As Ema Avila sat on her new couch, her daughter Layla, 2, practiced opening and closing the doors in their new home. One-year-old Alijah followed his sister, watching in amazement. He’s not quite tall enough to reach the knob.
Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.
The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.
For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.
It was the first time the family had a home they could call their own.
The family moved into their new three-bedroom home at the end of November after spending two months helping crews from Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio build it. Avila’s Craftsman-style home is one of 167 in the Lenwood Heights subdivision off Acme Road north of the Los Jardines neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side.
Before that, she and her children were living with her mom and her sister on the East Side while her husband, Antonio Arizola, was living with his family. Arizola didn’t make enough as a store manager at Family Dollar to pay rent on an apartment that could accommodate the entire family, and Avila is staying home with the two children for now to save on daycare costs.
Avila, 25, was the first in her family to earn a college degree, a bachelor’s in criminal justice and psychology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She hopes eventually to attend the police academy and put her degree to work.
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She learned of Habitat through her sister, who had purchased a home through the organization, becoming the first in the family to own a home. Avila and Arizola thought that was the best long-term decision for their family, and despite the cramped and awkward living arrangement, they decided to wait it out.
Avila and Arizola applied twice before their application was approved to buy a roughly $80,000 home. Habitat builds and sells homes at cost while providing zero-interest mortgages.
“I wouldn’t be able to buy a home otherwise,” Avila said. “We literally would have had to live paycheck to paycheck. Having kids, I feel like you can’t live like that because you never know what’s going to come up.”
Moving from a parent’s rental home to a brand-new home in a far West Side subdivision is not the typical path for low-income families.
While homeownership is a proven way to build wealth and economic opportunity, low-income families have been sectioned off through lending practices such as redlining and city planning rules. Consequently, they have been kept away from wealthier neighborhoods with better schools, infrastructure, food options, and health care systems.
While house prices and rents have increased throughout the San Antonio area, incomes haven’t kept pace, giving those living in poverty fewer housing options.
All of this combined has systematically widened the divide between the haves and the have nots for decades, leaving low-income families in a generational spiral that’s difficult to stop.
“Our housing was developed under incredibly exploitative terms,” said Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University.
In the early 1930s, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored program used to refinance homes for homeowners facing foreclosure, was tasked by the federal government to review its lending practices based on risk levels in 239 cities, including San Antonio, which was surveyed between 1935 and 1936.
The HOLC created color-coded maps representing varying levels of credit risk. Neighborhoods
Ultimately, that created the underpinnings of how San Antonio developed: poor residents and residents with means in disparate clusters, Drennon said. Today, San Antonio’s poorest zip codes are in the South, East, and West sides of town.
To break the generational poverty cycle, some large East and West Coast cities have implemented so-called “inclusionary zoning.” These rules require market-rate or luxury home developers to build some affordable units or pay into a public fund that develops affordable housing.
However, state law prohibits such mandates in Texas.
“Sometimes zoning can suppress housing supply because it doesn’t allow a city to have more density,” said Veronica Soto, director of the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
In modern terms, density often conjures thoughts of mid- or high-rise apartment complexes, but according to Soto, what’s often needed to house lower-income families is the “missing middle” of duplexes, accessory dwelling units, and other smaller structures.
Low-density residential zoning on a lot – such as single-family – means the cost of that land is wrapped into one housing unit. Higher density allows the cost to be spread among more households.
What is “affordable housing?”
Affordable housing can have many definitions, but a general rule used by public and private agency officials is that if someone pays more than 30 percent of their income, then that housing is not “affordable” to them. Transportation costs – the time and money spent on getting to and from work – can also be associated with housing, raising housing costs.
The area median income (AMI) is often used to establish income limits for affordable housing units. It compares an individual’s or family’s income to that of the surrounding community. The AMI for an individual in the San Antonio region is $49,700; for a family of four it’s $71,000.
The federal threshold for poverty is much lower – ranging from $13,064 for an individual and $25,465 for a family of four.
But that doesn’t mean all those units will be affordable, said Cynthia Spielman, who serves on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition. It also depends on where they are located.
“The three-story condos [going up in urban core neighborhoods] aren’t being purchased by anyone living in poverty,” she said.
The advocacy group, comprised of urban core neighborhood association leaders and preservationists, was formed to provide a stronger voice in the future of their neighborhoods.
“Density doesn’t necessarily help affordability,” Spielman said, because even the densest development near downtown will still be able to rent or be for sale at higher prices because the area is desirable – and it will still drive up area property values.
Incentives should be directed towards stabilizing the existing housing stock, she added.
“The most affordable housing is the housing we have now,” she said, noting a recent local study that found homes built before the 1960s represent 33 percent of the households that make 60 percent or less of area median income (AMI).