On the margins of downtown San Antonio, a maligned neighborhood mobilizes to save itself
Born of segregation and redlining, the near West Side has long been mostly Latino, mostly low-income. Redevelopment pressures are closing in, and neighbors are working to keep it affordable for some of the city’s poorest residents.
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SAN ANTONIO — High up on the Guadalupe Street bridge, the contours of downtown disappear behind you.
The humpback overpass spans railroad tracks and the thin ribbon of Alazán Creek before dropping back down into the city’s historic West Side, a mostly Latino, mostly low-income neighborhood born of segregation and redlining.
To Athny Perez, the bridge is a hard border cleaving affluence and power from her neighborhood, where she lives at the Alazán-Apache Courts, the city’s oldest and largest public housing project. The 17-year-old has never been outside of San Antonio. She’s hardly even left the West Side.
It’s “a whole different setting over there,” she said. “It kind of reminds me of us seeing into there, and them being able to see into us from there.”
Her community, sometimes called the near West Side, has persisted through a lasting record of indignities and negligence.
On some blocks, the same families have lived for more than half a century, dating back to the days when the West Side was one of few places in San Antonio where Mexican Americans were allowed to live. Vacant lots dot the neighborhood, some cleared under city-ordered demolitions, leaving only sets of concrete steps leading to nowhere.
But for every empty, boarded-up dwelling, there are four to five lovingly adorned homes with tended gardens and swings hanging from the limbs of old, tall trees. Sometimes the folks living next door played together in the street as children, the latest generations of families able to pass on the little wealth they managed to accumulate against the odds.
For some, the near West Side is the only place they’ve wanted to live; for others, it’s the place they can afford to stay.
But residents know they are in the pathway of forces of change creeping over the humpback bridge that could overtake the community they want to hold on to. Homes are being flipped at prices lifelong residents could never afford as outsiders buy up property. Neighbors scramble to afford upkeep on aging homes to avoid code enforcement that could root them out.
In a place built on division, the residents of the West Side have come together in hopes of not just withstanding the challenges their neighborhood is facing, but maybe even turning back the tide.
If neighborhoods have a soul — if they can be more than transient places for families passing through on their life journeys — then that’s what many residents find themselves defending as they try to convince outsiders that what they have is worth keeping.
“We prevail through things that would keep someone down and feeling stuck in the dark,” Athny said of living on the West Side. “The residents and surrounding community are prepared to turn nothing into something.”
Reclaiming the West Side
Behind the wheel of her old Prius, Graciela Sánchez runs a hand through her mop of white and gray curls, letting out something between a mutter and a grunt when she spots a vacant lot — another tear in the fabric of the place she’s always called home.
The close-to-lifelong West Side resident, and one of its most prominent protectors, describes the neighborhood that was. The bustling businesses, molinos and tienditas. The rows of tiny shotgun homes and casitas. In doors, walls and facades, Sánchez sees history, the ties that weave together her and so many other families here.
She slows down while rolling through a short street that reminds her of the one she grew up on a few blocks away. The block is reminiscent of others that escaped past urban renewal efforts. Neighbors still live in close proximity on narrow streets once meant to be alleyways. A cluster of empty, tiny, rundown homes — some sitting on piled-up cinder blocks, some missing windows — stare out from behind a tall chain-link fence. Sánchez heard they have been bought up and wonders what the out-of-town buyer is planning for the historic homes.
“Maybe they’ll preserve them,” she said. “But for whom?”
Lying within San Antonio’s original 36 square miles, the West Side came to life in the early 20th century, when immigrants arrived fleeing political unrest in Mexico. Its residents lived within the confines of segregation. In 1935, a government-sponsored housing organization described San Antonio’s Mexican American residents as the “largest burden of the city” because of their dependence on relief programs. It also noted the “economic drawbacks” of the city’s large Mexican American population who “as a class,” it claimed, were “non-productive” and “socially inferior.”
