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Texas taxes push Black, Hispanics out of homes

People make their way across Pittman-Sullivan Park on San Antonio's east side at dusk. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)
People make their way across Pittman-Sullivan Park on San Antonio’s east side at dusk. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)

SAN ANTONIO — Visitors entering Rebecca Flores’s San Antonio home pass a sepia-toned photo of her large Tejano family on the Texas farmland they worked before they moved into the city. It’s a reminder of what they left behind and how far they’ve come in a land where their roots go back more than 300 years.

The home’s deep-blue walls pay tribute to a family whose ancestors were among the first Canary Islanders to settle this colonial outpost and who, in 1959, pooled savings from their minimum wage incomes to buy the house. Flores, 79, wants to keep the home in her family, but she and many of her mostly Mexican American neighbors say they are being priced out of their homes due to skyrocketing property taxes and a hot housing market that has developers pressuring them to sell in the rapidly gentrifying city.

Records show the value of her property has more than doubled in recent years and were it not for exemptions, her taxes would be as high as a mortgage. She has been bombarded by offers from investors eager to cash in, and the names of property owners on her block have changed from Villaseñores and Herrera to those of corporations.

San Antonio’s impending housing crisis threatens to displace the longtime residents who helped give the city its distinctive culture and character. It’s a crisis facing cities across America where housing is in short supply, affordable housing is even scarcer and investors are sweeping into high-demand markets with big cash offers that are pricing many Americans out of the market altogether.

‘Why can’t poor people have nice things?’

Ten years ago, a multibillion-dollar push by the city to incentivize development in San Antonio’s urban core yielded explosive investment along its enchanting riverway — a realization of former mayor Julián Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” campaign.

The leveraging of taxpayer dollars for private development was wildly successful — and critics say, destructive — in the city’s economically segregated inner-core neighborhoods, which have its oldest housing stock and most vulnerable residents. Redevelopment brought luxury housing, high-end shopping districts, tourist attractions and made downtown a hot destination. But it also triggered soaring property values, intensified code enforcement action — which made it easier for older buildings to be demolished for redevelopment and, residents say, gentrification that has made the historically Black east side unrecognizable.

Advocates say this new form of “redlining” spreading to the city’s Tejano west side means many will no longer be able to afford homes in communities their families built over generations. Residents agree some of the improvements that have come with the redevelopment have been good, but said the price has been too high.

“I love what they’ve done on the river but why is it at the cost of people who have lived here forever? Why can’t poor people have nice things?” said Flores. “We’ve been living next to a ditch for years and finally, they fixed it. Now we have to leave? That’s what irritates me.”

City leaders say they are listening and aiding residents with everything from money to help rehabilitate homes to integrating advocate recommendations into their housing strategy to a $150 million bond issue approved by voters this month that will be used for affordable housing initiatives. Mayor Ron Nirenberg (I) said the city has curbed the “wild West” development mentality with a reset on tax incentives and affordability metrics. But the solution cannot continue to be disinvestment, he said.

“We are trying to slow or turn back the tide that began decades ago,” Nirenberg said. “ We have been living for the last 20 years in a new Gilded Age where there are haves and have-nots. Until we get serious about equity, we are facing the possibility of losing many communities who have been struggling through cost-burden housing.”

But while elected officials tout actions they say they’ve taken to help residents, property owners and advocates point to what they see as failures. A recent report by researchers at the University of Texas School of Law found that San Antonio’s code enforcement officers are the most aggressive among Texas cities, ordering at least 25 times as many home demolitions as their counterparts in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin combined since 2015. Residents displaced when their homes are condemned often cannot afford housing in the redeveloped neighborhoods that replace them.

Property valuations in Bexar County, home to San Antonio, have increased by an average of 73 percent over the last 10 years, raising the tax bill of the average homeowner between $2,300 and $3,000, according to the county appraisal district. The number of homeowners protesting their valuations has jumped 50 percent in the past five years. Neighbors are helping each other apply for tax exemptions, and some residents are exploring housing trusts and historic preservation to protect their land. These things combined, residents say, leave them with few options to save their neighborhoods from the kinds of destabilizing changes that Austin has experienced.

San Antonio looks like what Texas will look like in 20 years and Texas looks like what the United States will look like in 20-25 years,” said Roger Enriquez, a University of Texas San Antonio criminal justice professor who directs the school’s engagement with the city’s west side. “The rest of the country needs to pay attention to what’s happening here because it’s almost a crystal ball into the future and what will happen if solutions aren’t found.”

San Antonio officials realized in 2010 that the city of 1.5 million — projected to grow by another million in less than 30 years — was facing a housing shortage. The city’s military and medical industries and low-cost living made it attractive. It also was poised for spillover from the boom in Austin, located about 80 miles north.

Deputy City Manager Lori Houston said years of neglect meant there was no market-rate housing downtown to meet the growing demand. Neighborhoods in the city’s core were falling apart and plagued with crime. Through a “community-driven” vision, she said, the city focused on making downtown more livable. Once done, they’d turn back to affordability issues, she said.

“It was wildly successful,” Houston said. “After we saw these housing projects come online, we heard a lot of concerns from the community and from council members.”

Developers received rebate deals for nearly everything they built, forgoing taxes for up to 75 years and obtaining federal housing grants to develop public housing. But most of the new housing — including the affordable units built as a condition of receiving public money — were priced above what most San Antonians could afford, according to a report from the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders. The median household income for San Antonians is $67,521 a year, nearly $15,000 less than the national median.

Beautification projects along the San Antonio River and its creeks brought valuable amenities to a city that welcomes about 34 million tourists a year. Spruced-up bike and pedestrian trails connected the downtown to high-end retail and dining to the north, and old Spanish missions to the south. The money that had chased “White flight” into suburban development, shifted back to the city, said architect Jim Bailey, who served on Nirenberg’s housing task force in 2018.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods on the city’s east and west sides were under increasing pressure from displacement.

