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Castro’s housing policies have aided S.A.

February 1, 2019

Re: “Affordable housing advocates see flaws in Castro’s S.A. legacy,” Front Page, Jan. 27:

Former Mayor Julián Castro deserves full credit for one of the most innovative city policies adopted in the last 25 years.

In his SA2020 plan, he declared the, “decade of downtown” that included the near north, south, east and west edges of the central city. The truly brilliant part of that strategy was to focus on “housing first.”

The city set up an incentive fund to encourage housing in the inner city. We will likely surpass the SA2020 goal of 7,500 new housing units. Our central city has dramatically changed, now offering our citizens a choice of urban or suburban living.

We now have citizens living in the inner city with a mix of incomes, and that is a good thing. Lower income citizens should not be segregated but rather living in a revived neighborhood.

The success of Castro’s housing first policy laid the foundation for numerous office buildings built and planned along Broadway and throughout downtown, creating thousands of new jobs for the central city. Businesses are coming to the city center because they are very interested in securing access to the type and quantity of talent they need, and that talent is often drawn to an urban lifestyle more than a suburban one. This growing and talented downtown workforce, made possible by a range of available housing options, is attractive to companies.

In a recent article, Mayor Castro was criticized for the overgenerous city funding of $10 million given to the Houston-based DC partners for a hotel and high-priced condos, and for another $3.7 million given to the Cellars development at the Pearl. Those decisions were made long after Castro left office, and were made by city staff without a council vote. (Mayor Nirenberg has since required a council vote for similar incentives.)

Mayor Castro was also criticized for not doing enough for affordable housing, for people earning 60 percent of median income, or for workforce housing, for those making 80 percent or less of median income. Again, an unfair criticism. Out of the 6,500 new units built in the central city so far, 1,500 are affordable or workforce housing. As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Castro secured even more funding for affordable housing. In 2016, he established a $174 million dollar National Housing Trust Fund. Locally, he secured $30 million in federal grants to completely transform the Wheatley Courts and its 414 affordable housing units.

While we need to continue to encourage workforce and affordable housing, we do not have a crisis. In fact, we still have one of the most affordable housing markets in the nation.

Previous studies have found San Antonio, when it comes to housing, to be among the top ten most affordable cities to live in the U.S. An article released on January 23, 2019 shows that the housing costs in San Antonio are more than 20 percent below the national average.

Existing homes here have a median price approximately $230,000. That means one half of the homes are below $230,000. My youngest son bought a home a year ago just a few blocks from MacArthur High School for $170,000. Apartment rents are as low as $1.15 a square foot. My former Chief of Staff T.J. Mayes rents an apartment downtown for $1.20 a square foot.

We can best hold down housing costs by lowering the cost of city and utility regulations and permitting, helping to increase the number of new affordable lots, and providing proper incentives for lower income housing.

What appears to be an affordable housing crisis is driven more by our low per capita income, and by the tremendous burden of student loans carried by many young people. We are partnering with schools and colleges to foster training programs for high skill jobs to broaden the number of people who can raise themselves up into the middle class and beyond. Our economic strategy now is to recruit and retain higher paying jobs, which in turn should help our residents afford an appropriate housing solution that works for them.

Let us be thankful for Mayor Castro’s leadership in diversifying and expanding housing and economic opportunities downtown and throughout the city, and then work to build on his accomplishments.

Nelson Wolff is the Bexar County Judge.

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