The streets were largely shaded in red on maps that served as the basis for housing discrimination for decades to come, warning insurers that the neighborhood was too risky to write policies. At the same time, Black and Latino people were kept out of other neighborhoods through racist housing covenants that restricted them from living in many parts of the city.
Amid governmental disregard, the people of the West Side suffered. In rundown school classrooms, students languished under poor learning conditions and faced abuse for speaking Spanish. A shocking 1968 CBS documentary often cited by locals captured the extreme poverty and hunger that threatened West Side families.
But the people of the West Side also found ways to thrive. Without financial support for mortgages, some families built their homes — many still standing — by hand. The area produced some of San Antonio’s future political leaders, including former mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros as well as Julián and Joaquin Castro. The former followed in Cisneros’ footsteps; the latter is serving his fifth term in Congress. The West Side has constantly nourished the city’s Mexican American identity, fostering artists, poets, musicians and civil rights advocates.
Among the West Side’s early fighters was Sánchez’s grandmother who, she was told, blockwalked the neighborhood collecting petition signatures demanding basic services like electricity and paved streets.
Sánchez left the West Side for Yale University after high school but returned to San Antonio in the early ’80s after finishing her studies, drawn back by the value her parents instilled of investing in the place from which you came. She worked for several civil rights organizations focused on Mexican Americans before finding her calling using cultural activism to build community and awareness. For decades, she’s led the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a nonprofit with a broad portfolio.
From a bright yellow house just off of Guadalupe Street, the Rinconcito de Esperanza, the organization’s cultural hub, is home to a nearly 30-year-old clay cooperative for low-income women and serves as a meeting space for the biweekly social justice classes it facilitates. Soon, it will also be the site of a museum of the West Side.
Two decades ago, the Esperanza felt compelled to move into preservation work when its members unsuccessfully fought to save La Gloria, an iconic dancehall and the first multipump gas station on the West Side, from demolition. Today, neighborhood streets are lined with large black-and-white photo banners remembering its past. The photos are monuments to ordinary moments — a family sitting in front of their new home in the public housing complex, a procession at the Catholic church — of a West Side history longtime residents worry is disappearing.
The Esperanza’s search for more forceful tools to resist the pressures of development and displacement turned it on to a more revolutionary approach: reclaiming land on the West Side.
It started a few years ago with a casita the Esperanza saved from demolition. The nonprofit wasn’t initially sure how to preserve it, thinking perhaps it could be used to host community events. But as time passed, its purpose became clear, and the Esperanza moved it onto the roster of rundown properties it has since purchased to be renovated. Backed by a $300,000 grant from the San Antonio Housing Trust and another $300,000 from Bexar County, the homes will eventually be established as permanent affordable housing.
It’s a concept known as a community land trust that allows nonprofits, usually governed by members of the community, to own land and rent or sell the home sitting on it to lower-income families. Because the property is kept in trust, and beyond the reach of the housing market’s influences, the model makes it possible for the homes to remain affordable into the future even as neighborhoods change or become more expensive.
“We saw what happened in San Francisco and we saw how quick it went in Austin,” Sánchez said. “And that’s what we are trying to prevent.”
But they are also part of a broader affordability effort that in some ways is only now catching up to how history has treated residents of the West Side.
The San Antonio Housing Trust backing the Esperanza’s effort, initially established with a $10 million infusion from the city, recently reorganized to improve its effectiveness and only just finalized a five-year strategic plan. Community land trusts — specifically identifying funding to establish one or two community-based partners — are “up in center” of Pedro Alanis’ immediate priorities as the trust’s executive director, but he acknowledges that structural change takes time.
“Obviously the need is urgent,” Alanis said. “The need has also been there for decades.”
The city has been working to implement a $1.2 billion bond program that includes $150 million to create and preserve affordable housing, including by partnering with nonprofit and private-sector developers to construct or rehabilitate affordable housing.
