Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Mayor Ron Nirenberg gave his Housing Policy Task Force six months to formulate policy recommendations for addressing housing affordability, neighborhood rehabilitation, and gentrification as the group met for the first time Tuesday.
"I've charged the task force with developing a comprehensive and compassionate housing policy framework to address the pressing housing challenges that our city faces, from availability and affordability to gentrification and displacement," Nirenberg said.
After the task force constructs and presents an action-oriented policy recommendation, the public will have an opportunity to vet it before the City Council votes on the plan, Nirenberg said.
Nirenberg announced the five-member task force in August.
Former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, who is chairing the task force, read aloud a vision and mission statement.
The task force's vision statement said that the "city will lead the nation in creating healthy neighborhoods" where "everyone will have a place to call home." This would be accomplished by public and private collaborative efforts that seek to ensure affordable housing that also creates access to education, transportation, and cultural resources.
Its mission statement elaborated on accomplishing goals with "a policy-making process grounded in community, data, and best practices." San Antonio is at its most prosperous when it is "preserving affordable housing, expanding [the] housing supply for all, preventing displacement of low-income residents, and building infrastructure that increases connectivity and mobility," according to the mission statement.
The task force's formation comes at a time when San Antonio needs roughly 153,000 new affordable housing units, according to Neighborhood and Housing Services Director Veronica Soto. Moreover, home values have risen across San Antonio in the last two years, making home ownership more of a challenge for some residents.
Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University and an advisor to the task force, gave a presentation describing the current housing situation in San Antonio. In the face of increasing housing costs, she said, the city needed to play a stabilizing role.
"[Housing] is becoming more expensive all the time," Drennon said. "Because it's expensive, the entire housing stock cannot be provided by the private market. It just cannot anymore."
Yet federal public assistance is limited. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is preparing to absorb up to $6 million in budget cuts under President Donald Trump's proposed 2018 budget. Funds are unlikely to come from Austin, either, according to Alamo Architects Associate Principal Jim Bailey, a task force member.
"We can no longer look primarily to Austin and Washington for solutions, and few are forthcoming," Bailey said. "Rather, we must be smarter about how we use our resources and do what Americans do best, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We have the vision, we have the leadership, and the tools we need."
If a comprehensive housing policy were to be approved by San Antonio's City Council in May, as indicated by the task force's projected timeline, then the Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods would assist in implementing the policy.
"The housing commission oversees the long process of actual policy implementation under a council-approved work plan," Nirenberg said. "The task force has a short-term broad-based mandate to recommend what policies should be created in the future.”
And the task force wants public opinion to help craft those policies. Community input sessions will be held throughout the next five months as the task force collects public opinions and data on what a comprehensive housing policy should accomplish.
The task force received some early input from the rows of people seated or standing inside the crowded Central Library auditorium.
Questions ranged from whether the task force would bypass the opinion of neighborhood associations when deciding to build affordable housing units. Other attendees inquired about whether the City would be able to find enough skilled labor to build the necessary housing units. One audience member asked how this task force would differ from the one former Mayor Julián Castro created during his tenure.
There was a mix of optimism and skepticism as some audience members simply chose to make statements or give advice to the task force. With the promise of providing a comprehensive housing policy within the next six months, Nirenberg said he recognized the challenge the task force faces.
"This will not be easy work," Nirenberg said. "It will not be for the faint of heart, and in many ways embarking on this journey right now is an acknowledgment that these are going to be some difficult conversations."