Deep dive into San Antonio’s housing problem as inflation, home prices rise

SAN ANTONIO – Right now, inflation and housing prices are a struggle across the nation for people of all economic levels.

In San Antonio, those two issues, combined with the end of the COVID-era eviction moratorium, collectively caused a housing crisis.

High interest rates and a lack of homes are keeping people with good-paying jobs from becoming homeowners, and people with extremely low incomes are being pushed to shelters for survival.

Luckily, San Antonio is a city that strives for solutions.

From tiny intensive programs to citywide changes creating easier pathways to housing, the effort is visible. But is it enough?

KSAT’s solution-based reporting series, Solutionaries, breaks down the local housing problems to show what’s happening and what’s changing.

A YOUNG MOM’S JOURNEY

“I was very broken. I had no hope, no goals, desires, aspirations, inspiration. I was just surviving,” said Jennifer Torres, a mother.

After nine years swept up in an unsafe relationship and drug use, Torres escaped to a rehab where her 6-year-old daughter could stay with her.

She found long-term sobriety but had nowhere to go when rehab was over until she found Visitation House Ministries.

“I went through an extensive interview process with them. I mean, I got interviewed like three times to make sure this is what you want, and it was what I wanted,” Torres said.

She showed us around her apartment and was filled with pride, reminding us about the little things.

“I had curtains, you know? Like, who has curtains? Just put a thumbtack with some towels will be fine,” Torres said, pointing to the curtains sweeping down her windows.

The small ministry has been around for 40 years, helping moms and their children escape homelessness in a very specific way.

The two-year program is intensive and much longer than other programs, allowing families to stay until they find success.

“They put me into GED classes. I worked very hard, got my degree within three months. Then they pushed me to, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do now. We’re going to get into college.’ So I have been in college for a year and a half. I am getting my associate’s degree in nursing,” Torres said with pride.

When they told her she’d be going to go to college, she said, “I freaked out. ‘Me? Go to college?’ Like, it was always part of my childhood dream,” Torres said.

Now, it will be her daughter’s reality, too.

“Her seeing me on the computer, working hard, she sees me studying. She sees the frustration and the sacrifices I have to make. And she’s like, mom, I want to do that,” Torres said.

While Torres studies, she also works part-time, following a structure to build strong financial stability.

“They’re all up in our business,” she said, laughing. “They’re looking at our finances, our bank statements. ‘What did you spend this on?’ I think I have like five different savings that I throw money in for everything.”

Torres has been in the program for three years now. That longer stay is a direct result of inflation and housing prices.

“We do save more because we know it’s going to cost more money when I move from here to be able to survive or pay rent. Prices are going up, and we’re not getting paid enough,” she said.

The program only has five apartments in one building. It is only available for moms over 21 years old, with up to five kids each.

“We do have an afterschool enrichment program that is on-site, and so the women will go pick up their children from school, and then they’ll bring them back here on our facility,” said Andrea Hofstetter, executive director of Visitation House Ministries.

Hofstetter said removing child care burdens from the picture allows the moms to focus on growth.

“We know that children that have experienced homelessness are already behind in school,” Hofstetter said. “And so what can we do to really help that child succeed also in their education?”

Torres is proof that it’s working.

“I have gained a sense of responsibility, independence, confidence —actually loving myself,” Torres said.

Soon, she’ll be a nurse with a home, a savings account, and a bright future.

A COUPLE’S CHANCE AT PERMANENT HOUSING

It’s the same hope and stability Robert and Logana Lynn feel after their success at a very different housing program through the homeless shelter Haven for Hope.

The couple was living with family members who fell through on paying rent.

“The only thing we had was a tank of gas to get to San Antonio,” Logana said.

They said it would never have covered their basic needs even if they had a little money.

“Absolutely not. The price of motels are ridiculous now and the cost of groceries and gas. Everything we would make in one day would be spent the same day,” Robert said.

The Lynns were honest about their embarrassment of ending up at Haven for Hope.

“We were ashamed,” Logana said.

Still, they saw the opportunities in front of them and decided to run with it.

“I just want people to know. Don’t be afraid of this place. We would never have made it without them,” Robert said.

They arrived in Haven with their teenage son and a mission — do whatever it takes to buy a home.

It’s a situation with which Haven for Hope has been inundated.

In the 2023 fiscal year, Haven had almost 9,500 unduplicated individual clients, the highest number served since Haven opened in 2010.

Haven’s response was to initiate serious meetings with the public housing agency Opportunity Home to beef up their partnership programs and speed up placements.

Opportunity Home’s voucher program for the general public has a closed waitlist.

“And when they do open it, it’s usually for a couple of weeks, and it’s a lottery system, meaning even if you do sign up, you may not get put on that waitlist,” said Ashley King, housing director of Haven for Hope.

King said if people are at Haven for Hope, they get pushed through to quick housing.

“Opportunity Home is now doing eligibility appointments here at Haven for Hope now every other month,” King said.

To qualify for the long-term housing programs, you need a job and all identification documents, which can take a lot of work to get.

Haven’s main housing programs can be broken up into short- and long-term.