The city’s housing goals are contained within its 10-year affordable housing plan, which aims to meet the housing needs of 95,000 “cost burdened” households that lack affordable options within Bexar County. The broad plan, known as the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan, includes demolition diversion programs, linking residents to assistance programs, establishing a community land trust and building or preserving 28,000 affordable homes — an increase of nearly 10,000 homes from previous housing goals.
But only in the last few months has the city begun using a “displacement impact assessment” before awarding funds to developers. That process includes identifying potential concerns for a surrounding community and potentially going back to the developer for their help in boosting home rehabilitation or homeowner assistance in prospective building areas. The city also considers design plans to ensure a new development matches the character of the surrounding area.
The work of growing the city, and adding a variety of housing, must keep in mind the families already living in established neighborhoods, said Veronica Garcia, the director of the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.
“When we have all of these other efforts throughout our community to improve roads, add new public spaces, redevelop areas, it’s all very exciting. And all of that development brings a lot of change: more infrastructure, more green space, more community space,” Garcia said. “But that’s only helpful when the families that have been living in these areas are able to benefit from these positive impacts, when they have the opportunity to stay in that neighborhood.”
The blocks around Esperanza’s Rinconcito serve as a model for the housing approach that may be needed to buttress the city’s affordability efforts. The sandy-brick two-story buildings that make up part of the Alazán-Apache Courts public housing complex are backdropped by a recently opened 88-unit apartment complex that limits almost all of its units to residents who make at most 60% of median area income. That complex backs into two small homes facing Guadalupe Street that the Esperanza is fixing up as part of its community land trust work.
Bookended by empty lots where two other casitas once stood, the tiny red house and the small white house with their covered porches and missing roof shingles hold much of the Esperanza’s ambitions. It’s how they keep what’s here for the people who most need it. The properties have also opened up conversations with the city about other casitas and properties that could be brought into the land trust’s fold.
Tucked behind the iron bars of one window is a white sign with black block letters announcing what’s become a rallying call for some locals — “Mi Barrio No Se Vende,” My Neighborhood Is Not For Sale.
But as she angled her car back to the Rinconcito, Sánchez lamented the rising price of preservation and the opportunities squandered in the time it’s taken to garner support for the community. Properties in the area that were once $50,000 to $60,000 — when the Esperanza lacked the funds to try to beat developers to them — now go on the market for $100,000 to $150,000.
“You stop believing in hope, and that’s the name of our organization,” Sánchez said. “We’re just fighting against time.”
Code enforcement reform
There’s a saying on the West Side: The most affordable house is the one people are in now.
It’s not difficult to see why that's especially true in the near West Side, where the median household income hovers between $26,000 and $35,000 and roughly a third of residents live in poverty. Roughly half of adults 25 years or older lack a high school diploma. At the high school across the street from the public housing complex, 95% of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
So when it began to seem like houses in the near West Side’s small boundaries were coming down every week, residents began to worry.
It was 2015 and already the Esperanza and what would become the Historic Westside Residents Association were hearing from neighbors, many older residents living in poverty, unsure of what to do about the notices of code violations showing up at their homes and the threat of city-ordered demolitions if they did not fix up their properties.
Neighborhood leaders tried to gather as much city data as they could, and it appeared to show a high number of demolition orders in the area. But when they tried to bring the issue to city leaders, they felt largely ignored.
“Unfortunately, we’ve lost buildings because starting off we were not even a nonprofit,” said Leticia Sánchez, now the co-chair of the residents association and Graciela’s sister. “We were just a group of volunteers that represented the residents and the buildings of our community.”
Years later, in November 2021, a report by researchers at the University of Texas’ law school would serve as confirmation to them of what they were seeing on the ground. City data analyzed by the researchers showed that orders to vacate and demolish occupied single-family homes for code violations from 2015 to 2020 significantly outpaced other large Texas cities. In hundreds of cases, orders to vacate had been issued outside of a hearing process — an authority the researchers found was not used or not available in the other cities. The orders were concentrated in lower-income communities of color in the urban core, and the highest number of vacate and demolition orders had been issued in census tracts in the near West Side, according to the report.
