Officials Seek Quick Fixes for Downtown Housing Affordability Issues

Officials Seek Quick Fixes for Downtown Housing Affordability Issues

The Soapworks apartment complex has a new owner and is undergoing renovations, raising issues of affordability.

Elected officials and City staff are looking into short-term solutions for residents concerned they will be priced out of apartments next to the multimillion-dollar San Pedro Creek improvements project. Possible avenues, suggested by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), are using funds from area taxing districts to help residents relocate, providing incentives to landlords to keep rents down, or some other assistance.

“I want to make sure we’re turning over every stone [looking] for immediate and long-term opportunities to help residents,” Treviño said Monday during the Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board meeting.

Three residents from the Soapworks and Towne Center apartment complexes attended the meeting at City Hall to describe their living situations and the pressures of getting by on fixed incomes. The near-downtown apartments recently were purchased by a Houston-based firm, and new management has implemented fees and started renovating units.

Related: Same Song, Second Verse? Another City Task Force Tackles Housing Policy

No one has been forced out – nor has rent increased for anyone living in an old unit, according to management. But residents see change coming and worry they’ll be left without a place to live. They point to the case of Mission Trails Mobile Home Park, which about 300 individuals had to leave when the property was sold to apartment developers. A task force and housing commission was formed aimed at addressing gentrification, but neither body has developed policies that would apply to Soapworks and Towne Center, located on North Santa Rosa Street near West Martin Street.

The City has a relocation assistance program for renters, but that is reserved for people who find themselves living in hazardous conditions with code violations or other safety concerns.

Long-term policy solutions are being explored by a new Housing Policy Task Force, but those may not be in place to help residents now, Treviño said. It’s possible the TIRZ could pay for sidewalk or parking lot improvements to offset some redevelopment costs, savings that the management then could pass on to residents, he said, “providing a shock absorber.”

TIRZs have independent political boundaries aimed at urban redevelopment. Taxable properties within a TIRZ pay into a fund that then is paid out to improvement projects within the zone. The zones are unique to the state of Texas and can be initiated by the City or property owners.

It’s unclear if rent stabilization is a legal use of these funds, said Assistant City Attorney Ted Murphree, who attended the meeting Monday. “This statute is very broadly written … [and] flexible.”

But generally TIRZ funds are used for the public good, Murphree noted, so would this be for a “certain segment of the public or overall?” That’s what working with Treviño and City staff will determine, he said. Treviño directed staff members to explore legal precedent and craft a letter to the property owner that explains possible options.

The difference between before- and after-renovation rents at the two complexes are estimated to be between $100 and $400, City staff said, but it’s unclear which tenants will stay and which will eventually move out.

About 87 percent of the 381 units that make up Soapworks, Soapworks II, and Towne Center are occupied, Michelle McMillan, vice president of Capstone Real Estate Service’s regional office in San Antonio, told the Rivard Report. Capstone is managing the property for the owner, Barvin Group.

High-end housing is being constructed near the Pearl and Southtown and a slow trickle of government-subsidized low-income housing is going in near downtown, McMillan said, and Barvin Group wants to fill the gap in the middle “to create an affordable, mid-range rental option that most working San Antonio residents can afford in the downtown area.”

She said that they are “certainly open” to working with the city on affordability programs involving TIRZ funding.

The apartments, constructed during the late 1970s and early 1980s, haven’t been upgraded since they were built, McMillan said, and previous management raised the rent of some units without raising others, creating a mishmash of rent expectations.

Cruz R. Soto, 65, has attended several recent public meetings about housing. She rents a studio apartment in Soapworks for $450 per month, more than half the $888 she receives from Social Security. Soto says her apartment is teeming with cockroaches, despite the additional $3 per month she pays for pest control.

“[Lack of communication] has been one of our biggest frustrations,” McMillan said, who added that pest problems are typically reported to media before they are reported to management. “All they have to do is tell us … nobody comes to us to let us know.”

Meanwhile, construction continues on the $175 million San Pedro Creek improvements project that will create a linear park through the western side of downtown.

Bexar County Commmissioner Tommy Calvert, who serves on the TIRZ board, said that while the creek will serve as a great amenity for the city, he is concerned that some longtime downtown residents will be squeezed out of affordable housing options. They “waited for the renaissance and can’t bear the fruits of that.”

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