During Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s first mayoral campaign, he and I sat down to talk about some of San Antonio’s most urgent structural issues and the interconnectedness of them all: affordable housing, socio-economic segregation, transportation, and our carbon footprint. He articulated a series of three major policy proposals that constituted a holistic vision of a sustainable future. We now know these overlapping platforms as the Housing Policy Framework, SA Climate Ready, and ConnectSA .

Shortly after being elected to his first term, he asked me to join his Housing Policy Task Force. I filled pages of my notebook in preparation for the long year ahead. The first thing I wrote was something like, “align housing policy with a transportation plan, VIA long range plan, and SAWS/CPS capital improvements plan within the framework of SA Tomorrow. One map, one plan.”

Now, with all three of the mayor’s major policy platforms spelled out, it’s time for us to get serious about using ConnectSA as a meaningful funding vehicle. 

While our historic development pattern is not wholly responsible for our ills, it is a major contributing factor.

We call ourselves the 7th largest city in the nation but we’re only so because we have such a sprawling, and largely empty footprint. We’re only about the 27th most populated metropolitan area. Our per capita carbon footprint is significantly higher than that of a New York City resident because all that extra space allows us large homes that use lots of power. It also causes us to burn more than our fair share of fossil fuels to travel back and forth in our cars (38 percent of our emissions) and to mow our water-inefficient yards. 

We’ve used all of that extra space to put distance between different socioeconomic groups. Between the allied forces of white flight, historical redlining, the Federal Highway Program, exclusionary zoning, and the mortgage interest deduction, we have created such a finely gradated system of segregation and inequality of wealth-building opportunity that any longtime San Antonio resident can likely tell you how much someone makes by what neighborhood they live in. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as that which a household can obtain for no more than 30 percent of their income but it also assumes a transportation cost of no more than 15 percent of that income. San Antonians spend significantly more on transportation largely because of auto-dependence. This disproportionately impacts those with the least ability to pay. Furthermore, everything is so spread out that VIA struggles with limited funding to serve those most in need.

What we’re doing now and where we need to go

San Antonio’s Housing Policy Framework articulates our impending housing crisis and is a roadmap for the funding and delivery of affordable housing and services. It instructs us to prioritize new affordable rental units in communities that are linked with transportation, jobs, and cultural assets. Implementation is underway.

The SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan  identifies regional growth centers and transportation corridors where we will focus our growth to the extent possible. Land-use planning is underway. 

VIA’s 2040 long range plan is in alignment with SA Tomorrow.

These concepts are emphatically reinforced through the Community Mitigation Strategies in SA Climate Ready.

The overarching idea is that we will focus our growth in these centers and along these corridors so that over time we can develop a highly functioning multimodal transportation network. We will increase quality of life and access to opportunity while reducing emissions by providing a choice for residents to live within walking and biking distance of services, recreational and educational resources, and jobs. Our public transportation system will become more effective and better utilized because the necessary components of urban life become organized around high-frequency transportation lines. 

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While we build up our corridors and centers, we must protect our heritage neighborhoods with our oldest housing stock and most vulnerable populations. We will help those neighborhoods to evolve in an incremental and equitable fashion. 

A prevalent argument in housing policy debates is that the crisis is caused largely by lack of supply: that to solve it we must have greater density everywhere through the abolition of single-family zoning. While supply is an issue at the regional level and in overheated markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles, Bexar Appraisal District data shows that property value increases are fairly consistent except for in a few hotspots like some of the neighborhoods near downtown. These are investment feeding frenzies in very small geographic areas. Significant up-zoning in any of these neighborhoods will simply exacerbate the problem. 

Rezoning for the next increment (casitas, attached units, mom and pop businesses, and small, well-scaled apartment buildings) could allow existing neighbors and new renters to reap the benefits of change at a pace that neighborhoods can abide. 

Our regional problem is and always has been about low wages, the structural inability for low-wage families to build wealth, the unequal distribution of high-quality food, services, education, and a crippling transportation cost burden.