Short term

  • Shallow Subsidy: For those who don’t meet those qualifications, meaning they get coverage of a month of rent or help with move-in costs
  • There are other rapid re-housing programs

Long term

  • Small Family Preference Program (SFP): Once they qualify for the voucher, Opportunity Homes places them in the next available housing unit. It’s a quicker, typically two-week turnaround, and they get placed immediately.
  • Homeless Services Program (HSV): Once they qualify for the voucher, they can choose their own housing. It offers more options, but it takes more time to find properties that accept vouchers.

The speed of turnaround is the big headline here.

KSAT interviewed King about some housing programs a year ago. Since then, Haven clients’ turnaround time has dropped substantially.

“I believe last time we spoke, it was pretty much, on average, about six months before they got an appointment. Now it’s looking, on average, one month or two at the most,” she said.

King said that, on average, it takes about two weeks for these people to be approved for a unit and even get into it.

These long-term programs are sustainable because the payments families make are based on their income, not on rent prices.

“So the rent is going to fluctuate with their income. It is not going to fluctuate with the market. Their portion of rent is still going to be roughly 30% of their income,” King said.

That setup is for life.

“As long as they don’t get terminated from the program, which is they just follow their lease and family obligations through Opportunity Home, no criminal activity, they can’t add people to their unit without getting approval first, and then normal lease obligations,” King explained.

People who get those housing units continue to get support from Haven and other partner programs.

“We provide essential furniture, a bed. We have futons. We have little tables, pantry items, pots, pans,” King said. “Another cool thing is these public housing properties — they have what they call a residential service coordinator, so they have a lot of food pantries on site, or a food pantry service that goes to that site.”

The Lynns were set on qualifying for those long-term vouchers. They stayed positive, met with their case worker, got their identification documents, and got jobs.

“I didn’t have a job when I got here. I got one within a week. I was fortunate,” Robert said. “Not everybody’s fortunate like that, and I wish we could rub off some of our fortune on everybody else like that. If you have problems finding a job, they have job fairs here.”

They showed up to Haven’s many classes, which are offered through partner organizations and are even open to the general public.

Those classes include:

  • Income and skills development
  • Life skills
  • Parenting classes
  • Money Smart: budgeting and saving

Robert said he was already arranging meetings with landlords before they had their voucher in hand. That search for a property that qualifies can take some time.

“We need more landlords with affordable units that are accessible to our clients and accessible to voucher holders. Landlords don’t have to take that voucher,” King said.

Haven holds events where landlords can learn more about the vouchers and incentives.

Many Haven clients don’t even know they qualify for these services, so there is also a lot of outreach happening as staff sift through client’s situations.

“We talk to them, ‘Hey, you have your benefits? Do you have that document? Can we see that? You actually might qualify for this.’ It’s unbelievable for our clients because they never thought they were going to be able to have their own place or afford that comfortably on their own,” King said.

As for the solutions that are still needed, King mentioned shelter space.

“We’ve been over capacity with families for over a year, which means we have families in our emergency services with is overflow basically. As a community, I think we need to look at what that shelter family capacity is going to look like over the coming years, considering the pattern that we’re seeing with the economy and our families, our population,” King said.

THE CITY’S LONG TERM PLAN

These efforts complement the City of San Antonio’s long list of housing initiatives, which are wrapped up in a 10-year program called the Strategic Housing Implementation Plan (SHIP).

SHIP has already changed the city charter to allow bonds for affordable housing.

“We have already implemented projects and awarded $81 million from that $150 million bond. We have created 300 of the 1,000 projected needed units for permanent supportive housing,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Nirenberg focused on homelessness, which he said is a symptom of a problem, not a cause.

“Preventing someone from becoming homeless in the first place is a lot easier and a lot more cost-effective for our tax dollars than it is trying to deal with homelessness that’s already occurred,” he said.

What caught KSAT’s attention were the city’s prevention programs trying to help struggling families stay in their current homes.

“Helping them repairing older homes so they don’t slip into disrepair and ultimately force somebody out on the street,” Nirenberg said.

They’ve preserved over 900 households. But what’s affected even more people is the Rental Assistance Program.

“Scaled up through the pandemic, we were able to prevent almost 65,000 families from being out on the street. So we had one of the most successful emergency assistance rental programs in the country,” Nirenberg said.

He said he wants the community to know that the program still exists.

“We also funded court assistance to prevent eviction — eviction diversion. So we have assistance at the courthouse if someone has been given an eviction notice. They have resources legally to get into programs, get in to some sort of assistance to allow them to stay in the home hopefully,” Nirenberg said.

Despite that success, the overall housing strategy needs continued support to steer people through this economic challenge.

The SHIP program was built to be flexible to changing economic and personal dynamics in San Antonio, and that is being tested right now. Changes may have to be continuously made.

The issue that still needs to be addressed is low wages.

“When we live in a city that has had suppressed wages, that has had a reputation of being a low wage city, we’ve got to make sure people have good-paying jobs that allow them to afford the housing the market creates,” Nirenberg said.

He mentioned programs like Ready to Work, Project Quest and Alamo Promise that are trying to address that issue.

The collective housing initiative aims to create more success stories like the Torreses and the Lynns.


Find more Solutionaries content on KSAT.com here

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