Learning from San Antonio’s housing model

Learning from San Antonio’s housing model

Affordable housing is typically defined as housing costs that consume no more than 30% of a family’s total budget. I believe that affordable housing must be designed and developed to fit in with the community – in fact, the community should be part of the process, from envisioning the future of a neighbourhood to identifying needs to providing the supportive services that are necessary to make housing sustainable.

I’ll review San Antonio’s progress toward creating more affordable housing as part of our plan to accomplish our long-range vision for growth.

As a reminder, San Antonio is located in the south-central part of the state of Texas. Namibia is a little bigger than Texas, but our state’s population is more than 26 million, so it’s a very urbanised state.

The City of San Antonio has about 1.4 million residents, and our immediate region is about 2.4 million. The average age of our population is about 33 years, with about 2.8 persons per household.

Our climate is temperate but humid, and we receive about 80 centimeters of rainfall each year – twice what you average here in Windhoek. We are subject to drought, as you are experiencing now, and also to flash flooding from heavy rains – it’s not uncommon for us to receive 60 or 70 millimeters of rain in one day.

During the 20th century San Antonio benefitted from the urbanisation of America and then from the shift in population from the “Rust Belt” to the “Sun Belt.”

That’s the movement from the older industrialised cities, to cities in the southern half of the United States, where the climate is warmer.

We also benefitted from the establishment of five army and air force bases, including training and military medical facilities, in our area.

American military aviation started in San Antonio, and today every medic in the United States military is trained in San Antonio.

Local industries like health services, aviation and aerospace are supported by that military presence, as is our growing excellence in computer and cyber security.

We have worked hard to commercialise those investments, and we’ve been very focused on looking at global investment and marketplaces as our economy matures and diversifies.

So let’s go back to where it all started for our city, to the ideas that shaped us and how our community was designed to respond to the needs of the people who lived there.

Our urban form, and our housing stock, changed dramatically because of the American investment in multi-lane, grade-separated, limited access freeways.

The automobile provided the perfect mechanism for segregating population by income, because more affluent families could move to the suburbs and commute by private automobile.

Neighbourhoods were composed of similar families with similar incomes living in similar houses; apartment complexes are separated from office complexes from medical facilities, and again, only accessible by car.

And of course that’s not sustainable, for so many reasons: It’s not efficient—it requires private cars, because the low density doesn’t support transit or walking. It’s expensive for taxpayers—highways cost a lot to build!

It’s not environmentally friendly – it causes more air pollution and all that pavement, or impervious cover, causes flooding when rains; and at the same time we end up using scarce water for ornamental lawns, not agriculture or industry. It’s not equitable – businesses and services move to the suburbs to meet the needs of more affluent consumers.

Lower income families get the leftovers like lower-quality schools, job opportunities, and even poorer food access in the inner cities. Our poverty rate in San Antonio is about 20%, and most of those individuals live in the southern half of the city. Rather than filling in around a strong core, the growth has been dispersed and “sprawling.”

How do we build for the next 1.1 million people, which is the projected population growth of our region by 2040?

Obviously we can’t just keep sprawling, because we know that the costs would be higher and higher. And by costs I mean the costs to taxpayers as we build more roads, the costs in increased flooding from all that pavement, the environmental costs in water use and air quality impacts, and the social and economic costs to our community of segregating population by income—and, in the case of black Americans, segregating by race.

What then are we doing in San Antonio to create a more sustainable future, especially with regard to housing development?

San Antonio has completed a community-based, regional, collaborative comprehensive planning process called SA Tomorrow, which includes integrated transportation, development and sustainability plans. SA Tomorrow includes five specific housing components:

Goal 1: Housing for lower-income residents is available throughout the community with the greatest proportion in priority growth areas with high levels of connectivity and amenities.

Goal 2: A variety of housing types (single-family detached, single-family attached, multifamily, as well as ownership and rental opportunities) is available at a variety of price and rent levels.

Goal 3: Housing choices are available in walkable and bike-able neighbourhoods located near transit, employment, retail, medical and recreational amenities.

Goal 4: Improved infrastructure, services and amenities increase market demand and attract residents to priority growth areas.

Goal 5: High-density housing choices are available within the City’s 13 regional centres and along its arterial and transit corridors.

We can accomplish those goals through creating a number of development nodes—denser than existing suburban development, but not as large or as dense as a traditional downtown.

So what kinds of changes will we have to make in order for the SA Tomorrow plan to be a success?

As I said earlier, we usually define affordable as housing costs that take up no more than 30% of the family’s budget.

When talking about housing, however, we also need to consider the costs of transportation for that family, to see whether than home is truly affordable.

There is potential for roughly 50% of future housing growth to go in the transit corridors—that would allow 38% of our future housing growth to be located within a 10-minute walk of transit stations.

In order to accomplish this, we will develop specific land use and action plans for regional centres and transit corridors that support housing, a mix of uses and higher density development, and that discourage lower density uses. We will have to regulate and incentivise so that higher density housing can be built in regional canters and along major public transit corridors.

What do we do as a municipality to encourage of mandate the construction of affordable housing? Land use is a local issue in the United States, so the first thing we have to do is to ensure that there’s enough land zoned for the construction of affordable housing, that it’s not set aside for single family development on large lots.

Finally, there are programmes aimed directly at the consumer, such as financial counseling to enable a family to save up for an apartment deposit or for the down-payment required for homeownership.

While the housing crisis about ten years ago eliminated many of these programmes, there are still some programmes that offer first-time homebuyers assistance with their mortgages, either as a grant or as a deferred or no-interest loan.

You’ve noticed that we place a high value on homeownership, and there are a number of organisations that offer a self-help path to becoming a homeowner. Habitat for Humanity is very active in San Antonio and relies on community volunteers to construct homes. The new owners have to help out during construction, and also have mortgages with Habitat.

Habitat for Humanity recently completed these homes in the Coleman Ridge subdivision on the west side of San Antonio.

There are other programmes where prospective homeowners do build their own homes, particularly those utilising more traditional techniques like adobe bricks or rammed earth.

* This is a shortened version of the lecture by, Mayor of the City of San Antonio Ivy R Taylor on ‘Sustainable Housing Community Design and Development’ that she delivered at the Namibia University of Science and Technology.

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