The map below was produced by the City of San Antonio as it revamped the housing incentive policy in late 2018. It depicts the commercial parcels that lay within our corridors and centers. These 50,000 or so acres are where our affordable housing dollars will have the greatest future impact.  San Antonio’s “million new people by 2040” could all fit on these parcels at single-family detached density. Clearly much of that land is already in productive use but much is yet undeveloped, or prime for redevelopment.

The next steps

First, we need to get behind ConnectSA as a concept: the idea that we will have an integrated transportation funding plan and a secure a dedicated funding source for VIA while protecting our aquifer and expanding our trails and active transportation system into a complete network. I like to think of it as a framework that we will calibrate over the next decade with citizen input rather than a project list that is set in stone. We need a citizen-led steering committee composed of community advocates and technical experts to help guide this calibration.

Second, we need to learn from our neighbors in Austin who, with high-minded ambitions embarked on CodeNEXT, a combination land use plan and development code which failed spectacularly in a bitterly acrimonious process at a huge cost in time and money. I believe this is largely because it was a top-down process that started with big answers rather than hard questions. 

Here in San Antonio, we’ve been asking a lot of hard questions of ourselves in recent years. This began with the deeply engaging public process that defined Mayor Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force, continued with the community conversation that led to SA Climate Ready, and is now spilling into discussions about ConnectSA, greenways funding, and aquifer protection. Citizens have had many opportunities to make their voices heard and must be allowed to continue to meaningfully participate in future decision-making on these issues. Informational outreach meetings are not going to cut it.

I believe we need to act decisively on the following:

Zoning

  1. Update the Unified Development Code to create more opportunities for accessory dwelling units or “granny flats.” Create plans for free distribution that are pre-approved by the City. Develop incentives and generate new financing vehicles so that lower-income homeowners can participate. This will generate extra income to offset rising property taxes, create natural affordable housing, and allow our seniors to age in place.
  2. Create form-based transportation districts with design guidelines for commercially zoned properties in our regional centers and along our transportation corridors. Planning for these areas by VIA and COSA with immediate stakeholders should be accelerated. Rather than density and land use, form-based zoning focuses on the size and placement of a building on a lot, the configuration of streets and sidewalks, and the relationship of the building to those public elements .
  3. Develop a set of San Antonio-specific form-based neighborhood design standards that can be voluntarily taken up by neighborhoods and calibrated for neighborhood-specific conditions to allow for sensitively scaled “missing middle” housing on vacant lots. These are small multi-unit rental and ownership units that we find throughout our older neighborhoods. The Office of Historic Preservation is finishing up a new set of guidelines now that will serve as a great model. 

Incentives and Programs

  1. Incentivize new affordable housing primarily (but not exclusively) in regional centers and transportation corridors close to jobs, services, and transit. Begin land-banking at scale in these areas ahead of infrastructure upgrades to ensure that we can provide new deep-targeted affordable housing for years to come. Use community land trusts on public land for affordable ownership opportunities.
  2. Expand the City’s Owner-Occupied Rehab, Under One Roof, and similar programs to help stabilize older neighborhoods. Develop programs to modernize older rental housing stock in neighborhoods while maintaining its affordability.
  3. Amend the city charter as mandated in the Housing Policy Framework and develop a significant affordable housing bond ballot initiative in the next bond cycle. 

Infrastructure

  1. Align SAWS and CPS Capital Improvements plans and future bond projects with VIA 2040 Long Range Plan, and SA Tomorrow. Account for existing infrastructure when assessing impact fees for any housing in these areas. Exempt affordable housing altogether from impact fees.
  2. Develop a robust active transportation network for pedestrians and cyclists to serve and link the regional centers. This should be composed of bike “highways” like our Greenways and a fine network of last mile connectivity in our regional centers.

One map, one plan.

Jim Bailey is a senior principal at Alamo Architects where he leads the housing studio. He is an inner-city native, guerrilla planner, and policy wonk who spends his spare time thinking about issues like...

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