How Will San Antonio Manage Growth and Gentrification?

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A home for sale in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Hispanic families are purchasing homes at rates faster than other minority demographics.

San Antonio is expected to gain 1 million people by 2040 and the City is planning to annex 66 square miles of commercial and residential areas. What should the city prioritize as it grows?

Without pause, Christine Drennon, head of Trinity University‘s Urban Studies, says affordable housing and public education are the first things on the list.

“The city is on the rise, but not with the people who made it,” Drennon said during a recent interview. “The people who worked really hard through the 20th century are still here and are still mostly lower middle class. We need to think about how to get them on the rise even more than things like improving the quality of life for Millennials moving downtown.”

Professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University Christine Drennon

Christine Drennon

Drennon’s credentials give her recommendation weight. She has researched and published about urban growth patterns for more than a decade, earning the national Urban Affairs Association’s premier award recognizing scholarship and activism. At the same time, Drennon has been on the ground in the thick of the community for years as a board member for Ella Austin Community Center and has worked with many nonprofits involved in the urban core.

“In Austin, the City’s upward momentum was not because the people of Austin who were there got a great education and bought houses. The big population didn’t go from working class to upper-middle class,” she said. “Instead, wealthy people moved in and the community got too expensive for old residents to stay. Our challenge is not to replicate that. How do we lift up the people who are here and allow them to do really well?”

The data bears out Drennon’s account. In Austin’s historically working class area along East Cesar Chavez, which used to look very similar to San Antonio’s Eastside, the median real estate price is more expensive than 90% of the neighborhoods in Texas. There was a 5.4% decline in the city’s African-American population between 2000 and 2010, earning Austin the distinction of being the only fast-growing city in the United States losing African-Americans.

In San Antonio, average home sales broke the $200,000 mark for the first time in 2015 and the upward price trend continues. Unfortunately, median household income remains low at $50,502 and it’s not rising as quickly as housing prices. Those numbers are what Drennon is looking at.

Affordable housing challenges also come from the loss of subdivisions. Many of these houses were subdivided even though they were originally single-family homes. New buyers are returning to single family homes, which means less affordable housing opportunities. That reduces the community’s overall wealth even if the household income on average becomes higher, and it reduces urban density.

That’s not good. Dense populations support more amenities like restaurants and festivals while boosting overall economic growth and energy efficiency. In places like Dignowity Hill where vacancy reigns supreme, there’s no density to lose, but losing subdivided housing now means that the city will lose the density it could have had when those gaps are filled.

Dignowity Hill resident and property owner Erasmo Diaz stands in front of the large vacant house at 724 Nolan St. Photo: Scott Ball

Dignowity Hill resident and property owner Erasmo Diaz stands in front of the large vacant house at 724 Nolan St. Photo: Scott Ball

According to Drennon, the people who move in aren’t as important as whether there is affordable housing.

“I don’t think you can think about gentrification in terms of race or demographics in general. If we just talk about property value it is easier to craft solutions,” she said. “Properties have deteriorated, and values have gone down, but every time someone picks it up and rehabs it so that it’s worth more. We should think about property value rather than different people moving in.”

Scholars can’t even agree on the definition of gentrification. A study published last December found that when people used numbers like poverty rate, educational attainment, and median income to find gentrifying neighborhoods, they all found different neighborhoods. Since gentrification is a loaded term that has no clear singular meaning, it may be more useful to just look at average housing value by itself.

How can we increase the amount of affordable housing and protect existing residents? Drennon points to Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) who is finding ways for local government to step in to help home owners.

Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. speaks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.

County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. (Precinct 4) speaks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.

A main goal of his as commissioner is to establish what he’s calling a Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund.

“We should create a joint partnership between the city and the county where each would give $100 million, and we would split the money between two programs,” he said. “First, invest in single family home rehab and construction projects to create homes between $75,000 and $150,000 closer to where middle class families can afford. Second, invest in community housing like low-rent apartments and condominiums.

“The city can vote in the bond cycle in 2017, and then it just takes three votes at the Commissioners’ Court so we would vote at the same time. If there’s $200 million publicly invested, that means you’re leveraging a multiplier effect on the local economy worth more than $1 billion through the private investment that follows.”

To those that may balk at the hefty price tag, he says, “Every time the city has to build a new street, fire station, or a police station, it’s a permanent strain on City and County budgets. The fiscally conservative thing to do is to bring back neighborhoods that already have those resources by investing in their housing.”

Some argue that housing construction investment could cause the kind of rapid gentrification that would push out existing residents.

“Gentrification is really only happening in a couple of neighborhoods, and in those neighborhoods we should freeze property taxes for home owners who have lived there for at least 20 years and adjust them according to inflation for 10 years. That way, you wouldn’t force existing homeowners out.”

The bond process, which happens once every five years, is a prime opportunity to explore city growth issues and make progressive moves. The process hasn’t historically been used for housing programs, and instead has been used for more traditional public projects like streets, drainage and parks. The City must put affordable housing in the same category, however, because its effect on economic growth is just as direct as public infrastructure.

