Addressing Gentrification in San Antonio
Since moving to San Antonio more than eight months ago, I have watched the local debate on gentrification take on a life of its own. I’ve read articles chronicling our changing neighborhoods, I’ve watched town hall meetings get completely derailed by distractions, and I’ve observed nearly all the meetings of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods. The passion demonstrated by many of the folks who attend, write about, and speak at these meetings is admirable; yet, I can’t help but believe that they’re also a bit off base. Here are my three main points:
- The degree to which gentrification is actually happening in San Antonio has been wildly overblown.
The impetus for this local debate seems to stem from a shuttered mobile home park that was rezoned about a year ago. Its zoning was changed so that developer White-Conlee could buy and redevelop the site with about 400 apartments. Regardless of what those apartments eventually look like, writers have characterized the redevelopment as “high-priced,” “high-end,” or “luxury,” in a pejorative sense as a way of contrasting it against the mobile homes that had been on the property until early this year.
To be clear, I can sympathize with the residents of Mission Trails. I know what it’s like to face housing instability and to be displaced from my home. I’ve been pushed to seek new housing—twice—with just 30 days notice. On one of those two occasions I had to sleep on an acquaintance’s couch for weeks before I could move into my new place. On the other, I moved in with my best friend and his new bride for several months, living out of boxes until my move to Texas. Not having a place to call ‘home’ is stressful.
But I have seen the victimization of Mission Trails residents taken much too far in the media and at public meetings. Several of the facts have been left out of the conversation, allowing generations of mistrust to boil over within the public forum.
Fact: Mission Trails residents rented the spaces where their homes were sited; this, by nature, is a temporary arrangement. Despite some of the residents living there for decades, the owner/landlord had no legal obligation to keep the property as a mobile home park.
Fact: This was not the first time Mission Trails Mobile Home Park had been offered for sale. To pretend that the sale of the property was sudden and unforeseen, or that it was caused by improvements to the river, is just plain wrong.
Fact: Conditions at Mission Trails were deplorable for years. And, because streets within the community were privately owned and maintained, the City was not responsible for street repairs, trash pickup, and so on. A search in Google Street View shows the poor condition of the property as far back as 2007. This is in contrast to Mark Reagan’s account of Mission Trails in the San Antonio Current, which implied that “water-filled potholes” and “dilapidated trails” were a result of the City’s neglect after rezoning the property.
Fact: The reason cities continue to de-emphasize mobile homes is because they were never built to be permanent housing. Like any other automobile, mobile homes lose value rapidly over time, and issuing protections for mobile homes is not an investment that taxpayers should be supporting. That being said, policies that allow mobile home owners to acquire land as well as replace their homes with low-cost, permanent structures are asset-building strategies worth pursuing further.
Fact: The developer did not seek government incentives for the purchase of the property; thus, White-Conlee had no legal obligation to compensate the families at Mission Trails. In fact, the dollar value of relocation assistance to residents was reported to be upwards of $7,500 per household, likely more than they would have received through the Uniform Relocation Act (which only applies to federally-funded projects). Yet, several families continued to cry to the media that their rights were being taken away.
Another local story that has seen its share of press is the issuing of a demolition order for Miguel Calzada’s home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Legend now has it that an investor harassed the elderly homeowner about purchasing his home but, after refusing to sell, the angry investor turned the man in to code enforcement, resulting in an order to demolish the dilapidated home in order to force the sale of the property. Several folks, like former councilwoman Maria Berriozábal, have turned this story into the face of gentrification. And Page Graham of The Rivard Report bought into it, painting the portrait of yet another victim of gentrification:
“The City was apparently intent upon tearing down the house and sending him the bill for the demolition…As a humble homeowner who runs a salvage business for a living, standing in front of a dais filled with people he perceived to be unsympathetic to his plight was intimidating to say the least…”
Then, just two days later a follow-up article appeared with a hashtag: #SaveMiguelsHome. It detailed the work of several politicians and community activists showing up on a Saturday to clear out the Calzada’s home in an attempt to stave off demolition. But, as one commenter pointed out, the sudden outpouring of support seemed perfectly timed with the start of campaign season. I think the issue of the proposed demolition was best summed up in the following comment:
“…[T]he Calzadas are NOT the ‘face of gentrification.’ They are a victim of unfortunate circumstances and mounting home maintenance costs, but they are not victims of gentrification. Again, I support communities coming together to “love thy neighbor,” but let’s not confuse one with the other. Furthermore, calling Beacon Hill a ‘hotbed’ for house flippers and developers is an overstatement at best. In fact, we do a disservice to our neighborhoods when we use language like this because it proposes that reinvestment is a zero-sum game…either we’re gentrifying a neighborhood or we’re letting it rot–there seems to be no welcome in between. Then, when someone comes in and builds one house or a fourplex, suddenly the existing residents are at risk? Really?”
The unfortunate reality of Mission Trails and the proposed demolition of Calzada’s Beacon Hill home are not stories of gentrification, but of limited resources for families in situational and generational poverty. It is true that throughout our city we have thousands of families living in homes they can’t afford to maintain and improve. But, part of this conversation needs to include the question, “whose responsibility is it?” When an owner’s home falls into disrepair, is it fair to blame others for their plight?
