July 11, 2017.
Dawn Hanson (note: I do not approve of the title Rivard Report gave to my commentary)
Housing policy is a major contributor to income segregation. While no longer legal, practices such as redlining and blocking minority groups from purchasing or renting homes in neighborhoods have contributed to such economic divides. In 1968, almost 50 years ago, San Antonio’s 78207 zip code was featured in Hunger in America, a documentary highlighting the disparities of poverty on the Westside in comparison to other areas of the city.
Today, 78207 continues to be a place of inequities with 40.7% of its population living below the poverty line. In 2015, the Distressed Communities Index named San Antonio one of the most inequitable cities for income segregation. Today, as it was 50 years ago, housing is at the heart of the segregation problem in San Antonio.
This problem occurs again in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, where proposed redevelopment standards restrict building heights and lot sizes. These standards reduce builders’ ability to construct affordable housing developments due to arguments that new developments don’t fit “within character of the neighborhood.” As a result, there will not be as many places to live as there need to be. The result is forced segregation through exclusionary practices that ultimately hinder lower-income residents’ economic mobility and resiliency. These types of exclusionary land-use policies could be fostering segregation.
According to the Sightline Institute’s series, Legalizing Inexpensive Housing, it is these very exclusionary zoning practices – restrictive lot sizes, building heights, and density limits – that inflate housing costs, increase homelessness, and exacerbate racial and economic segregation. Lopsided housing policy and NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitudes perpetuate hyper-segregation by limiting housing diversity. The lack of housing diversity skews the housing market, undercuts the local economy, segregates educational opportunities, and undermines where lower income families can ultimately live.
This was observed in the study “Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income?” by Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen. The authors point to inclusionary practices in city policy as a solution to desegregation by incomes, such as incentivizing new construction of higher density developments to consist of a certain percentage of affordable units to low and moderate incomes. Additionally, they note that consistent data collection and analysis on local housing land use policies should be used to desegregate areas by income. This is pertinent today, as the city implements its SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan and seeks community input.
Even Congress attempts to address the growing problem of economic segregation, in part with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which offers developers tax rebates for putting affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods to help break the cycle of poverty. However, according to a 2012 San Antonio Express-News report, most of the affordable housing developed in Texas under the program ended up in poor neighborhoods, exacerbating the problem. This is because, most times, more empowered neighborhood endorse exclusionary practices.
This issue of where tax credits are appropriated showed up in a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case of the Inclusive Community Project vs. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. It was argued that where Texas was incentivizing affordable housing developments had a disparate impact on segregation by race and income. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Kennedy wrote “… these unlawful practices include…housing restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities [and lower income families] from certain neighborhoods…they exist in local laws that say residences must be built on minimum lots size…[in] requirements that keep out denser row homes or multi-family buildings…”
Now, more than ever, with a bold new mayor and City Council members, the issue of housing types and where they are placed is vitally important. More than 1.2 million additional people, a combination of growing families and migration, are expected to live in San Antonio by 2040. Basic economics of supply and demand explain why more density plus affordability incentives can help temper the rise of home prices and dissipate the income segregation that plagues San Antonio. Allowing neighborhood conservation districts to make across-the-board limits on lot sizes and building heights only fuels San Antonio’s current and historic segregation.
In 2012, Char Miller, former Trinity University professor and author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas, commented that he thought San Antonio was further past this, noting that the disparity between the wealthy Northside of town and the impoverished Westside dates to the 1930s.
“It’s a remarkable reflection of the enduring power of race, class and income to define American life,” he said. “That it continues is a little surprising and a little depressing.”