Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the company that manages the Soapworks and Towne Center apartments.
Some in the housing industry experienced déjà vu last October when Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced his Housing Policy Task Force that will tackle gentrification and housing affordability issues in San Antonio.
In 2014, former Mayor Julián Castro created a task force, with a focus on neighborhoods, to look at similar issues in direct response to the displacement of nearly 300 residents – half of them children – from a neglected near-Southside trailer park. City Council formed a Housing Commission as recommended by that task force, but the commission hasn't produced much in the way of policy as a result.
It's a tale of two task forces that leaves many stakeholders, including residents directly affected by the affordable housing gap, in limbo – at least until the City starts implementing the policies produced. City Council is slated to review the final policy framework report in June.
Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, the site of which is set to become a luxury apartment complex, was the poster child of local gentrification then. Now, residents of Soapworks and Towne Center apartment complexes find themselves in a comparable situation.
"The issues that led to [the] Mission Trails [situation] still exist and will lead to countless other displacement scenarios," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report when asked about Soapworks and the role of the task force. "[Those issues] have not been solved over the past three years."
The Castro-appointed group focused on neighborhood gentrification issues while Nirenberg wants his task force to develop comprehensive, citywide policy recommendations.
Soon after his group met, Castro left to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama. The Housing Commission was formed by recommendation of Castro's group during Mayor Ivy Taylor's relatively short tenure. But some commissioners who spoke to the Rivard Report aren't clear about their role in the housing conversation.
"The charge of the commission as it stands today is vastly different than what was intended when Mayor Castro created the Mayor's Task Force to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods," Nirenberg said, adding, "I hope to get recommendations on how the commission will be utilized going forward,” as well as other agencies related to housing.
Nirenberg made comprehensive housing policy a key promise in his successful runoff campaign against Taylor in June 2017.
Several players involved in the housing policy groups, including many who declined to speak on the record, told the Rivard Report they feel the Housing Commission is adrift – a holdover from a previous administration that is biding time until Nirenberg gives it new focus.
Even one of the Commission members wonders about its role.
"To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not really clear on what the commission’s goals are," said Jackie Gorman, executive director of San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside. She has served on the commission since its inception and also serves on the task force's funding and financing subgroup. "The [Nirenberg-appointed] task force is taking the lead on that."
Since the mayor's task force was formed, work has slowed on the Commission side, Gorman said, "not wanting to duplicate efforts."
In the task force, meanwhile, there are five subgroups, officially called "technical working groups," each with 20 to 30 members. They will meet three more times over the next few months to develop short- and long-term policy recommendations that City Council eventually will consider.
Despite a somewhat "disjointed" first meeting of the financing group, Gorman said she's confident the new process will reap results. "It's a matter of just buckling down and getting it done."
Nirenberg's task force is led by former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Lourdes Castro-Ramirez; Gene Dawson Jr., owner of Pape-Dawson Engineering; former City Councilwoman María Berriozábal; Jim Bailey, Alamo Architects associate principal; and Noah Garcia, Vantage Bank senior vice president.
The five working groups are divided into topic areas: providing housing for all; developing and preserving housing for stable, equitable, and resilient neighborhoods; removing barriers to development and addressing labor supply; identifying new funding and financing resources; and creating a transparent and coordinated housing system.
"We have committed to getting this draft out in June," Bailey said at the Feb. 20 task force meeting. It's an aggressive timeline for the roughly 125 group members, as many group leaders noted, but the time is now, he added. "We’ve done the three-year plan and we still have this problem."
Bailey – an urban planner and architect who has worked on several housing developments, including those the San Antonio Housing Authority planned for the former site of Victoria Commons in Lavaca – also serves on the Housing Commission.
"My hope is that we have something to implement by the next fiscal year," Nirenberg said. "However, we’re not going to rush a good product.”
