The Answer to Income Segregation? High-Density Affordable Housing

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Construction workers start to build up the frames of the 32 single-family homes. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

City of San Antonio inspectors are cracking down on home renovation work performed without proper city permits.

Housing policy is a major contributor to income segregation. While no longer legal, practices such as redlining and blocking minority groups from purchasing or renting homes in neighborhoods have contributed to such economic divides. In 1968, almost 50 years ago, San Antonio’s 78207 zip code was featured in Hunger in America, a documentary highlighting the disparities of poverty on the Westside in comparison to other areas of the city.

Today, 78207 continues to be a place of inequities with 40.7% of its population living below the poverty line.  In 2015, the Distressed Communities Index named San Antonio one of the most inequitable cities for income segregation. Today, as it was 50 years ago, housing is at the heart of the segregation problem in San Antonio.

This problem occurs again in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, where proposed redevelopment standards restrict building heights and lot sizes. These standards reduce builders’ ability to construct affordable housing developments due to arguments that new developments don’t fit “within character of the neighborhood.” As a result, there will not be as many places to live as there need to be. The result is forced segregation through exclusionary practices that ultimately hinder lower-income residents’ economic mobility and resiliency. These types of exclusionary land-use policies could be fostering segregation.

According to the Sightline Institute’s series, Legalizing Inexpensive Housing, it is these very exclusionary zoning practices – restrictive lot sizes, building heights, and density limits – that inflate housing costs, increase homelessness, and exacerbate racial and economic segregation. Lopsided housing policy and NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitudes perpetuate hyper-segregation by limiting housing diversity. The lack of housing diversity skews the housing market, undercuts the local economy, segregates educational opportunities, and undermines where lower income families can ultimately live.

This was observed in the study “Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income?” by Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen. The authors point to inclusionary practices in city policy as a solution to desegregation by incomes, such as incentivizing new construction of higher density developments to consist of a certain percentage of affordable units to low and moderate incomes. Additionally, they note that consistent data collection and analysis on local housing land use policies should be used to desegregate areas by income. This is pertinent today, as the city implements its SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan and seeks community input.

Even Congress attempts to address the growing problem of economic segregation, in part with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which offers developers tax rebates for putting affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods to help break the cycle of poverty.  However, according to a 2012 San Antonio Express-News report, most of the affordable housing developed in Texas under the program ended up in poor neighborhoods, exacerbating the problem. This is because, most times, more empowered neighborhood endorse exclusionary practices.

This issue of where tax credits are appropriated showed up in a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case of the Inclusive Community Project vs. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. It was argued that where Texas was incentivizing affordable housing developments had a disparate impact on segregation by race and income. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Kennedy wrote “… these unlawful practices include…housing restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities [and lower income families] from certain neighborhoods…they exist in local laws that say residences must be built on minimum lots size…[in] requirements that keep out denser row homes or multi-family buildings…”

Now, more than ever, with a bold new mayor and City Council members, the issue of housing types and where they are placed is vitally important. More than 1.2 million additional people, a combination of growing families and migration, are expected to live in San Antonio by 2040. Basic economics of supply and demand explain why more density plus affordability incentives can help temper the rise of home prices and dissipate the income segregation that plagues San Antonio. Allowing neighborhood conservation districts to make across-the-board limits on lot sizes and building heights only fuels San Antonio’s current and historic segregation.

In 2012, Char Miller, former Trinity University professor and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas, commented that he thought San Antonio was further past this, noting that the disparity between the wealthy Northside of town and the impoverished Westside dates to the 1930s.

“It’s a remarkable reflection of the enduring power of race, class and income to define American life,” he said. “That it continues is a little surprising and a little depressing.”

14 thoughts on “The Answer to Income Segregation? High-Density Affordable Housing

  1. If you try to force “equality” onto residents of a neighborhood, the result will probably be that the residents will sell their homes, leave the area and possibly the city. This would not be good for the city or for low income citizens. High density housing sounds good to urban planners, but is not appealing to most home buyers. I also believe that many low income citizens may not like dense housing either.

  2. Small, well built moderate income properties could be built in my near downtown neighborhood. Properties could easily meet
    NCD requirements. These kinds of developments aren’t what developers want to build.
    Are cities proposing housing or money-making properties. Big Difference!

