High-Density Development Can Help Solve SA’s Affordable Housing Shortage

A residential house and recently constructed high density infill development project on West Craig Place in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood.

San Antonio is the greatest city on earth. Full disclosure: I’m from here and may be slightly biased. As great as this city is, we have our share of problems, and I’m not talking about the heat, the traffic, or the parking.

What I find most disturbing is our city’s rank as the most segregated among the nation’s largest cities by income, race, education, and a few other metrics. We’ve also got an affordable housing shortage on our hands, and the city’s population is expected to double in the coming decades.

To prepare for this influx, San Antonio is in the process of implementing a comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow, to address these and a myriad of other concerns for the greater metro area. Many groups have an interest in this conversation but my concern is regarding one group in particular.

Neighborhood associations in theory are a great thing; they bring people together in the interest of the common good. In fact, I helped form the Uptown Neighborhood Association just last year. However, when participation is dominated by a disproportionately small set of people, in this case property owners, the agenda tends to skew in the favor of the privileged few who own property while the largest and most vulnerable group – tenants – suffers the consequences.

Cynthia Spielman, former president of the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association, wrote in a recent op-ed that a group of nearly 30 neighborhood association leaders – most of them homeowners – formed the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition “because, from the outset, the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan has not included meaningful representation from neighborhoods and has repeatedly vowed to eliminate existing Neighborhood Plans.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. City staff have gone to great lengths to include input from all relevant parties. I currently sit on the planning team for the Midtown Regional Center, a sub-area identified in SA Tomorrow, where a portion of the projected growth is expected to concentrate.

Approximately 20 planning team members represent the following organizations: University of the Incarnate Word, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, NRP Group, Tobin Hill/St. Mary’s Business Owners Association, San Antonio College, Silver Ventures, FRED Committee, Witte Museum, Brackenridge Park Conservancy, VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio River Authority, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, two at-large members, as well as the Government Hill and Westfort alliances and Five Points, Mahncke Park, Uptown, and Tobin Hill neighborhood associations.

Neighborhood associations are well represented, comprising some 35 percent of the team. Furthermore, we decided early on neighborhood plans would be incorporated in the new plan and shortcomings of existing plans would be improved upon.

Current neighborhood plans systematically remove dense, affordable housing from urban neighborhoods and carry on our city’s long legacy of segregation. Any new homes built within the areas of these neighborhood plans are subject to stricter building codes under the guise of neighborhood preservation. I’m a preservationist, and love our city’s history, so I’ll skip to the part where it all comes down to parking.

Related commentary: Affordable Housing is the Housing We Live in Now

Parking is important and traffic is a bummer, I concur. But I’d argue that more important than parking for cars is housing for people, many of whom don’t have the privilege of owning a car. There it is.

If new housing is required to include parking – 1.5 parking spots per residential unit to be exact – then the neighborhood plans and the ordinances that come with them make it illegal to build anything but houses for people with cars.

“But the new construction we’re seeing isn’t affordable,” says the NIMBY (Not-in-my-backyard). Take the new homes at 930 W. Craig Pl. for example. Heightened ordinances, including parking requirements, make construction more costly, so the end product, too, is more costly.

Related: Neighborhood Loses Appeal of Condo Development in Monte Vista Terrace

High-density development is not what is driving tenants out; in fact, new developments like this are slowing the rate at which tenants are pushed out. Since the homes in question compare in price to an updated single-family home, it stands to reason these new homeowners might also have been in the market for an old house. Many of these old houses have evolved into multi-family homes with add-ons upon add-ons and casitas out back.

In this case, a new homebuyer can potentially displace half a dozen families, easy. Neighborhood associations celebrate this kind of change and welcome the addition of new owners to their ranks. Owners and cars win out over vulnerable tenants, pedestrians, and cyclists.

To perpetuate this broken system would be tragic. Please join me in prioritizing the needs of people over the needs of cars.

Disclosure: The Alamo Colleges, Witte Museum, and San Antonio River Authority are Rivard Report business members. For a full list of supporters, click here.

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