Their work will impact thousands. As of this month, the Housing Authority has about 26,000 individuals or families on its public housing waitlist. There are about 25,000 on a waitlist for a housing-choice voucher, according to Housing Authority spokeswoman Marivel Resendiz. Most are Bexar County residents, "but we have some people on the waitlist from across the state and country."
Those numbers only begin to measure the problems associated with affordable housing. The commission has pushed through some adjustments to how zoning notices are sent out, helped develop the City's first-ever affordable housing bond, suggested homestead tax exemptions as possible ways to help homeowners, and commissioned studies of local housing issues. But Nirenberg said more broad policy work needs to be done.
"Soapworks and Mission Trails are the exact same scenario for the residents that have to live [in] them, but from a policy standpoint, they are very different," he said.
In the case of Mission Trails, San Antonio-based White-Conlee Development had plans for a 600-unit, $75 million apartment complex, but needed to change the property's zoning to allow for higher residential density. Such changes require City Council approval, and the community and advocates protested the request.
The 2014 City Council voted 6-4 in favor of the development after hours of emotional testimony that included complaints by residents who said they didn't receive adequate notice. The developers gave residents an average of $1,300 for relocation assistance, which is not required.
Nirenberg voted in favor of the zoning change as District 8 councilman, but said while running for mayor that he regretted doing so.
Soapworks and Towne Center are even more complicated, he said, because City officials cannot prevent private-property owners from raising rents as long as leases are not broken.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has met with residents regularly about the issue, he said, and has some ideas about how to incentivize owners to keep rates low. Landlords have every right to update the aging structures, but it's possible that money from the tax increment reinvestment zone could be used to "offset [the owners'] costs of repairs."
Several calls and emails to the firm that owns the apartments went unanswered last week. Capstone Real Estate Services manages Soapworks and Towne Center for Houston-based Barvin Group which acquired the properties in October 2017. Michelle McMillan, vice president of Capstone's regional office in San Antonio, contacted the Rivard Report on Monday afternoon.
The company's main objective "is to create an affordable, mid-range rental option that most working San Antonio residents can afford in the downtown area," McMillan said. "That is something that does not exist at all."
Rent for the remodeled apartments range from $1.35 to $1.63 per square foot – which offers mostly one-bedroom and studio apartments and a handful of two- and three- bedrooms. New apartments near the Pearl, San Antonio River Museum Reach, Broadway Street, and Southtown have (or will have) rents at $2 per square foot or more.
"There are multiple brand-new, beautiful apartment communities that offer everything under the sun at a hefty price," McMillan said, and then there are housing projects that are subsidized by local and federal housing credits, but Soapworks and Towne Center aim to offer something in between.
Apartment residents held a meeting on Sunday, Feb. 18, that Treviño and Berriozábal attended. Building managers were not there, but McMillan said they will soon host a meeting with residents to answer lingering questions about the future of Soapworks. A date has not yet been selected.
The apartments are located next to the San Pedro Creek, where construction crews are working to complete a $175 million public redevelopment project. Residents, many of them seniors and others living on fixed incomes, anticipate higher rents. Mission Trails was located along the San Antonio's Mission Reach, which was part of the $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project that increased real estate interest in near-Southside neighborhoods.
When Capstone took over management, its employees found roughly 160 leases that were expired or about to expire at the end of 2017, McMillan said. "We could have walked in the door and said, 'All of you need to leave.' That's not what we chose to do ... we wanted to let people have the opportunity to move [or stay]."
None of the existing tenants' rent has been increased, McMillan said, and many have signed new, four- to nine-month leases at the same price they were paying. Others have opted to pay more and move into "completely overhauled," remodeled units, she said. The apartments haven't been updated in any meaningful way since their construction in the late '70s and early '80s.
The policies that the task force produces will not necessarily be in place in time to keep residents of Soapworks in their homes, Bailey told the Rivard Report.
"At the end of the day what we hope that what we will have is a series of really robust recommendations that then get carried into the future, much like those recommendations from the first task force," Bailey said.
