SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: On Oct. 7, the San Antonio Housing Authority Board of Commissioners unanimously approved contracting Able City as the master planner of the Alazan Courts redevelopment project.
In early 2021, after a years’ long battle, the controversial plan to demolish a historic public housing complex and replace it with a mixed-income development was called off.
But several months later, the future of the Alazan Courts is still uncertain.
Located in the heart of the predominately Mexican-American West Side, the roots of the Alazan Apache Courts run deep. Built between 1939 and 1942, the Courts are now the oldest standing public housing development in the nation. Generations of families have been raised there. The apartments have served as a safety net for low-income San Antonians for decades.
So, it’s no wonder that the plans to upgrade the Alazan Courts - the 501-unit complex north of Guadalupe - have been met with pushback and cries of “mi barrio no se vende”.
“My neighborhood is not for sale.”
We first released an episode of KSAT Explains about the Alazan Courts - or Los Courts as they’re known to many - about a year ago. In this episode of KSAT Explains, we return to the West Side community to dive into what’s changed in the past 12 months, what hasn’t, and how it’s affecting the residents who call the Courts home.
(Watch the full episode on-demand in the video player above.)
‘Public housing is part of San Antonio’s history’: A look back at the controversial plans
Today, some may not be familiar with the historic and cultural legacy of Los Courts, but since the 1940s, the public housing complex has provided shelter and community to many of San Antonio’s working poor.
“Public housing is part of San Antonio’s history,” said Graciela Sanchez, the director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.
The Alazan Courts were built at a time when the need for modernization and safe housing on the West Side was great. Residents on this side of town didn’t have running water, paved roads or drainage and sewage systems. The construction of the Courts improved living conditions even for those who didn’t live there. And for those who did, it instilled them with a major sense of pride.
“Before the Alazan Courts, people might have lived in housing that had no plumbing,” Sanchez said. “So the Alazan Courts, that was moving up in the world.”
But despite their historic significance, it is no secret that the Courts are in need of upgrades. The cinder block units are small and outdated. Despite the window air conditioner units, they’re hard to cool in the summer and hard to warm in the winter.
“It don’t warm up like it should,” said Ernest Benavides, an Alazan Courts resident. “With the blackout, it was even worse. That’s when I had a heart attack and I needed oxygen and I couldn’t plug in nothing because I didn’t have no electricity.”
Benavides ended up having to call the San Antonio Fire Department to bring him oxygen.
“The bathrooms are small, the kitchens are small ... some apartments have manhole covers in the middle of the living room,” said Ed Hinojosa, Jr., current president and chief executive officer of the San Antonio Housing Authority, or SAHA. “It’s just not the best environment for individuals to raise their families.”
Hinojosa previously served as chief financial officer of SAHA. That’s the position he was in in 2017 when the agency announced plans to demolish Alazan, partner with a private company and replace the complex with a mixed-income development.
Under the original plan, the redevelopment was to be split into two phases, with work happening on about 250 units each phase. The families displaced would have been provided either another public housing unit or a voucher to use somewhere else in the city while construction at Alazan is underway.
“After rebuilding, we’d give them an opportunity to move back,” Hinojosa said.
But the plan worried some neighborhood advocates and Alazan residents, like Erica Silva. Silva has lived at the Courts for the past six years. And in that time, she’s built a community here.
When we talked to her, Silva acknowledged the need for upgrades at Alazan Courts, but she didn’t like the idea of having to relocate her family to another part of the city.
“The school here is really good,” Silva said. “People don’t think it is, but it is.”
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been one of the most vocal organizations questioning proposed plans for the future of the Courts. Sanchez called the demolition of another public housing complex 20 years ago a cautionary tale.
“The Victoria Courts, they tore them down, but the people that lived there never came back,” Sanchez said. “It’s all middle class people who now live there.”
SAHA’s initial proposal to put up a mixed-income development in place of a public housing one is part of a larger trend across the country. For the past few decades, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been moving in that direction.
One of the reasons this has been happening is to break up high concentrations of poverty. Another reason - mixed-income is more financially feasible for housing authorities.
