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Castro Presses San Antonio to Invest More in Affordable Housing

San Antonio must invest more in affordable housing so the Decade of Downtown doesn't give way to a decade of displacement, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said.

The former San Antonio mayor visited the city Friday for the unveiling of the new East Meadows housing development, built where the longtime Wheatley Courts public housing complex used to stand. The San Antonio Housing Authority property is considered an important component in the efforts to improve the city's East Side, a community that had been neglected for decades.

Castro, who supported initiatives to transform the East Side during his tenure as mayor, called the new housing "a fantastic example of revitalization" that will improve the quality of life for people in the neighborhood.

But he cautioned that the city must do more to accommodate its growing population as home sale prices and monthly rents continue to rise.

"I'm convinced that if San Antonio does not take bolder steps now to enhance housing affordability, then in a few years this...will give rise to a decade of displacement," Castro said later in the day while speaking at an Urban Land Institute San Antonio event attended by developers and community leaders.

"Is this going to continue to be a community that embraces everyone?" he asked.

Those challenges aren't unique to San Antonio, he said -- San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Austin and other cities have encountered similar housing needs.

In East Austin, once a very affordable and diverse side of town, more than half of the African-American population has moved away in the past 20 years, Castro said.

To prevent such displacement, the HUD secretary suggested San Antonio invest more from its city budget into affordable housing. The city also might build on the success of the incentives it offered to spur much of the development that's occurred along Broadway, he added.

Developers and city officials could join together to consider if the city's land use regulations need to be changed, Castro said. That's because zoning requirements and planning rules sometimes drive up the costs of developing housing.

"My hope is that now that downtown is taking off, council will take another look, for instance, at how downtown is zoned," Castro said Friday.

An excess number of hotels built there "is artificially driving up the costs of land," he said.

He also urged San Antonio to take a regional approach to planning — looking beyond its city limits for economic development opportunities.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley sat next to Castro during the Urban Land Institute luncheon and listened from the audience to his remarks.

The city's proposed $850 million bond package, which is expected to go before San Antonio voters in May, includes $20 million to make "neighborhood improvements" to distressed properties. That $20 million would be used to purchase land for affordable housing and to prepare land for development, according to a city presentation last month. Preparations could include demolition, environmental cleanup, extending utilities or installing sidewalks and street curbs.

City officials had explored the possibility of pursuing a more ambitious affordable housing proposal, but the current city charter only permits bonds to be issued for public works projects.

Castro said he was acutely aware before his election as San Antonio's mayor in 2009 that the city's East Side had suffered from years of neglect and a lack of public investment. He wanted to change that.

"It had been left behind in many ways, had not gotten the infrastructure investment, had not gotten the resources that other parts of town did over the years," he told a crowd of several hundred people at the formal unveiling of the new East Meadows housing development earlier in the day.

"I had a strong belief that if we really were going to succeed as a city, that everybody had to succeed — that every single part of town had to prosper."

The San Antonio Housing Authority, the local United Way, the city and other community leaders joined neighborhood groups and churches on the East Side to reverse the years of deterioration that had pervaded the area.

The housing authority landed a $29.7 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from HUD in late 2012, and the United Way won a $24.6 million Promise Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 to transform the neighborhood. Community leaders set out to improve the East Side's housing, education, job opportunities, recreational amenities, public infrastructure and safety. Multiple public and private investments were made.

A big part of that transformation meant tearing down a fixture on the East Side — the old Wheatley Courts public housing complex built in 1941. Bordered by Gabriel Street to the north and Hays Street to the south, North Walters Street to the east and North Gevers Street to the west, Wheatley Courts lacked central air conditioning and was well-known for its cinder block walls.

Morris Stribling, who chairs the San Antonio Housing Authority's board, recalled going inside one of the Wheatley Courts apartments. The woman who lived there told Stribling she didn't like to cook in her kitchen during the summers because the air became unbearably hot due to the cinder block walls and lack of air conditioning.

"No American should be subject to that," Stribling said.

In 2014, 201 families moved out of Wheatley Courts and the old public housing complex was torn down. Newly constructed in its place is East Meadows, which will ultimately contain 412 apartments. Construction will continue until 2018.

So far, only the first phase of East Meadows has been built. That $41.7 million development contains 215 apartments. More than a quarter of the families who vacated Wheatley Courts for demolition have applied to come back and live in the new apartments. The first tenants will start moving in at the end of October or early November.

East Meadows is a "mixed-income" community, meaning tenants paying full market-rate rents will live there with low- to moderate-income residents who qualify to live in apartments built with the help of tax credits. Low-income residents who qualify for public housing also will live there. Residents won't be housed in separate buildings based on their differing income levels, but will be randomly spread throughout the complex.

All of the apartments have the same amenities — washing machines and dryers, microwaves, refrigerators, ceiling fans, central air conditioning — regardless of the tenants' income levels.

"Washers and dryers are just as important to a single mother as a refrigerator," said Tony Salazar, an executive with McCormack Baron Salazar, the developer of East Meadows. His words drew murmurs of agreement from the crowds.

Opportunities to invest in affordable housing like the East Meadows development will only dwindle as home prices get higher and higher, Castro said.

"The city needs to invest in affordable housing now," he said.

pohare@express-news.net

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