Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.
When Maureen Galindo moved into her two-bedroom apartment in San Antonio in 2017, she was a single mother who couldn’t point to a stable income stream. No problem, her landlord said. That’s the kind of place the Soapworks and Towne Center Apartments was.
Since then, she fell in love with the tight-knit community that lives there along San Pedro Creek, blocks from the famous Mexican marketplace at Historic Market Square, where artisans have peddled their textiles, ceramics, and crafts for generations. San Pedro Creek is the wellspring of San Antonio’s largely Latino middle class. Immigrants and native-born Texans of all races and ethnicities call this area home. “It intersects all demographics, besides being rich,” Galindo says.
Galindo’s name was already on the waitlist for a more-affordable unit in a mixed-income development by the time she moved into her apartment. It’s a good thing, too: A new owner took over the Soapworks complex in October. Soon afterward, she got notice that her rent was going up. With three days left on her lease, the notice about a vacancy at the Refugio Place development came as a timely blessing.
“It’s like one big flip,” Galindo says, describing the situation at the apartment complex, now known as the Soap Factory. “It’s still there, and the same people are still there. They’re just not sure when their time is up.”
Things are changing in San Pedro Creek, and the new owners see opportunity. The neighborhood is the site of a multi-phase revitalization project called the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Henry R. Muñoz, the designer of the new linear park, has described it as a “Latino High Line,” one that restores the natural creek habitat and provides flood control. The 2.2-mile amenity celebrates the city’s Tejano history and culture, even as it also draws selfies to the area.
Muñoz has called the project a “national symbol for Latino and Anglo communities” in direct opposition to President Donald Trump’s plans to “[build] a wall between us and our Mexican roots.” The next phase in its development, which is currently under construction, will create a Performance Plaza next door to the Alameda Theater, an historic Mexican movie palace.
The original High Line in New York City, an adaptive reuse project that transformed a decaying elevated railway into a public-art-laden parkway, has proved to be an enormous success, one that other cities have taken strides to emulate. But it’s also become something of a monument to inequality, as rents along its West Side route soared and sent longtime residents packing.
To find a problematic public amenity that draws tourism and spurs displacement in San Antonio, however, the city doesn’t need to look any further than its own famed River Walk. The riverfront saw a transformational expansion of parkland, shops, walkways, and restaurants that bougified the San Antonio River a decade ago. The city is only beginning to learn the lesson that while growth is good, it poses risks for residents on the wrong side of a steep income drop-off. Now, San Antonio is taking steps to right the ship.
Advocates say that the “Decade of Downtown” policies launched under the administration of Mayor Julián Castro—who is now running for president in part on his mayoral record—aren’t working for marginalized communities. New developments like the Latino High Line, plus the city’s rising economic fortunes, are putting inadvertent pressure on the Mexican and Mexican-American communities that these projects celebrate.
To help residents threatened by this transformation, last week the San Antonio City Council voted to approve a $1 million “Risk Mitigation Fund,” aimed at displaced tenants and others facing financial hardship. More than 60 households in San Antonio contacted the city to apply for displacement assistance before the council even brought it up for a vote. Advocates welcome the city’s new push—but they also say that it’s not enough to do the trick.
“That’s not addressing the root causes of displacement, but it’s trying to mitigate the hurt being done to tenants in the displacement,” says Amelia Adams, fair housing researcher for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
For Galindo, the trouble came when a new owner bought the Soapworks and Towne Center buildings with plans to rehab them. As the new ownership of the Soap Factory turned over units and added amenities, Galindo’s rent shot up from $860 to $970, mostly in the form of new fees tacked on for existing utilities—a hike of 12 percent in a single year. Converted two-bedroom units in the complex now rent for $1,150.
It’s not easy to prove displacement; the term occupies the same uncertain territory on the map as “gentrification.” It’s a hard-to-define, often-inadvertent byproduct of growth as it overlaps with racial and economic segregation and strict zoning regulations. Critics point to the Castro-era Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP), a program designed to foster dense, mixed-income, multi-family developments in downtown and central San Antonio.
Some new CCHIP-fueled apartment complexes might set off gentrification red flags simply because they’re new or refurbished, while many provide affordable units. According to the city, projects that displace residents or renovations like the Soap Factory aren’t eligible for these incentives.* The city also claims that 61 percent of multi-family housing units downtown are affordable. However, this count includes the Soap Factory, an example of naturally occurring affordable housing that is rapidly disappearing. In order to better suss out displacement in San Antonio, officials have set out a rubric.
The city’s Risk Mitigation Fund authorizes up to $3,000 for apartment tenants (and up to $7,000 for residents of mobile-home parks) who are forced to move due to outright redevelopment or rehabilitation; or for those who receive a rent increase of more than 5 percent that puts the rent out of reach. (For the renter to be eligible, the rent must take up more than 30 percent of her income.) The fund also greenlights one-time financial hardship assistance for certain residents who fall behind on their rent (up to $3,500) or utilities (up to $1,500). The program comprises one recommendation of the Housing Policy Task Force convened by Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
In the context of housing, risk mitigation funds are usually an insurance or reimbursement purse for landlords who agree to take on tenants considered risky, including those with a criminal history or record of evictions. Launching a risk mitigation fund for the tenants themselves—to safeguard them from gentrification-addled landlords, rising rents, and dubious High Line schemes—is a pivot.
