City Council considers housing voucher requirement for projects getting city incentives

Refusing to accept vouchers could mean a property owner has to pay the city back

Taking city incentives like fee waivers or tax abatements could mean future housing developments in San Antonio would be required to accept housing vouchers like Section 8 from their renters.

SAN ANTONIO – Taking city incentives like fee waivers or tax abatements could mean future housing developments in San Antonio would be required to accept housing vouchers, like Section 8, from their renters.

The San Antonio City Council is considering an ordinance that would ban property owners who receive city incentives from refusing to rent to someone who wants to use a housing voucher to help pay their rent. Violating that ordinance, which the council could vote on as soon as April 29, could result in the property owner having to pay the city back and be barred from getting any more incentives in the future.

However, City staff said warnings and compliance training would happen before the city clawed back any money.

“There has been a lot of conversation about the use of city incentives for housing development and expectations when we do. And one of those things is that if we are requiring affordable housing, it shouldn’t matter where the source of income is derived from, particularly for some of our most vulnerable members of the community that are dependent on vouchers,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a council discussion on Wednesday.

Property owners would still be able to refuse to lease apartments to voucher holders for other reasons, including being unable to pay the advertised rent or not meeting other qualifications.

The voucher requirement would only apply to future construction or renovation projects, and only those that get city incentives, like:

  • Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) funds;
  • Neighborhood Improvement Bond (NIB) awards;
  • SAWS and city fee waivers;
  • Tax abatements;
  • Loans and grants;
  • City-owned land dispositions.

State law prevents the city from requiring all property owners to accept housing choice vouchers, which is a voluntary program. However, city staff members say “Source of Income Discrimination” is prohibited for properties that participate in some federal programs, like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) or Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told council members that roughly 1,000 units worth of housing projects go through the city every year looking for assistance. However, some of them also get federal help that requires voucher program participation. So she was unsure how many projects the new ordinance could affect.

In a council discussion on April 15, District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez questioned a need for such an ordinance.

“This is called a straw man fallacy policy, where you build up a scary problem that doesn’t exist. And then you heroically save the day with a bold solution and hope that none of your constituents will ever bother to ask the question, ‘Well, was there really a problem here?’” Pelaez said during that meeting.

According to a city staff presentation on Wednesday, though, 53% of new San Antonio Housing Authority voucher holders in 2020 were unable to find a place to live within the required three-month period.

“It could be that there are sources of information or other issues at play. But when more than half of voucher holders are taking more than three months to find the unit, we know that that’s an issue to address,” said Veronica Soto, director of Neighborhood and Housing Services.

There are plenty of people looking to use those vouchers. SAHA and the Housing Authority of Bexar County provide housing vouchers to a combined 14,800 households. Another 11,600 are on waitlists.

Pelaez had also vehemently protested the inclusion of a $500 Class C misdemeanor fine in the original draft of the ordinance, which city staff recommended dropping during Wednesday’s presentation. They also suggested renaming the ordinance from the “Source of Income anti-Discrimination” ordinance to the “Housing Voucher Incentive Policy.”

Those two amendments changed Pelaez’s view.

“Lori, you got my full support on these alternatives. And I think this is a really, really big improvement on what was presented last week. And so you got my applause and my support,” Pelaez said Wednesday to Houston.

Houston acknowledged during the council discussion that there needed to be further discussion on the voucher program, which provides SAHA participants with an average $650 monthly rent subsidy.

“Right now, what we’re trying to do is step on -- make sure that any project that we incent accepts vouchers,” Houston said. “But there is much more work that needs to be done with our partners to help identify, you know, how many vouchers we need, what are the value of those vouchers and developing that education campaign.”

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.