In the spring of 2020, just a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses, schools and public gatherings, I closed on my first home near Fort Sam Houston to the east of Interstate 35.
Having a place to call my own — a cozy 1,015-square-foot new construction on the near East Side — was a godsend as the pandemic hit. The months of social isolation were a little easier to bear in my humble new abode.
But that reality — and perhaps willful denialism — also delayed the slow realization that I am not like my neighbors. A young urban professional with a college degree, I am part of a new middle class that has moved into the neighborhood. I’m a gentrifier.
It wasn’t a label that was easy to accept. I spent a lot of time trying to “well, actually” my way out of wearing the scarlet letter G.
First, the homes in my community are income-restricted (at up to 120% of the area median income), and they have to be used as primary residences by their owners, thanks to a partnership between developer Terramark Urban Homes and Opportunity Home, formerly known as the San Antonio Housing Authority.
These are starter homes. The sale price for the more than 25 housing units in the homeowners association, set up as a means to manage common utility lines, was between $140,000 and $180,000. For reference, Bexar County’s median sale price when I purchased my home in March 2020 was $227,000. It has since shot up to $306,000 as of August 2022.
I’m Hispanic, and many of the new residents in my community are, too. You can’t be a gentrifier if you’re gente, right?
Wrong. I’ve now started to remove the layers of emotional viscera that I had wrapped around that word. As a former Austinite, I bore witness to the extreme displacement of low-income and minority populations from that city’s urban core between the year I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and my departure from the city a decade later.
Now I see gentrification much more clinically. It is a phenomenon taking place in almost every major city in the U.S., as formerly derelict portions of American city centers have sprouted farmers markets, trendy new restaurants and mixed-use developments.
As terrifying as it was to admit, I am just another guy who has fallen into the lure of urban-core authenticity. I moved to the near East Side to be among the tapestry of culture that has so richly sustained the sense of community in these historic neighborhoods over the years. Instead of rows of white-picket fences in the suburbs, I sought to live in a community that was home to a diversity of backgrounds and architectural styles. My decision was also amenity-driven: My favorite restaurants, entertainment hubs and nightlife spots are within Loop 410, a modern demarcation line (and many will chafe at this statement) between San Antonio’s urban core and the ’burbs.
These are the same sorts of desires that drove swaths of social climbers in the 1980s and ’90s to the brownstones of Brooklyn, then seen as a blighted area with a preponderance of crime. Decades after the first Brownstoners found their way to the borough in search of affordable housing and authentic living, Brooklyn is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. and home to some of the most insufferable hipsters on the planet.
Acknowledging my place as a middle-class Latino in a historically Black and low-income part of San Antonio has helped me realize my responsibility as a community member and the need to help beat back the effects of gentrification.
Home prices in my zip code have gone up about 20% in a year, and a quarter of the homes here are selling for above the asking price, according to Redfin. Some of my fellow homeowners have seen their home valuations shoot up in the past year, and that’s affecting their tax bills. My neighbors with lower incomes are likely to feel that much more acutely. Long-time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods who often skew older and poorer may have already paid off their homes or have lower mortgage payments, so rising property taxes are often the biggest threat to their incumbency.
At least three small businesses in the area, all owned by people of color, have been the targets of lawsuits alleging they aren’t accessible to people in wheelchairs. Their owners say the plaintiff has never patronized their establishments, raising the specter that something more cynical may be at play. Already faced with the struggles of running mom-and-pop shops amid the pandemic, these owners say legal expenses could force them out of business.
Online companies such as OpenDoor and Orchard that purport to make it easier to sell your home are sending mailers to me and my neighbors, offering to buy our homes in spite of deed restrictions limiting sales to middle-income individuals. One of these companies listed a house just two doors down from me at nearly $300,000, double its purchase price two years prior.
These are just a few of the forces of gentrification at play in my neighborhood. These forces have crept up across the near East Side over the past decade or so, driving up the cost of housing in places such as Denver Heights and Dignowity Hill.
Many of my neighbors and I hope to blunt the blows that may come as an indirect result of our arrival. How can we achieve this? By being good neighbors, supporting neighborhood businesses and keeping an eye out for bad actors.
Gentrification in my neighborhood will almost surely bring about dramatic change, but I’m optimistic it will remain both affordable and vibrant for years to come.