There was rumor of protest last evening in the Lavaca neighborhood. Word spread quickly on Lavaca Nextdoor, a relatively new social networking site for neighborhoods, that the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) was holding a private, invitation-only meeting at HemisView Village. Many residents vowed to show up anyway.
At 5:30 p.m., the doors were open and everyone was anti-climatically welcomed to come in and join the meeting.
While both SAHA and about 15 residents unofficially arrived at an agreement on 20% affordable and 80% market rate housing units during the meeting, the continuing protest by residents against SAHA's option to build a complex of rental units, presented in a draft sketch last month, remains the main point of conflict.
Passionate conversations were taking place, but except for an abnormally large crowd of residents, spurred by the rumor of protest, it was a fairly routine Working Group meeting between residents, the Lavaca Neighborhood Association (LNA), SAHA officials, members of the SAHA board, a developer and an architect about the still incomplete master plan for the remaining eight-acre plot that stretches from Refugio Street to Leigh Street.
SAHA estimates about 150-60 housing units will occupy this space once completed.
"We're not opposed to subsidized housing at all ... but this is the last plot of land for new home (development) in Lavaca," said Laurel Smyth, a LNA member who has lived in an Artisan Park Townhome within SAHA's Victoria Commons development since its completion in 2007. "We don't want this to become a mini-apartment city ... we want people to be able to buy a home ... we want more homeowners because they – we – are the ones really invested in the neighborhood community."
The area was formerly home to Victoria Courts, a 660-unit public housing complex with "prison-like architecture," said Ramiro Cavazos, chairman of the SAHA board. It was a "scary" place, he said.
But the Lavaca neighborhood is not burned by the experience, a resident said in response, "When other neighborhoods said no, zero percent affordable, we (Lavacans) said yes."
Victoria Courts was demolished in 1999 and SAHA has been slowly rebuilding the 44-acre plot with housing developments like Refugio Place, 210 units, HemisView Village, 245 units, and Artisan Park Townhomes, only 22 units so far. This time, however, SAHA is implementing a more holistic, mixed-income strategy, generally following that 80/20 mix, though Refugio is about 50/50. So far, the mix has been working well to achieve SAHA's goal, "to provide quality, low-income housing integrated into neighborhoods to advance resident independence," said SAHA CEO Lourdes Castro Ramírez.
The Lavaca neighborhood, one of the oldest in San Antonio, beyond Victoria Commons is mixed-income as well. Some homes are in various stages of decay, some newly renovated, a reflection of gentrification underway in the near-downtown neighborhoods. Depending on what street you walk down at night, you can feel safe and enjoy the bouquet of blooming flowers in well-tended gardens, or begin to quicken your pace past seemingly abandoned homes.
Some units within Victoria Commons are for rent, some for sale, depending on the housing market at the time of project planning.
More specifically, depending on the market study performed during that process. Last month's draft of an apartment complex between the Artisan townhouses and 24 Leigh Street single-family homes was an idea based on old studies of the market, said Ramírez. "SAHA is committed to building those 24 (for-sale) homes on Leigh Street." It's the land between them and the townhouses that's up in the air and what that the market study and continued talks with the neighborhood will decide.
"Its time for a new study, to see what is economically feasible and sustainable," Ramírez said. "That's the next step ... we can't ignore the market."
The Artisan Park Townhomes, completed in 2007, stand on the edge of an empty, triangular plot of land. A network of streets snake their way through the small field of grass to Leigh Street, where some of the original homes of Lavaca are located. When Smyth bought her townhouse, she was assured the vacant streets behind her residence would be filled with home owners, "not a mini apartment city," she said. "We signed documents to that (effect)."
Mike Moran, another Artisan Park resident, seconded her claim: "At the time it was clear (new units) were to be for sale."
Richard Gambitta, SAHA board commissioner, seemed surprised to hear that they were given this assurance in 2007 as the master plan was not complete at the time and remains a work in progress.
"There apparently was a serious lack of communication between new homeowners and whomever was describing the (Victoria Commons) project," Gambitta said. He told Smyth that SAHA will get to the bottom of the miscommunication.
Another challenge for SAHA is actually finding willing buyers for the Victoria Commons units.
"The affordable townhome next to me has been vacant for six years," Smyth said. "I've never seen it shown to anyone."
The SAHA home buying application process for both market-rate and affordable units, can take months or even years, and there is a long list of inadequate realtors that SAHA hired, Gambitta said.
"There was a poor effort to market these townhomes," Moran said.
Gambitta agreed: "We're very disappointed, and we've set out to resolve that issue ... we need better realty representatives."
This issue also gives an inaccurate read of the market, Smyth said.
"This makes it looks like we can't sell these homes, but in reality, the market for buyers is good ... People want to buy homes," she said. "Building an apartment complex" would reflect SAHA's own failure to "take advantage of this market."
The wait list for affordable housing has doubled over two years from 20,000 to 40,000 people, Ramírez said. The application process is slow because the housing authority wants to ensure the people who will truly benefit and take advantage of the programing, such as Move to Work, are getting into affordable housing.
At the close of the meeting, two initiatives were set into motion:
- SAHA will issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a new market study, and the process will be aided by a LNA-selected resident of Lavaca and, perhaps, a local expert familiar with housing studies.
- Better communication among all parties. SAHA said it would update its website with meetings and possibly create a separate site for the project. The LNA committed to refining its communication processes.
While the Lavaca Nextdoor site has proven to be a useful tool for neighbors to introduce themselves to one another and swap useful neighborhood information – especially for newcomers – and to share timely information about neighborhood issues and meetings, it has its shortcomings.
Comment strings can become heated, rumors are taken as facts, and some residents who are not wired are simply left out of the loop.
"We're all a little guilty of poor communication – the LNA included," said LNA President Syeira Budd. The LNA started using Nextdoor a little over one year ago, she said. "It's a great tool ... a huge opportunity to engage everyone ... but I (can't) always read and respond" to every comment and conversation thread.
"It's unfortunate that it takes a hot bed issue to get such a big turnout to these," Budd said, referring to the group ignoring the "invite-only" description of the meeting. "Like any nonprofit, volunteer organization we have a roller coaster ride of participation ... it's good to see so many neighbors here."