The city pushed back vehemently on the findings.
At a City Council committee meeting last December, Michael Shannon, the director of the city’s Development Services Department, ran through a presentation describing the report as “fundamentally flawed” as he showed photos of homes with significant structural issues. He challenged the numbers used by the researchers and questioned why they would compare San Antonio to cities with different laws and processes regarding vacate or demolish orders.
(Standing by the findings, Heather Way, a law professor and lead author of the report, said the fact that San Antonio was an outlier because of its broader discretion was “the point.”)
Shannon objected to any suggestion that the city was targeting any area for code enforcement.
“What’s missing in the report is the safety and well-being of our residents,” said Shannon, whose office did not respond to a request for an interview. “When we find these dangerous situations, dangerous structures, this is our top priority — the safety of our residents.”
But residents continue to protest a culture of code enforcement they see operating punitively instead of supporting residents’ well-being.
Residents of the near West Side recounted instances in which neighbors reported receiving code violations for porch furniture that wasn’t designed for the outdoors. Various volunteers shared the same story of a blockwalking session early in the pandemic in which they witnessed a code enforcement officer leave a violation for trash for a candy wrapper that was on the ground.
They also describe a long-standing disconnect between the West Side and San Antonians in other parts of the city who may perceive their neighborhood as “the worst place to live.”
“Which is not true,” said Leticia Sánchez. “It’s just poor, working poor people who live here.”
“You’ll see a lot of the houses here have been owned by the same family for generations and those families take a lot of pride,” Sánchez said. “They may not be able to fix the house, the house may look to somebody else that doesn’t live in the neighborhood as a shack, but people decorate their homes for Halloween and Christmas. The abuelitas continue to keep their jardines going and there’s just a sense of pride of ‘this is ours and we’re leaving this to our children.’”
Some community friction with code enforcement appears to have been more systemic.
Until last year, the city used federal community development block grant money to fund a code enforcement officer whose jurisdiction was restricted to the zip code in which the West Side sits. Some residents facing code violations are eventually moved into a hearing process through which they have to provide a timeline on which they vow to make repairs or even a scope of work — a costly endeavor that’s often beyond the means of many of the West Side’s residents.
“Thinking about it from a human aspect, I don’t have $20,000 in my account to level my house if I’m told to do so within the next month,” said Teri Castillo, the City Council member who represents the West Side. “Who has the capital to come into compliance within the expected deadlines? It’s not my constituents who do.”
Elected in 2021, Castillo ran on a platform to address the displacement concerns of the West Side, where she rents a family home a few blocks from the Esperanza’s Rinconcito. Castillo was among the residents attempting to compile early code enforcement data years ago. Since taking office, Castillo has provided lists of residences on the code enforcement unit’s radar to volunteer groups so they can offer help and has organized community cleanups.
But Castillo believes that assistance to keep people in their homes must be better wrapped into the city’s interactions with residents so that code violations are accompanied by case managers who can provide residents with true connections to support services, many of which already exist but have been “severely underfunded.” The city’s budget for fiscal year 2023, approved in September, includes funding for two housing navigators who will help residents achieve code compliance as well as a position within code enforcement to serve as a liaison. The budget also includes $26.3 million for home repair funding, the most the city has ever committed, according to Castillo’s office, which is planning to push for millions more to ensure the city meets its housing goals.
Over the last year, community organizers and advocates have also been pushing to make changes at the root of code enforcement by amending the city’s property maintenance code that governs the minimum standards meant to ensure public health and safety.
They largely centered on protecting residents’ rights to due process and providing them with clearer information about appeal procedures. In a city where more than a third of residents speak Spanish at home, another proposed change required violation notices to include a statement in Spanish offering translation services and assistance options.
