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In 1938, the federal government authorized the first public housing development under the U.S. Housing Act. In the next few years, the Alazan-Apache Courts were built in the heart of San Antonio’s west side. But eight decades later, many believe this model of housing is outdated.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has moved away from creating communities that have such high concentrations of public housing units. What’s replacing them? Mixed-income developments.
“Now you’ve got a wide variety of income levels living at the same property with the same quality units and modern amenities,” said Lorraine Robles, director of development services and neighborhood revitalization at The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA).
In mixed-income developments, some units are set aside for tenants at market rate, while others are set aside for people in lower-income brackets. The latter tenants pay just a percentage of the market rate in rent, based on their income.
The theory behind mixed-income came about in the 1970s and 1980s. Some sociologists theorized that a lot of social problems were due to concentrated poverty.
“The thinking was that because the poor and low income (people) had begun to live fairly isolated from areas of middle class or wealth, they no longer shared some of the social values of middle-class society,” said Christine Drennon, associate professor and director of urban studies at Trinity University.
The idea was that high concentrations of poverty resulted in higher rates of crime and lower rates of educational attainment. Mixed-income developments were popularized to address these issues and to create opportunity.
“Our kids and families thrive,” Robles said. “We’ve seen when they’re able to live in a development that is new and has the quality that anybody else in their neighborhood has, it’s important. It’s important for their self-esteem. It’s important that they see how other people live and that they share experiences.”
Mixed-income developments also serve another purpose: revenue. Robles said that the San Antonio Housing Authority does not receive enough money from the federal government to sustain public housing and keep it maintained. Revenue from market-rate rent units helps support the lower rent rate offered to other tenants.
There’s also a boost in it for developers. They get tax incentives to build mixed-income properties.
“It is about trying to incent private developers,” Drennon said. “It’s really not in their best interest to build at these rates because there’s just no profit margin. So how we get them to do it is that we have to subsidize that somehow.”
But do mixed-income developments solve the problems they were created to address? Decades after the concept came about, the answer is still up for debate.
“That’s really been shown not to happen,” Drennon said. “We’re still plagued with intergenerational poverty.”
But Drennon said that these mixed-income projects have helped boost real estate developers.
“This model has worked for some, but not for the intended population,” Drennon said.
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