Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Mayor Ron Nirenberg's Housing Policy Task Force on Wednesday presented five main recommendations that come with more than one dozen ambitious action items and priorities to a largely receptive City Council.
The recommendations aim to combat growing housing gaps in San Antonio. To implement them, the task force says the City needs to start allocating $20 million of its budget every year, starting in 2019.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley said $20 million annually may not be feasible, but that funding level could be achieved with a "phased-in approach." The task force is working on solidifying the details for a full policy report that will be presented in early August to Council, which will then consider the implications for the fiscal year 2019 budget.
An audible gasp and excited whispers filled the room as task force member Gene Dawson described the "by-right zoning" recommendation that would allow proposed housing projects to receive automatic zoning approval if half of their units are designated affordable and meet other soon-to-be-determined guidelines.
"You said, 'Be bold,'" said task force Chair Lourdes Castro Ramírez, noting Councilman Rey Saldaña's (D4) charge last week. Nirenberg tasked the five-member task force with creating comprehensive, compassionate policies last August, Ramírez said, confident that they and the more than 100 members of five technical working groups delivered.
Other action items include creating a "one-stop" housing center, 18 positions within the City's Housing and Neighborhood Services department, and an executive position in the city manager's office; increasing funding for payment assistance and housing rehabilitation programs; incentivizing developers who build low-income housing; providing displacement assistance; changing the City charter to allow bond money to be used for housing construction; and "removing barriers" such as fees and restrictive zoning rules.
Implementing tools with which the City will intervene is "not going to be easy," Nirenberg said, adding that's why so many cities and Councils before them have failed to act.
About 165,000 San Antonians are overburdened with housing expenses – meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, mortgage payments, and other costs associated with housing, such as electricity. That burden and homelessness is expected to worsen over time, Dawson said. The task force recommends focusing on building and incentivizing efforts to create housing for people who make less than 60 percent of the average median income – or less than $30,000 per year.
Task force member Maria Berriozábal, a former city councilwoman, said she combed through 30 years worth of studies, reports, and policy recommendations related to better housing policy. Many outline the same issues and lack one critical element: "political will."
For the first time locally, a majority of City Council named housing as a top budget priority for next year's budget along with streets, sidewalks, drainage, public safety, and transportation.
"We don’t have a resource problem, we have a priority problem," said Dawson, president of local development firm Pape-Dawson Engineers. Energy, transportation, and water are only three of the four pillars of economic infrastructure, he said. Housing is the fourth – and under-funded – pillar.
But this kind of priority has its detractors. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) questioned whether it is the City's job to ensure housing for its residents.
While he agreed with the recommendations to lower fees and restrictions on development, Brockhouse said he's not convinced that homeownership is a right and called the plan as a whole "social reengineering" and "probably the greatest overreach of governance in decades."
He questioned the return on investment that home rehabilitation programs, such as the Under 1 Roof program which replaces eligible homeowners’ failing roofs with energy-efficient ones, have citywide.
Data collected from several local and national economic impact reports show that the more people are secure in their housing needs, the more jobs and prosperity there will be, Dawson said.
“We cannot lose our [housing] affordability, it’s one of our economic development secret weapons," he said.
As for owner-occupied rehabilitation, Dawson said, “the cheapest house we can create is a house that already exists."
Most council members agree there is a moral obligation to help solve the emerging housing crisis.
"It’d be discompassionate to pretend like [displacement and homelessness is] not happening in our community," Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, pausing as tears ran down her face. "It's our job as leaders to ask ourselves how we can help."
City Council could use a number of different funding methods to tackle the issue, Dawson said. Each has a hefty, long-term price tag beyond annual budgets involving bonds, loans, and other sources of funding.
The "replace-what's-lost" method to backfill the federal dollars no longer streaming in, he said, would require $200 million to $400 million over 10 years; the "match-supply-to-demand" method would entail $1.36 billion to catch up; the method to eliminate overspending on housing would be $657 million per year; catching up on lost inventory would ring in at $1.1 billion; and if the City just wanted to maintain the status quo, it would still cost an additional $29 million per year.
Whichever funding mechanism the City chooses, they all aim to fix "billions of dollars [worth] of problems,” Dawson said.
Maureen Galindo, a resident of the now-Soap Factory Lofts near San Pedro Creek, attended the more than three-hour meeting. That apartment complex has become a flashpoint of the gentrification conversation in San Antonio as a new owner is renovating the units and increasing rent to coincide with its proximity to the $175 million public creek redevelopment project.
Galindo is not confident that the task force's recommendations will be implemented – or that they would even help the most vulnerable residents in the city.
"Overall, I think what's going to come out of this is: we need to build more and we need to incentivize developers," she said. "[They think] with more supply prices will go down, but it's not that simple. That's what every other city has already done and it's never worked."
One recommendation directly addresses the "unintended consequences" that major public investment in amenities and infrastructure can have on surrounding communities, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said.
A "displacement impact assessment" will be conducted for such investments that total $15 million or more, Dawson said, and 1 percent will be set aside for a fund to mitigate displacement.