  3. Dawn has once again failed to do her research. There has not been a significant low income development near downtown in 30 years. The Southtown and Pearl developments are hardly the low income housing we desperately need. She glibly confuses cause and effect. It is not where the developers are willing to spend their capital. Recent developments in and around Beacon Hill at 615 W Fulton and 930 W Craig are mid to high $300,000. That is hardly low income housing!
    Beacon Hill residents are primarily renters and it is probably the most economically diverse neighborhood in San Antonio. Many live well below the poverty level while others are upper middle class.
    Beacon Hill has the finest collection of craftsman bungalows in town but bulldozing them to make large vacant lots is not going to encourage developers to build low income housing when they can make more money on high income projects.

  4. When Car Miller said “It’s a remarkable reflection of the enduring power of race, class and income to define American life,” he should have included drug use, generational welfare, and education in the list. There are many more factors that contribute to disparities such as single parents homes.

  5. Why are there no affordable housing complexes near Inwood or Deerfield. Shouldn’t the politicians set the example and build complexes in their own backyards? They wheel and deal, bring in the developers, and say this is good for the city, good for the county. They make the rules, but don’t follow them.

  6. Thank you for this article, Dawn. And thank you for the links to the other voices on this issue of urban planning. For me, I’m starting with this question: “What kind of neighborhood do I want?”

  7. Dawn, we have encountered your opinions on social media. You are once again half a bubble off plumb. Mark is right. You cannot apply piecemeal statistics to Beacon Hill and make it stick as policy. Would love to hear from Cynthia Spielman as a counterpoint to this opinion piece. As president of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association, she has been at the forefront to strengthen our near downtown NCDs, while working to protect our most vulnerable residents. THAT is the real deal!

  8. I think it’s all about money for the developers they don’t care where they build Maggie’s comment about building in Inwood & Deerfield where these developers live should be considered for these types of projects if we really truly are serious about segregation/ disparities And yes I’m seriously thinking about moving before I cannot sell my home before it loses its value By the way I love my home I love my community This is why I bought in this area!!! I worked hard to buy my own home I did not get any federal help

  9. I am a firm believer that any residence building project should include a mixture off all levels of price, rather than build each building as high end or middle or low. The latter is in itself an example of segregation. Money does not determine who is interesting and who is dull. The inhabitants might learn that one’s bank account does not determine the character of a person. The more one diversifies, the more enriched is his life.

  10. Does the author fail to recognize that many formerly affluent neighborhoods (or at least, better off neighborhoods) had their affluent residents leave when the non-affluent started to move into their neighborhoods? Regardless of whether anyone thinks doing so is wrong or right, it’s the reality. The higher classes will always move away from where the lower classes live. Some of the neighborhoods that were considered the place to live when I was a kid are not run-down neighborhoods due to neglect. It’s been happening since the dawn of civilization.

  11. Incremental increases in density with affordability incentives is a no-brainer area of improvement for SA. The next questions are how much density, where, with what affordability incentives, what does it look like, etc? In single family areas, it might mean some more ADU’s and duplexes and triplexes. On commercial corridors with empty lots and replaceable buildings, it might mean a few to several story apartment buildings (high density). It depends on the context in the immediate surrounding area.

    Its not out of bounds to ask how NCD zoning regulations could affect the long term supply of housing. Shortening allowed building heights and creating more strict lot size requirements for triplexes and other medium density housing across an entire neighborhood would logically do that, and over time, lower income people would be outbid more often in renting and buying land, and move out to other areas that they can afford, more than they otherwise would.

    The City or neighborhood might have done some investigation or report to answer those long term affordability questions when the Beacon Hill NCD was revised this summer. Any one know or have a link to something like that online?

  12. NIMTON-ism (not in my “tier one” neighborhood) — from blocking street parking and the development of vacant properties to opposing VIA bus services and sidewalk network improvements — is a growing concern in San Antonio, I think, as the author raises, and a symptom of local policy that has not supported long-term residents or confronted distinctly local historical patterns of economic and related segregation and discrimination.

    Along with building more housing units, there needs to be discussion about curbing property speculation and vacancies as part of preserving and increasing affordable housing and homesteading in San Antonio. This includes as can be supported by Airbnb or similar as a rental broker and steered by local policy.

    The commentary above does not mention Airbnb, a housing factor that Council has discussed in recent weeks mainly based on local NIMBY (or NIMTOM) parking and other concerns but which can support long-term residents. Traveling this summer, I again experienced homesteader Airbnb options (where the owner or a long-term resident lives on site) from urban Colorado to rural Montana and back. Far from disrupting the ‘character’ of so-called ‘single family’ housing, homesteader Airbnb or similar neighborhood rental options can challenge residential displacement as well as place-less hotel chains (none are headquartered in San Antonio), helping to keep visitor or new resident spending more local and increasing the income (and in some cases the number) of long-term residents. San Antonio needs start-up/affordable housing, including shorter-term rentals, that supports community economic development and long-term residents.