The recommendations offered a legally binding way to address the long-standing issues residents had faced despite the city’s dismissal of the UT-Austin report, said Uel Trejo-Rivera, a San Antonio-based housing advocate who works for the Texas Housers nonprofit.
She was among the residents appointed to a city code review committee who at lengthy meetings throughout the year worked to bring to the table the experiences of homeowners who had recently had their homes demolished.
“This is a potential path forward. That way, we can make sure that code enforcement isn't as predatory as so many people perceive it to be,” Trejo-Rivera said.
But the committee recommended that many of their proposed changes should be rejected.
Advocates found another avenue though. This time, they submitted their amendments through the Planning and Community Development Committee — the same City Council panel before which Shannon addressed the UT-Austin report last December — whose members signed off on various of the previously rejected amendments.
On Nov. 10, they were unanimously approved by the full City Council.
A dam against displacement
With the pressures of development and affordability closing in on cities like San Antonio, public housing often captures the challenges areas built on segregation face in providing shelter for their poorest residents.
The Alazán-Apache Courts public housing complex sprawls over nearly 50 acres, its two-story buildings split into two clusters on either side of Guadalupe Street so that they border schools where a majority of students are considered at risk of dropping out. At the sound of the afternoon release bells, parents shuffle their kids back home across the streets surrounding the courts where many children live.
In a city where 1 in 4 children lives in poverty, Athny Perez is still figuring out how to use her experiences living at the courts to advocate for her community. But what is certain to her is the impact the Alazán-Apache Courts have on tenants like her, shaping them to be “ready for anything bad or good.”
It was at a Wednesday meeting of the Esperanza Center’s social justice program — meant to empower community members through biweekly classes and lectures — that she reflected on the West Side as a borderland.
Fellow tenant Kayla Miranda, who helps lead the program, has seen firsthand the importance of helping residents like Athny find their voices. To her, it’s what helped save the courts from demolition.
The first public housing complex built in San Antonio, the units were constructed beginning in 1939. The multi-apartment cinder block buildings were a marked improvement for the roughly 5,000 initial tenants who despite their close proximity to downtown had often lived in small shacks without running water or electricity. But the opportunity the courts offered was also a function of segregation, housing only Mexican Americans who had been relegated to the West Side.
Today, the complex is a crucial component of the city’s affordability landscape. Home to some of its poorest residents, some families living in its 685 shoebox unitshave annual incomes less than $10,000. Many reportedly pay about $130 in monthly rent. But the complex has deteriorated. The units lack central air conditioning, and some residents complain of pest problems. The courts also face crime issues.
Down a different road, one on which the residents of the near West Side stayed quiet, some of the complex would have been bulldozed by now.
Deeming the complex too far gone to repair — and in need of removing the “negative stigma that set it apart from the surrounding community” — the local housing authority in 2019 opened its search for a private partner to implement “a comprehensive redevelopment project” at the Alazán-Apache Courts site.
In reality, the housing authority planned to tear down most of the courts and replace them with a mixed-income development over the course of several years. In the first phase, just 10% of the 324 initially planned units would have been set aside for families making 30% or less of the area median income, which at the time came out to about $21,300 for a family of four.
Concerns began to grow about the displacement of families during construction and afterward. Members of the public, including tenants, began attending public meetings to speak against the project. After a board vote to move forward with the demolition in 2020, protesters marched from the housing authority’s headquarters to outside the apartment building of its outgoing CEO.
The redevelopment plan was part of both a broader trend of looking toward privatization amid diminishing federal funds for public housing and a push to recast poverty by moving residents out of traditional public housing complexes. But for some residents of the Alazán-Apache Courts, the consideration missing in the discussion was one of dignity and respect for what they’ve built.
“We don’t want people coming from other areas telling us how to live, what’s right, what’s beautiful, what it’s supposed to be,” Miranda said.
