Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Several residents are expected at City Council chambers Thursday morning to protest an affordable, up to 58-unit housing project slated for development in Highland Park that would replace a long-time Moose Lodge gathering hall.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the near-Southeast side neighborhood, and her council colleagues will vote on whether to support a bundle of 20 different affordable housing projects by developers throughout the city, who are seeking highly competitive federal housing tax credits.
The projects include the one in Highland Park at 826 E. Highland Blvd.
The property's base zoning allows for 33 units per acre – more than the planned two-story, 58-unit building. The NRP Group, a Cleveland-based developer proposing the project, had originally suggested 90 units, but scaled back plans after meeting with the community, said Jason Arechiga, the company's vice president of development.
"We're working with the neighborhood to build less than what's [allowed by current zoning]," Arechiga said. "A few people suggested having a design charrette and we said, 'Sure.'"
More than 150 neighbors attended a community meeting about the "Piedmont Lofts" project on Jan. 24, hosted by NRP Group. Most were opposed to an apartment project of any size – especially a "mixed-income" one. Michael Carreon, a Highland Park resident of 12 years, left the meeting frustrated and plans to show up Thursday to Council's meeting to speak his mind.
"We're going to ask that they delay the voting on this project to the next time that they meet," Carreon told the Rivard Report. "I don't think they've given us enough time to combat it."
Which projects receive 9 percent federal tax credits is ultimately up to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs' own process, which reviews applications developers submit for the incentives. The applications do not require City Council's support. The state department has reached out to the Highland Park Neighborhood Association for an opinion on the matter, but one won't be available until its membership votes on the issue during a Feb. 14 meeting.
The City has its own separate matrix for scoring projects seeking application support; Piedmont Lofts proposal received a 79 out of 100 points. Projects must receive a minimum of 70 points to be considered for City Council support.
"This is the development group prepping just to get to the starting line for the race that they're going to have to go [through] at the state level," Viagran said. "It's really helping the transparency process."
Among other metrics, developers receive points toward their federal applications for setting up meetings with local stakeholders. These meetings help get the word out early to neighbors and elected officials, Viagran said. The developer or property owner is not required to share plans publicly at this stage, but it helps their application and community engagement, she said.
In this case, however, many neighbors said the pending sale of the Moose Lodge to NRP Group and proposed apartments "came without warning," Greg Ripps, president of Highland Park Neighborhood Association, told the Rivard Report.
On Tuesday, Jan. 30, Arechiga and another NRP representative met with members of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association board and neighbors.
There's a wide variety of reactions to the project throughout the neighborhood, Ripps said. "It ranges from people who don't want anything there to people who want certain concessions about appearance and design and reassurances about security and traffic matters."
Most want to see the single-family home neighborhood preserved, he said, and they are concerned about what "injecting" so many newcomers will mean for the tight-knit community.
"It seems like these people [new apartment residents] won't have skin in the game," Ripps said, like homeowners do. "Does this open us up to more apartment units of this kind in the area?"
Highland Park was recently identified by a City-commissioned report as a rapidly-changing area particularly vulnerable to rising housing costs, Viagran said Friday, citing a recent Rivard Report article. "We need to make sure that people who grew up there and who live there ... can still stay."
She sees this project as an opportunity to balance the needs and wants of the neighborhood with those of the entire city, which has a deficit of about 142,000 affordable housing units, according to City officials.
"It's a really good learning process," Viagran said. "[Often] when someone hears 'low-income,' when someone hears 'affordable' ... sometimes people interchange that with Section 8, but that's a whole other category."
Section 8, also known as Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program, is a federal program that works with area housing authorities to disperse monthly rent assistance to low- and very low-income residents. The program also gives qualifying landlords subsidies to provide fair market rent to such residents.
For Carreon, a "mixed-income" project will "move poverty into the area," he said, adding that describing it as an effort to help the neighborhood is just "political correctness."
He's concerned the project will bring more property and violent crime to the neighborhood while decreasing quality of life and property values.
"What they're trying to put here, they would never put that by La Cantera," he said, referring to high-income neighborhoods. "Yes it's helping those families that are trying to better themselves ... but it's also helping those that are expecting handouts."
But these units are not free, Arechiga noted. Rents at Piedmont Lofts have not been established yet, but could range from $400 to $800 for the one, two, and three-bedroom units.
"The people who are living here are your retail workers and cashiers and your medical assistants," he said. "Why would you not want those employees in your community?"
Prospective tenants will have to prove an income of 1.5 times greater than rent and complete a credit and background check, he added.
If the project doesn't receive federal funding, it's possible that they will move forward with it anyway, Arechiga said, but the money will allow the company to offer lower rents and programs such as veteran assistance, financial literacy classes, and Homework First program. NRP has 17 other multi-family and an additional 14 market-rate developments in San Antonio.
"All these programs are funded in part by these tax credits," he said, adding that market rate apartments might work in that space, but affordable housing makes more sense. "That’s what we want to build.”
"The city needs [142,000] affordable housing units," Arechiga said. "Fifty-eight is a drop in the bucket, but it's in the right direction."
Some neighbors are revitalizing efforts to have the City recognize Highland Park as a historic district, Carreon said, which would add another layer of oversight for what is built in the neighborhood. The Historic and Design Review Commission would need to approve the design.
"We want to be good neighbors," Arechiga said. "We will work with them to make it an historic district ... if that's what they want."
A 51 percent majority is required from residents to initiate the process.
Viagran recalled that talk about making Highland Park an official historic district has come up over several years. While it does offer some protection from over-development, she said, historic designation carries with it limitations on what residents can and cannot do to the exterior of their homes – which is attractive to some and a burden to others.