"What we don't know yet is what that looks like," he said. "Whether that's a re-energized housing commission, a housing czar ... we don't know. That's going to be one of the big recommendations: how do we make this happen, how do we make this stick?"
The task force and its subgroups are considering all kinds of housing options, said Chair Castro-Ramirez, from owner-occupied rehabilitation, to affordable multi-family, and beyond.
“We cannot just focus on new construction or building new units, we need to focus on the housing that’s already in place that maybe is not … in good condition and begin to redirect resources to that,” Castro-Ramirez said. There are also policies that could ensure "some protections and some covenants that will allow families to stay and benefit from that investment and that renovation."
Regardless, there need to be conversations with developers on what role they can play in affordable housing, she said.
Dawson, who heads one of San Antonio's largest construction and development companies, said he hears the pleas of the community.
“We’re trying to put policy recommendations in place that prevent the next Soapworks,” he said.
The problem of displacement in San Antonio is not as extreme in other major cities like Los Angeles, Portland, or even Austin, Trinity University Director of Urban Studies Christine Drennon told the Rivard Report. "But ... don't say that at Soapworks because they really are living it."
Meanwhile the goals of the Castro group are essentially "sitting on a shelf," said Drennon, a consultant for Nirenberg's financial policy subgroup. "This one has a much bigger call, and it also follows national precedent. A lot of cities are realizing we have to get around this [affordability issue]."
This time around, she said the community and elected officials are more committed to coming up with solutions.
"If these groups with the proper oversight can craft statements that are very clear directives toward policy, then that’s a success," she said.
At the task force meeting on Feb. 20, a handful of tenants listened to about an hour of presentations and discussion about the group's progress so far in tackling the affordable housing gap – an estimated 142,000 units – in San Antonio.
Maureen Galindo and her three children aged 1, 5, and 7, sat – squirming at times – while the co-chairs of the five technical working groups gave status updates. Afterwards, Galindo and her neighbors testified that several people have left Soapworks and Towne Center since the new owners took over and started renovating the buildings and units. Tenants now have to pay $30 to $50 more in mandatory tenant fees, she said.
New management does require monthly pest control and trash valet fees, which totals $23, McMillan confirmed. Renter insurance is also required, which can range from $10 to $20 per month – depending on the scope of the policy.
"We're only doing renovation on apartments that someone has moved out of," she said, adding that they won't be kicking anyone out to perform renovations.
Galindo, 30, is a single mother taking college courses online. She's lived in a two-bedroom apartment at Towne Center since August 2017. When the meeting opened up to audience questions, her friends helped watch her children while she spoke.
The task force members, none of whom are renters, should come talk to her neighbors about gentrification, she said. "Maybe you can come up with some questions to ask us.”
After the meeting, Galindo said she and her neighbors felt the task force has heard them, but they were disappointed that public officials hadn't seem to learn from what happened at Mission Trails in the first place.
"I am super frustrated," she told the Rivard Report. "But I’m not nearly as frustrated as the people that watched and experienced that happen – and now they’re seeing it happen again."
At the meeting, Berriozábal recognized and said she, too, felt the frustration. Berriozábal was an advocate for Mission Trails residents and served on Castro's task force. She and Eastside activist Nettie Hinton, who also served on the task force, disputed its final report for what they felt was diluted language.
“I’m very [sorry], and it’s very painful to admit that I was also there … at Mission Trails … and that we still have not been able [to come up with solutions] in three years," Berriozábal said. "I am very sorry that we have not done that.
"We’re taking that seriously. The mayor, in placing us on this [task force], gave us an enormous challenge. This has never been done before. We have never had a housing policy in this city – ever. So what that means is services are scattered all over the place.”
The situation at Soapworks "underscores the need for us to have a comprehensive housing strategy and for us to have it now," Nirenberg said.
Back at Towne Center, Galindo was able sign a nine-month lease. The unit she is living in will be one of the last to be remodeled, she said, so they have some time.
"I'm very, very grateful ... it's reassuring," she said. But once November comes, "what [comes] after that?”