‘Keep Public Housing Public’: San Antonio Dispute Reflects National Tensions

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Author: Jared Brey
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Even with low-cost housing harder than ever to find in most American cities, the stock of public housing is shrinking. The number of families living in public housing shrank 6.5 percent during a recent five-year period, according to the Urban Institute — not a huge decline, but a decline nonetheless.

Several federal initiatives to redevelop public-housing towers with lower-density, mixed-income projects have helped improve the image of public housing from its nadir in the mid-to-late 20th century. But they have also changed the mission of public housing authorities. Once focused solely on building and maintaining public units for poor people, housing authorities now engage in a wide variety of housing-related activities, sometimes partnering with private developers to build apartments for people who make barely less than the median income.

Tenants in some public housing projects, such as San Antonio’s Alazán-Apache Courts, feel besieged. The complex is one of the oldest public housing projects in the U.S., built for low-income Mexican Americans during the New Deal. In the 2010s, San Antonio’s housing authority (now called Opportunity Home), sought to partly demolish the project and rebuild it with mixed-income apartments.

Tenants, who loudly protested that plan, celebrated when the authority named a new president in 2021. Ed Hinojosa, who had been the authority's chief financial officer, vowed to nix the mixed-income redevelopment plan, instead preserving all the existing public housing units at the site.

But last month, the Opportunity Home board abruptly fired Hinojosa. Board members have since cited a growing budget deficit under his leadership as one of the reasons why he was let go. But some tenants say the board wants to demolish projects including the Alazán-Apache Courts, replace them with mixed-income housing and use the public housing authority to finance deals with private developers that won’t serve the people who need housing the most.

“We’re about to throw down again,” says Kayla Miranda, an organizer and tenant at the Alazán-Apache Courts.

Redevelopment, Reconsidered

Like other housing authorities around the turn of the century, Opportunity Home used funding from the federal HOPE VI program to demolish some public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income apartments. In the years leading up to Hinojosa’s hiring, the authority planned to work with developers to redevelop the Alazán-Apache Courts using federal low-income housing tax credits.

Some tenants didn’t like that plan because they believed they’d be displaced in the redevelopment process and wouldn’t have a unit to move back into in the new complex. They also believed it would accelerate the gentrification of the historic west side of San Antonio. They staged protests over the plan, including outside the home of then-CEO David Nisivoccia.

When Hinojosa took over as president and CEO, he acknowledged and even seemed to share their concerns. “The approach when you do mixed-income development is that you offer these families a voucher or you offer to move them to another public housing location," Hinojosa said in an interview in 2021. "As we started looking into the details, it’s hard for tenants to use their vouchers right now because there aren’t a lot of units available.”

Many of the families at the courts had vanishingly small monthly incomes. “We started becoming concerned about the ability to move so many people out of Alazán and for them to find housing," Hinojosa said. "So that really led us to start thinking about a different approach.”

Under Hinojosa, who couldn’t be reached for an interview for this story (and who has reportedly denied other press requests since his firing), the San Antonio housing authority sought to redevelop the Alazán project in small phases using its own funds. That reversal — and Hinojosa’s different approach to the top job — were a relief to tenants like Miranda.

“The first thing Ed did was stop the Alazán project. The second thing he did was call me and other tenants,” Miranda says. “We didn’t have to go set a meeting with him. When he took over, he came and found us.”

‘A Different Direction’

Many housing authorities adapted their payment enforcement and eviction processes during the pandemic to be more lenient with tenants. In San Antonio, uncollected rents began to accumulate over the last few years, topping $2 million, according to a report. The Opportunity Home board reportedly urged the organization to begin enforcing collections.

The authority sent enforcement notifications to all tenants who owed rent in the spring, according to the San Antonio Report: More than 600 families in all, some owing as little as $1. The board then unanimously voted to fire Hinojosa at its June board meeting.

The board hasn’t given a full explanation about why Hinojosa was fired. Both Opportunity Home and the chair of its board, Gabriel Lopez, an affordable-housing developer, declined interview requests and did not answer emailed questions from Governing. But Lopez told a local PBS station that the decision had been under discussion “for several months.” He cited the rising deficit at Opportunity Home and the growing housing needs in San Antonio, saying, “we decided to take the agency in a different direction.”

What that means for the Alazán project isn’t exactly clear yet. But Lopez and other agency leaders have been talking in recent weeks about using more financing options, like the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which helps housing authorities renovate public housing and build mixed-income projects. Lopez has said the authority should look for all opportunities to support affordable housing for people at a range of income levels.

To some tenants, that’s a red flag. Even though tenants are supposed to have a right to return to public housing units after redevelopment projects are complete under RAD and other programs, in practice, many don’t. Housing vouchers don’t provide the same level of stability as traditional public housing. There’s also nowhere nearly enough in terms of either housing vouchers or public housing units to serve everyone who qualifies for one, in San Antonio or anywhere else.

For the most vulnerable renters, there’s nothing else that replaces public housing. “For any developer to come in and anyone try to destroy the only option for people that are at these lowest incomes is despicable and disgusting. It should not happen,” Miranda says. “There is nowhere else to go. It’s public housing or it’s homelessness.”

Some housing advocates and local elected officials have called for Hinojosa to be reinstated. Teri Castillo, a San Antonio city councilmember, says the board made a mistake in firing him, given his strong relationships with tenants.

Castillo notes that the Alazán project and other Opportunity Home properties sit on valuable real estate adjacent to developing areas. She worries that the agency could shift its focus to making deals with private developers to build mixed-income housing, rather than working to house the city’s poorest residents.

“My hope and expectation is that [Hinojosa’s replacement] is someone who’s committed to keeping public housing public,” she says.


Source URL: https://portside.org/2024-07-09/keep-public-housing-public-san-antonio-dispute-reflects-national-tensions