they aren’t really dead as long as you keep them alive in another form in your heart.

      Comforting, perhaps for consoling a family member, but less so when we hear it from City government regarding our neighborhoods and the democratic process.“

      Speaking of willful misrepresentation. You yourself state old plans will be integrated into the new plans and then insist the city is discarding them. Which is it? You integrate ingredients to make guacamole, but the avocado does not cease to be avocado.

  12. This article and the responses have been a very enlightening one, so I would like to share a major issue that some are unaware of, the Land Lease.
    San Antonio officials or city departments and Developers have failed or purposefully kept vital information regarding “Afforadability” or “Home Ownership” of these properties.
    How many readers or Buyers understand the limitiations that come with a “Land Lease” clause to your purchase of your new Downtown affordable property/structure?
    Most of these Developers that I have researched have opted for a bigger more profitable scheme, read the fine print of your contract, build the structure, sell and mortgage the structure. The land it sits on, still belongs to the land owner aka Developer.
    Yes, you are reading correctly, the buyer does not own the land, just the structure, that’s why there are HOA fees. These fees will be divided as payment for the yearly land tax which the structure pays for. The land owner/Developer has structure owner pay the tax!
    Mortgages during this time could possibly be a 30 year note and if not a fixed rate, will increase in time while the structure looses value as aging structures but the land value that this resident lives on increases.
    So in reality, the buyer is actually “renting” not owning their home or creating equity.
    Imagine an unforeseen catastrophe, such as a fire,can you rebuild? The land is not yours? Some of these tiny homes are fixed to the land, it could be impossible and financially ridiculous to move.
    Buyers need to research, as well as the city, who is green lighting these new developments.
    I want homeowners, families with children, a community of thoughtful residents. Students to make up the declining enrollment even though more housing has been built, were 2k less this year in SAISD.
    Many say walkablity and less cars are what the downtown development is seeking, how can that be. Cars will always be in the picture, UBER, for those who can’t take a bus. New SAC employees moving to their Broadway headquarters, driving thru our neighborhood, cars won’t be eliminated but our History will be if we continue rezoning for these developments and pricing San Antonionians out of their homes.

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