A tenant leader today, Miranda came to the courts with her children five-and-a-half years ago with nothing more than the few backpacks holding their clothes.
It happened quickly. After leaving behind her business to care for her ailing mother, her now ex-husband was picked up on an immigration violation and held in a detention center. She struggled to hold on to a job at the time because of the regular calls she’d get to pick her son up from school before he was diagnosed with autism and epilepsy.
Before moving to the courts, Miranda and her children had been homeless, sometimes living out of hotels but often out of their car. At the courts, in a 789-square-foot, three-bedroom unit, they found a safety net, but they also found a community.
From her small, cramped living room, Miranda tapped on her laptop while trying to help a neighbor deal with an outstanding bill. There are more of Miranda’s dishes in that neighbor’s kitchen than her own, she said.
When she first became involved in the effort to save the courts, Miranda felt the tenants themselves were missing from the conversation. There was the prospect of housing vouchers to use in other parts of the city but not enough clarity about the challenges — and the limited voucher-friendly properties — that would come with that, she said. The tenants also began to look east, where the city had similarly replaced public housing with mixed-income development to which some of the previous tenants didn’t return.
“The community has been saying this for years and were ignored,” Miranda said of the pushback on the plan to demolish the courts. “But you can’t ignore the people living in the property telling you this is happening.”
Not everyone wants to stay at the courts though.
On a recent cool afternoon, while her 10-year-old rode his bike up and down the block, Gabriela Saucedo turned to look back at the recently opened apartment complex that sits between her corner unit at the courts and the Rinconcito and wondered why one of her neighbors had been moved over before she got the chance. “I feel like the ones living here longer should have first choices,” Sauceda said.
The 44-year-old was homeless before landing a spot at the courts where she’s lived with her son for the last five years, dealing with regular maintenance issues and concerns about safety. But she hadn’t been aware of plans to demolish the complex and said she would’ve needed financial support to relocate even temporarily.
Amid sustained pushback from the community, the housing authority in a surprising turn of events in January 2021 canceled its private partnership to raze and replace the courts.
Since then, it has hired an architecture firm and a set of consultants to reimagine and renovate the courts with input from residents who will get to stay in the neighborhood while construction is undertaken in phases. The city’s housing authority has described the effort as a “commitment to be responsive to the needs of the residents, neighborhood and surrounding community” while creating higher-quality housing. Its president and CEO Ed Hinojosa Jr. has said they are confident the firm will handle the project “with the delicacy it needs to honor the past and plan for the future.” Early design proposals would preserve many of the existing buildings and even add more than a hundred new units.
For now, the near West Side has in some ways already passed its biggest test.
Some residents and neighborhood advocates consider saving the Alazán-Apache Courts as the near West Side’s last dam against the currents of displacement and gentrification. Neighbors share stories of being flooded with relentless, unsolicited offers from developers and land speculators. Because incomes are so low in the area, there’s a shared fear that even a few wealthier newcomers could threaten the ability of the neighborhood’s poorest residents to stay.
To Graciela Sánchez, the courts are one of the ties binding together the West Side she’s trying to preserve. She remembers summer movie nights in the courts that helped build community. The Esperanza’s photo banners hanging from the fences of the courts capture the resolve of tenants taking English classes far before they’d be seen as full citizens.
During a recent Día de los Muertos celebration put on by the Esperanza, members of the Kalpulli Ayolopaktzin, a traditional indigenous danza group, led a procession more than a hundred deep through the streets of the Alazán-Apache Courts. The steady beat of a drum and the chiming of the dried shells hanging from their ankles coaxed tenants out from behind the wrought iron doors of their homes to catch a glimpse of what until the pandemic had been an annual tradition.
“Together, let’s come up with a policy that helps to preserve those homes and that helps to preserve the culture and the history and improve the quality of the neighborhood for the people,” Sánchez said. “And keep the people.”
Disclosure: Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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