Before City Council is a proposal to place on the May 2021 ballot the option to change the City charter to allow for expanded use of bond money to support “permanent public improvements or for any other public purposes.” Currently the Charter permits such funds to be used in the building and maintenance of “public works.” The one-word change is intended to give the City greater flexibility in how it spends money. New wording would bring San Antonio’s charter in line with those of other large Texas cities.
Design|Forum strongly supports the proposed change. The new language in the Charter will make it possible for urgently needed funds to go to building, replacing, and restoring public housing. The chief obstacle to creating affordable housing in San Antonio now is the gap between the high cost of construction and the very modest rents those who live in it are able to pay. Unlike market-rate housing, developers of affordable housing will not recoup their costs in rents or sales of units. But the gap must be bridged; the math must work. This is where bond money comes in. In subsidizing building costs, the City can help close the gap and make possible more and better housing for those who most need it.
We believe that decent housing is a human right. The need for housing cannot be bent to the market, but collectively, we can bend the market to serve those in need. Many experts agree that the once-popular approach to housing needs of creating mixed-income developments has not worked. Too often, mixed-income projects, developed in part to solve the cost/rent gap, have displaced residents and placed affordable housing further out of reach.
In San Antonio, roughly 50,000 families are on the waiting list for affordable housing. Some housing advocates suggest that an appropriate target for a subsidized project is 50%-60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). For many San Antonians the threshold must be even lower. We must come together to house those who are able to comfortably pay only 30% or even 10% of AMI.
Housing is the knot at the center of a complex tangle of social and economic challenges. The need for affordable housing would not be so urgent today if wages had grown in proportion to housing costs in the last 40 years. Because of disparities in the accumulation of intergenerational wealth, historical policies and practices of race-based exclusion in education and work, and race and gender pay gaps, paying for housing is often harder for people of color than for whites. We cannot quickly untangle the knot, but we can take steps to make lives better here and now.
Many in our city may not know how their fellow citizens live. They may never have been to neighborhoods that look different from theirs. They may not realize how many of those who live in publicly-supported houses and apartments are children. But surely there are few who question the obligation we have to share our collective wealth with those in need.
Placing the Charter change option before voters is the necessary first step to creating more and better housing for San Antonians. When the time comes to begin designing and redesigning those spaces, we’ll have lots to say too. For now, we urge you to call City Council members and ask them to support the chance for voters to change the Charter. And get ready to vote!