“This is the stage in the City’s development where we have to ask tough questions,” Drennon said.

In the short-term, San Antonio can add housing to the bond process discussion in places like the 2017-2022 Bond Survey. Interested residents can sign a petition for housing investment and a gentrification property tax freeze here, and call their district councilmember to ask for their consideration of housing in the process.

Without improving housing options, the city stands to lose more than just growth.

“San Antonio is a working-class city and that’s a fundamental part of the culture,” Drennon said. “It’s part of what brings people here now, and if affordable housing goes, the working class will go too. This place will lose a big part of what makes it what it is.”


*Top image: A home for sale in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

New Commission to Address Gentrification, Housing Bond

Housing Summit Focuses on Equality

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Council Hears Gentrification Task Force Briefing

18 thoughts on “How Will San Antonio Manage Growth and Gentrification?

  1. Yes, great article; the question not being asked is, what happens when all the incoming millennials decide to build families and move out of downtown, where will they go? My guess is they will move to the sprawling outskirts of town, which is what the city planners are trying to prevent in the first place.

    • Hi Mark–that’s a great question. As a millennial myself, I can tell you that, yes, one day a lot of us will move into houses with yards and room for kiddos. But Downtown isn’t just full of millennials! I live in a “trendy” new Downtown apartment, and my neighbors are an elderly retired couple who are WONDERFUL and have me over for home cooked meals. They love their modern apartment and say that we all keep them young. Just down the hall are two couples who are “empty nesters” who sold their home once their kids went to college and wanted to move Downtown and rent. Before I moved Downtown, I had no idea how many non-Millennials lived in the area, but I was pleasantly surprised to find all types of people here. So I think your concern that there will be some mass-exodus of vacancies Downtown on some date when millennials move to subdivisions is a little off. If we continue to invest in the urban core and make it an inviting and safe place to live, people won’t feel like they have to move to Stone Oak to raise their families! No one WANTS that commute, let’s be real.

    • …or instead of the hinterlands, they could move to the “early suburbs” just outside of downtown – Mahncke Park, Monticello Park, Highland Park, Tobin Hill, Beacon Hill, Dignowity Hill, etc. still within reach of mass transit and downtown.

      I believe that this movement is already occurring. For example, ten years ago, there were only a handful of young families with elementary aged kids in my neighborhood of Monticello Park. This year… dozens of area kids were at our recent National Night Out.

      “But what about the schools?” This question is fast becoming a non-issue. There are so many educational options available now, and I think SAISD is seeing the positive effects of their magnet and internal charter academies (K-8) programs. I speak from personal experience as just this school year, my family made the transition from private to a SAISD academy for middle school and have been extremely pleased.

  2. Sorry, gentrification is good as it brings money back into the inner cities. Look at Detroit for what happens when gentrification doesn’t happen.

    The real issue IMO, is our system of property tax. Do nothing and your taxes go up each year anyway. I get that seniors have their taxes frozen but what about the 30+ years prior? About the only thing CA does right is fix property taxes at time of purchase….

  3. This comment from the article is true but only when the dense population can afford the amenities. Typically when the homes are subidivided, it’s because the residents can’t afford to live there otherwise. However, the part about energy efficiency is true, as is sustainability and efficiency of providing public services like streets, utilities, and other infrastructure.

    >> Dense populations support more amenities like restaurants and festivals while boosting overall economic growth and energy efficiency.

  4. “The city is on the rise, but not with the people who made it. The people who worked really hard through the 20th century are still here and are still mostly lower middle class. We need to think about how to get them on the rise…”

    Education, Education, Education. Quality public education available to all, particularly in the urban core. We have some great schools, but that’s not enough. They all need to be good.

    But, remember, once those working class kids get an education, they’re not likely to be working class any longer. And that’s not a bad thing.

  5. Let tell it like it is, investors want to move in an change the landscape. They careless about the existing residents or the working class. If the City of San Antonio and the County wants that do nothing, otherwise step in and advocate or the work class.

    The working class is San Antonio not these millennials and money hungry investors. Change is good but not at the expense of our existing residents and citizens.

  6. Good article & important topic. It seems to me that the City is promoting only one kind of housing development in those working class neighborhoods — one that favors developers, even at the expense of the new occupants of so-called “affordable” housing. We need more options for the kinds of housing ownership (e.g., non-profit urban land trust, cooperatives, co-housing, and sweat equity shares) that would enable working class residents to share ownership. I know a number of millennials (some of them, from working class families) who would prefer to share housing ownership and build a sense of community in that kind of neighborhood. Thanks, Mitch, for raising this issue.

  7. This is so stupid, you guys want the benefits of rich millennial incomes being spent in San Antonio, but then want the city and county government to slow down growth in favor of low income old heads? I don’t know why you fear change, if San Antonio doesn’t accommodate the developers they will just go to Austin, do you want Austin to be the rich city while San Antonio sits stagnat?

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