“Every time you invest in public infrastructure in the inner city, if you don’t first ask the questions about what this development will do to generational residents, you’ll displace people,” said former city council member María Antonietta Berriozabal, who served on mayoral housing task forces and blamed a lack of political will for what she called the city’s sluggish intervention.

Between 2014 and 2017, various task forces and studies produced about a half-dozen reports but led to little progress.

“We spent three years banging our head against the wall … and started to see the problem unfolding before our very eyes,” said Bailey, the architect, who with Berriozabal produced a report recommending the city change its charter to use bonds for housing. “But it felt like a problem that was too big for a city to fix.”

The pace of development was staggering in Wanda Smith’s neighborhood on the east side. Seemingly overnight, she said, the historical homes of Dignowity Hill’s Black community were sold, gutted, rehabbed and resold to non-Black families after their original owners were pushed out.

Smith’s youthful scrawl is etched into the sidewalk her father kept immaculate for decades. Alongside her name is a date: Jan. 29, 1972. The sidewalk is adjacent to a ragged, crumbling alley she has repeatedly complained about to the city. An Amazon delivery truck recently had to be towed away after it got stuck in the buckled asphalt.

“There seems to be no way to stop it,” said the retired teacher, whose property taxes increased to nearly $5,000 this year from $1,200 in 2010. She has tried to rally her longtime neighbors, but they seem resigned to the changes, she said. “The city is just going to do what they want.”

Real estate agent Richard Acosta, who helps residents protest their appraisals, estimated valuations have increased 50 percent in the past decade. Local government relies disproportionately on property taxes for revenue because the state does not have income taxes. Officials are exploring policy changes to alleviate the pressure, but there are few paths that wouldn’t involve getting major tax reform legislation through the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Lola Rodriguez, 35, inherited the house that had been in her family for 70 years. Her grandparents built a stone nicho, a household altar encasing the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints, on the front lawn, to thank God for giving them a home. Her late grandfather paid off the home for $70,000, but Rodriguez, who works two jobs and is raising two children, is struggling to keep up with the spiraling taxes, fees and potential code compliance issues.

The 1,400-square foot home was most recently appraised at more than $202,000 — nearly $70,000 more than four years ago, and keeps rising despite the foundation needing major work. Houses on her street recently sold for more than $300,000.

“I haven’t expanded or improved, or found gold on my land,” she said. “There’s nothing more valuable on it than the fact that other people want to live there.”

She has moved her recycling bin close to her mailbox to easily dump the piles of offers she gets from investors who want her property.

“People tell me to sell high and go somewhere else. But why should I have to leave?” she said. “There’s no way I could afford purchasing my house if I wasn’t already in it. The question is how much longer do we hold out?”

Ian Benavidez, assistant director of the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, said the city offers resources to help families keep their homes such as funding for roof repairs and helping eligible residents apply for tax exemptions. But officials won’t apologize for the city’s efforts to boost development.

I think investing in communities, done responsibly, is a net positive,” Benavidez said. “I think any time that you’re pushing people out, it is a bad thing. But I don’t think that’s what the city has intended to do, those are just market forces that … every city is dealing with.”

Resident Lisa Woods is close to losing the clapboard bungalow her uncles built in 1929. She paid the back taxes they owed, but the tax bill has jumped to $1,300 from $900. The house sits on a dead-end street of flipped $400,000 properties and Airbnbs.

Woods said she has always found a way to keep the promise to her mother to keep the house in the family, but it’s difficult. She said she has applied for aid for urgent repairs, but last year’s winter freeze left her with costly pipe repairs so she shut off the water.

“I do a lot of crying,” said Woods, who is on a fixed income because of her disabilities. “This house means everything to me. There’s nothing like pulling into this driveway, and knowing I own this home.”

Michael Shannon, head of the city’s department of Development Services, disputed several of the characterizations of the city’s code enforcement policy and called demolition “a last resort.” At a March forum, he said the city has a responsibility “to care about the safety of people in unsafe structures. Our codes are very clear.”

But Trinity University professor Christine Drennon said the homes selected for razing, often with people living in them, are concentrated in the same neighborhoods with heavy real estate activity and targeted for redevelopment. The once-undervalued land is now more prized than the aged structures standing on it.

“I worked my whole life to be in this home,” said Jesse Aceves, 63, who has sued the city over his demolition order and lives defiantly inside the crumbling home without utilities. “It’s not fair.”

San Antonio’s west side is an ethnic enclave where migrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution settled in the early 20th century. Many built wood homes from lumberyard kits and raised families despite rampant anti-Mexican discrimination. While White San Antonians built wealth, west side residents created an identity and culture around their advocacy. They fought for better working conditions, fair representation in the city and infrastructure improvements for more than 100 years. Some of San Antonio’s best-known politicians came from these barrios.

“The fight for our space goes way back,” said city council member Teri Castillo, who represents the area and is a sixth-generation west-sider. Her office has pushed the city to find alternatives to demolition for hundreds of properties on the code compliance list. “We’ve seen it happen to the Black community on the east side and people are worried the pattern will continue.”

Flores, the 79-year-old grandmother, has everything she needs — her church, a bus stop, Tony’s and Maria’s restaurants serving local fare — nearby. She wants that for her daughter and granddaughters. But they may have no choice but to sell when she inherits the house and its tax debt.

“This is how the fiber of a community is frayed,” she said. “Investors come and take over. It’s just like 1836, people with money came and changed laws, got the land and the power and they threw all the Mexicans out. Here we are in 2022, and they are doing the same thing all over again.”