Housing Incentive Debate Sparks Discussion About Future of Downtown

San Antonio City Council has approved a new package of housing development incentives designed to cut down on 'gentrification' and spread affordable housing downtown and across the city, but it didn't happen without an emotional debate on the soul of the city's rapidly changing downtown area, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Much of the problem stems from former Mayor Julian Castro's 'decade of downtown' idea, which was largely to lure both employers and employees to the downtown area to build development and make the downtown more vibrant.

Much of that included generous tax breaks to developers to put up luxury apartments and condominiums.  There is no doubt that the idea worked, and may have worked too well.  Downtown San ANtonio is drastically different from where it was a decade ago, with tens of thousands of people now living downtown, and booming businesses from USAA to dozens of tech firms now locatind downtown, and in its fast growing satellite areas, like SoBro and around the Pearl complex.

and activists like Graciella Sanchez say the cost of that development has been borne by low and middle income homeowners.  She said many have been forced out of their homes downtown and in rapidly changing areas like the Pearl, South Town, and Dignowity Hill, and others have seen their property taxes skyrocket as the new luxury developments have risen their property values.

"do not create policies that not only continue to segregate us, but racially and ethnically push the Mexican American, African American, and poor working White people out of the innter city," she said. 

The City Council voted to expand the housing development incentives city wide, and to reduce the incentives available for 'luxury housing' downtown. But Cynthia Spielman, who lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, openly laughed at what the city considers 'affordable' housing.'

"Downtown housing in the form of condos will be priced at $360,000, rentals at $2.75 a square foot," she said.  "A two bedroom apartment will rent for $2,750 a month."

Northwest side Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who was among those calling for changes in the incentive plan, stressed that affordable housing has two components.  One is the cost of the housing, and the other is the ability of the buyer to afford it, and the secret to making more local families homeowners is education and workforce development.

"If we want to conquer our housing affordability issues, we must understand there are multiple paths to putting a roof over someone’s head. We must incentivize job and wage growth and partner with the business community to make it happen. The more money people make, the more home they can afford. We must also de-regulate the City permitting process and eliminate fees we charge to make the development of housing much more streamlined and affordable," he said.

The community groups COPS and Metro Alliance also criticized the new housing affordability plan, saying it includes nothing to help people whose ability to stay in their homes is already endangered by the gentrification caused by the taxpayer supported luxury developments.  

They praised Council members Ana Sandoval and Rey Saldana, who voted against the new guidelines, and demanded more study on how to help low income residents.

"Economic development is not a bad thing. Nor is market rate housing," the groups said in a statement.  "But when our elected representatives pass policies that put taxpayer money directly into the pockets of developers, we cannot settle for “good enough.” No homeowner should be aSked to pay for their own displacement."

Spielman said it sounds like business as usual to her.

"Incentivizing is the new red lining," she said.  "First you keep them out and then you push them out.  Progress, San Antonio style."

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