    More critically, the commentary above does not address the issue of public school tax, which is currently the heft of property tax in San Antonio that can force housing displacement. The problem is not rising property evaluations or even City taxes as much as the large and increasing school tax burden for homesteader residents — which doesn’t go away but only freezes as homesteaders reach their mid 60s in Bexar County. This could very well be the last generation of homeowners who can afford to age in place without some changes to County property tax approaches to address theburden on homesteaders as well as the chronic undervaluation of commercial properties in our region (see

    Beyond tax reform that supports homesteading and discourages housing speculation and commercial tax flight, Bexar County needs to be thinking about different sources of public school funding, including as a means of addressing economic and other segregation in San Antonio. Measures employed in other communities such as school district amalgamation, increased county gas or other ‘sin’ sales taxes to fund public schooling, traffic camera ticketing on school buses and reducing vacant or underutilized space on public school grounds (such as with orchard farming and public solar but also affordable housing development) come to mind.

    In addition and related to public schooling, the City should be working with the County to address issues of wealth segregation and ‘skyboxification’ in our public life, including as can be perceived currently in the management of public spaces and transit in greater downtown and at the airport. We seem to be returning to old and undemocratic practices of ‘tiering’ access to at least some public goods, resources and spaces based on wealth as we approach our 300th year as a city.

    For consideration and related to the current extreme economic segregation in San Antonio that has been noted nationally:

    – Why is there no VivaVIA service to and from the cultural resources of the West Side/zipcode 78207 including Ave. Guadalupe, Elmendorf Lake Park and the Alazan Creek trail system?

    – Why has the limited work needed to link Alazan Creek Trail and Martinez Creek Trail (serving multiple public school campuses) with Apache Creek, San Pedro Creek and the Mission Reach of the River Walk been delayed (again) until at best 2019? Why has the public work to date along these key trail systems been so paltry and nothing like envisioned with West Side Creek restoration and reinvestment as planned in 2011 and earlier?

    – Why are there no public toilets or affordable food options or bus ticketing throughout the day and evening at Travis Park, a major (and recently celebrated) downtown VIA hub?

    – Why are there no food services or regular grocery shopping or other commerce (or even just public events held) at Centro Plaza, our brand new central bus station downtown?

    – Why are walking conditions on Houston and Commerce west of the I-10/I-35 but within the downtown Business District and leading to Centro Plaza not at all comparable with conditions east?

    – Why are the bus stops and pedestrian crossings for Pearl Brewery (on Josephine and Broadway) so bad / in violation of ADA requirements?

    – Why is it so hard to get to Blue Star/Southtown from Centro Plaza/UTSA?

    – Why is there no frequent link between North Star Transit Hub and SAT airport at this point, which would strengthen Travis Park as a downtown public transit airport hub (buses 3, 4, 5, etc.) but also support more neighborhood tourism?

    – Why is there no affordable and simple contactless (just flash and go) annual pass option for local VIA riders (and particularly the elderly), akin to what Council members currently enjoy ($65 annually for a photo id card)? Similar affordable annual transit passes are available in other cites and have been advocated as one of the few ‘real’ things local government can do to curb gentrification and wealth segregation while improving transit services:

    – Why is our BCycle annual membership rate the highest in the state and one of the highest in the national BCycle network? Why is there so little BCycle equity in San Antonio, despite the large public (including public transit dollar) investment in this infrastructure and service? (

    – Related, why are there no BCycle bikeshare stations west of the I-10/I-35 or at major VIA transit hubs downtown such as at Centro Plaza or Five Points?

    -Why are there no BCycle bikeshare stations along the Apache Creek trail or the existing southern San Pedro Creek trail as we spend excessively on downtown San Pedro Creek work?

    – Why are there no SA300 public transit (VIA / BCycle) initiatives to date? Is the plan to ship visitors from the airport by private river barge?

    I am impressed by how Mayor Nirenberg seems to be focusing to transit, mobility, and neighborhood heritage and hopefully inclusive economic development and public life in San Antonio. As a guy who’s apparently spent a lot of time in the gym, Nirenberg will need to demonstrate some true strength to improve public transit equity (including better bikeshare and VivaVIA service) and support more inclusive economic development (including neighborhood tourism that supports long-term residents) in time for SA300.

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