In San Antonio, the threat of displacement is not merely an indirect effect of rising rents and slack wage growth. Eviction can serve as a blunt tool for development.
Consider, for example, the experience of the Mission Trails mobile home park in southeast San Antonio. Back in 2014, the San Antonio River Walk was still expanding, and the city approved a rezoning application for the trailer park’s land, which developers desired to build out the southern part of the eight-mile stretch called the Mission Reach. Residents received no more warning than a pair of corrugated-plastic signs at the entrance of their community that read, “REZONING.”
When Mission Trails residents went to a zoning meeting to find out what was happening, there were no Spanish speakers or interpreters to explain it to them. Jessica O. Guerrero, a community organizer who volunteered as a translator, later founded Vecinos de Mission Trails, a nonprofit organization devoted to assisting these former tenants and building comités de defensa del barrio.
“The reception by City Council was heartbreaking,” Guerrero says. “They were saying that tenants don’t understand they were getting a good deal.”
In the end, the city elected to forcibly remove the more than 300 residents of the mobile home park. More than half of the residents were children. Guerrero says that she met one woman who had lived at Mission Trails for 36 years; she had raised her children and grandchildren there. As word about the mass eviction spread, the city and the developer scrambled to provide relocation assistance. But the process was ad hoc and inconsistent, Guerrero says.
“Just aside from the finances of moving, transferring schools was a huge burden,” she says. “There were also older students in their last year of school who didn’t want to leave.”
Heartbreak and crisis followed. With no assurances from the city, some residents felt forced to take the first offer—a few hundred dollars. Others held out for more time or money, but they faced uncertain prospects, like renting an apartment at a higher rate if they didn’t want to take their kids out of school, or relocating to trailer parks outside of town. Departing families sometimes had to leave their belongings on the ground, because the home movers arrived before the people movers did. One couple’s home was torn in two during the move. Displacement is dangerous. “There were caravans of looters coming into the park,” Guerrero says.
After the last family moved out of Mission Trails in mid-2015, the developer did nothing with the lot for two years, a source of frustration for former tenants who were rushed out of their lives. Meanwhile, the incentives dried up. For Mission Trails families, San Antonio offered to pay $1,000 toward a new lot at other mobile home parks. Guerrero says that those landlords pocketed the hand-out, then raised the rent after the families moved in.
The tragedy of Mission Trails speaks to the way that growth and poverty are pulling San Antonio in opposite directions. Between 2000 and 2016, the city’s population grew by a staggering 26 percent, according to census figures. Renters can’t afford the new homes going up: While the median renter income for the city for 2016 was $37,200, more than half of new housing starts in San Antonio were priced above $250,000. Investments in the expanded River Walk—from Museum Reach in the north to Mission Reach in the south—total more than $380 million, according to the city, with $46 million in public incentives. The evictions at Mission Trails made way for a $75 million high-end development that received CCHIP incentives. (As mayor, Castro vigorously opposed this relocation.)
Of course, new multi-family developments are creating room for all the residents still pouring in. (The city anticipates another 88,000 new residents by 2022 alone.) The River Walk and other public amenities indeed make San Antonio a more attractive, pleasant place to live. In December, the city reinstated its incentive program for housing developments after a year-long moratorium. The city needs both: more construction and more protections for vulnerable renters.
San Antonio has a greater challenge than many growing cities. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 45 percent of renter households in the San Antonio–New Braunfels metro area are rent burdened (paying more than one-third of their income toward rent), while 22 percent of renter households are severely cost burdened (paying more than half their income toward rent). Only the Austin, College Station, and Laredo metro areas have a higher share of rent-burdened households in Texas.
What San Antonio needs, according to Adams, is a displacement risk mitigation policy with teeth. The fund authorized by the city council on Thursday does not come with any obligations for developers. Adams says that any time a developer comes to the city for grants (as in zoning permissions), they should come with strings attached: fundamental protections for tenants who, in very recent history, were physically relocated without any notice. “In Texas, it’s very hard to require developers to do anything,” she says.
Upgrading San Antonio’s aging housing stock, adding enough housing for the influx of new residents, and creating dense housing in transit-accessible corridors will mean a great deal of building in San Antonio. Castro-era policies put the city on a good footing to anticipate this growth. But a lack of caution spelled disaster for low-income households. Without stronger safeguards, new development will run roughshod over its poor and mostly Latino residents.
“It’s the first step to address displacement that the city has taken,” Adams says. “We want the city to partner with people going through displacement to craft the policy. We want it to be robust.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included the Soap Factory project in the CCHIP program, based on a document prepared by the city. This story has been updated.