- The misrepresentation of developers, politicians, city staffers, and “the gentrifiers” continues to undermine the credibility of those advocating for policy changes
From sea to shining sea, stories of gentrification continue to paint a very antagonistic picture of neighborhood change. Developers are portrayed as greedy, politicians corrupt and holding hands with those greedy developers, city staffers are seen as looking for ways to swindle their fellow man, and wealthy white citizens couldn’t care less about how their desire to move downtown affects the poor. Frankly, these are lazy generalizations that are just as insidious as stereotypes about lower-income families and minorities. The truth is that we need developers who risk investing in forgotten neighborhoods just as much as we need protections for residents who’ve lived in these neighborhoods for decades. We need politicians who will balance the needs of the poor with those of the middle-class while, at the same time, crowding out baseless accusations of collusion. We need city workers to help provide the research and data to help guide the decision-making of our mayors and council members. And, yes, we even need the so-called gentrifiers—the ones who bring additional capital into existing neighborhoods—both financial capital and human capital—to restore vacant, neglected homes and fill empty retail spaces with thriving new businesses.
Here in San Antonio, not unlike many other cities, we have advocacy groups that thwart progress simply by generating dissent among fellow citizens. I watched this unfold time and again at town hall meetings for the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods. Both the Texas Organizing Project and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center have shown up in force at these meetings over the last month, creating obvious distractions from the point of the meetings, which was to actually debate the content of the Task Force’s report. Instead, we had folks creating a spectacle out of the fact that translation services weren’t provided. Sadly, it set a very unproductive tone for the rest of the meetings where it was no longer about discussing and revising content, but about controlling the damage brought on by the very people the report is intended to help. What’s worse is that none of these so-called advocates have yet to offer any real, data-driven guidance on how to balance progress and protection. On the contrary, they have had a notorious history of causing controversy, as was the case during the December ribbon cutting ceremony of the Alamo Beer Company.
Even some of the Task Force members have contributed to the dissent. Both Maria Berriozábal and Nettie Hinton, each long-time neighborhood advocates, never hesitated to deflect blame onto the City whenever the collective work of the group didn’t reflect their personal stances on gentrification. They each continued to insist that the report was staff-driven, even though anyone who has watched the Task Force in action knows that the recommendations came straight from their (sometimes unfocused) conversations. Ms. Hinton, in particular, vilified Cherry Street Modern on several occasions as a high-end apartment complex (it is neither high-end nor an apartment complex), and plainly called the small development “ugly.” She is certainly entitled to that opinion, but it seems hardly fair to call modest, two-story modernist homes ugly when compared to the numerous industrial buildings that still exist just across the street. In fact, here’s the current view from the small, 12-unit development:
- Income segregation and suburban sprawl are generally ignored by those opposing anything resembling gentrification
A report that’s been floating around at recent meetings is one from the Pew Research Institute which shows San Antonio as the most income-segregated metro area in the nation. This means that, more than anywhere else in America, lower-income San Antonians live near other low-income San Antonians while those with higher incomes tend to live near others with higher incomes. Although evidence of the benefits of mixed-income communities is still nascent, the data on the ill effects of concentrated poverty are much more robust. According to the Brookings Institute, “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.”
Thankfully our current mayor, Ivy Taylor, understands this reality. In fact, at a recent meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Preserving Dynamic and Diverse neighborhoods, she stood up to one task force member who suggested that all new housing on San Antonio’s East Side be affordable to the low-income residents who have lived there for generations. “I reject the notion that the East Side should remain a predominantly low-income neighborhood,” Taylor said, passionately.
As I alluded to in a previous post, one of our great failures in the urban planning community is supporting policies that allowed suburban sprawl to supplant a focus on inner city development for decades, leaving our urban cores to deteriorate throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. More than 60 years after the advent of modern suburbia, we continue to let a history of ‘white flight’ inform our development decisions, resulting in some of the most inequitable neighborhoods in our history. Looking at that same Pew Research Institute study, the majority of our most income-segregated cities are those that grew up around an auto-oriented, suburban planning regime: Houston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.
Today, many cities, including San Antonio, are beginning to fill in with urban projects that opponents of gentrification love to hate. This includes the wholesale redevelopment of the former Pearl brewery, now home to over 600 newly-built apartments, boutique retail shops, local restaurants, a weekly farmer’s market, and a campus for the Culinary Institute of America. It includes the renaissance of Southtown, including the now-hip Lavaca and King William neighborhoods. It includes the Hays Street Bridge redevelopment and Alamo Brewery in burgeoning Dignowity Hill. These are all places that are anecdotally known as agents of gentrification—that is, places catering only to the wealthiest and whitest people. Except that, in San Antonio at least, it’s untrue.
Using methodology similar to that in Pew’s Residential Income Segregation Index, none of the San Antonio neighborhoods mentioned live up to their gentrified reputations. The area around the Pearl is majority middle-income; that is, most households there earn between $30,000 and $100,000 per year. The same is true for the King William district, Lavaca, and portions of Beacon Hill. Other supposed centers of gentrification in San Antonio, like Lone Star, Tobin Hill, and Dignowity Hill, remain majority low-income neighborhoods. These are areas where the majority of households earn less than $30,000 per year. Economist Joe Cortright takes it a step further in his research, showing that places that were mostly poor in 1970 are still that way today and, in fact, there are more areas of concentrated poverty in American cities than there were 40 years ago.
It is frustrating to watch elected officials dedicate precious civic time on policies for a problem that isn’t nearly the problem advocates would have us believe. I am all for being proactive, but the rhetoric being spread by outlets like the San Antonio Current, The Rivard Report, the San Antonio Express-News, Univision 41, and by groups like TOP and Esperanza is anything but proactive. Especially concerning to me is that groups like Esperanza are actively writing the public narrative on gentrification: on April 18th the organization held a forum called, “Gentrification and the Right to Remain,” bringing four mayoral candidates to speak on the subject. Naturally, the focus of the questions was on projects that Esperanza publicly opposed, opening a door only for the candidates to say what audience members wanted to hear.
To me, both the local and national debate on gentrification boils down to one thing: people use five percent of the facts to make up 100 percent of their mind. And that kind of ignorance, my friends, is not bliss.