With mixed-income developments, some units are rented out at market rate, while others are rented out at lower rates based on a person’s income. The market-rate units help pay for the low-income units.
“At the federal level, there’s been this closing of the tap when it comes to funding for housing authorities, like SAHA,” said Sofia Lopez, a former SAHA board member and current housing justice organizer with the Action Center on Race and the Economy.
‘A breath of fresh air’: A change of plans for the Alazan Courts
In the past 12 months, changes in SAHA leadership and the pandemic have altered the future of the Alazan Courts.
In late 2020, SAHA’s CEO announced he’d be stepping down in early 2021 for the Denver Housing Authority. Hinojosa stepped in first as interim CEO, before being named the permanent replacement.
And in January, redevelopment plans for the Alazan Courts quickly started to fall apart. The pandemic pushed 300 tenants to fall behind on rent. This made those tenants ineligible for leasing redeveloped units under Housing and Urban Development rules.
And the pandemic had already caused a strain in the available public housing supply.
“There was an extreme shortage of housing in the city,” Hinojosa said. “People with vouchers were having trouble locating housing.”
Instead of risking leaving these people with nowhere to go, SAHA switched gears. The organization took over more responsibility for the project, including managing the planning, financing and construction.
In May of this year, SAHA said they were still at the drawing board, but had already put a call out for proposals to help with the planning process. By mid-September, SAHA closed in on two finalists to take over as master planner for the project: architecture firms Able City and Saldaña & Associates, Inc. One of those finalists is expected to be approved during an Oct. 7 board meeting.
Both of the final candidates earned praise from Sanchez.
“I was happy to see that both of the entities that are competing have done historic preservation,” Sanchez said.
Another thing Sanchez and others we talked to are happy about - the direction of SAHA under Hinojosa. Sanchez said she has noticed a difference already. Lopez called Hinojosa a “breath of fresh air.” And Kayla Miranda, a housing justice organizer with the Esperanza Center told us Hinojosa shares their philosophy.
“Which [is that] housing is a human right,” Miranda said. “That has made our work so much easier.”
Miranda has been watching this story unfold in real time. Even before she joined forces with the Esperanza Center, she had been a vocal advocate for preserving the Courts. She calls the Apache Courts home, but has been concerned that once Alazan’s redevelopment is complete, the Apache Courts, Cassiano Homes and Lincoln Heights will be next.
“It wasn’t just about the Alazan,” Miranda said. “It’s about all of the public housing units in District 5.”
‘This place is really good for at least an update’: Push to both preserve and upgrade
For people like Miranda and Sanchez, the concern about the Courts’ future is both about making sure people remain housed, and also preserving the West Side’s Mexican-American history.
“We’re trying to build up the cultural traditions and the sense of pride for the people from this neighborhood,” Sanchez said. “So that they love that they are West Siders, that they love that they’re Mexican-American, that they’re okay with being working class or poor.”
In September 2020, the Alazan Apache Courts were designated among the 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“We are looking for places that are endangered and of course Alazan Apache Courts is in danger of demolition,” the organization’s chief preservation officer, Katherine Malone-France, told us at the time.
Right now, we still don’t know if the Courts will end up being demolished. Depending on what the project manager decides, the units could still be demolished and rebuilt, or upgraded while keeping their historic structure standing.
Even though some residents at the Courts are fighting for preservation, they’re also excited at the prospect of upgrades. People we spoke to named pest control, central air conditioning and security as their top priorities.
“I think this place really is good for at least an update,” said Silva.
‘We have a problem’: Questions remain unanswered
Here’s what we know about the future of the Courts: the new development is centered on the name Alazan, not Apache. Either Able City or Saldaña & Associates, Inc. will be named as the project planner. The project will now be public housing, not mixed-income.
But beyond that, there are still a lot of questions when it comes to the specifics of the project. There’s not currently a timeline, for example. And where residents will go during construction is also unclear. SAHA has said they will take their time, however, so as not to force too many people out of their homes at once.
A mixed-income development in the area that SAHA did move forward with could provide some space. The Legacy at Alazan will have 40 public housing units available when the project is complete in March 2022.
Another question that remains: how will this project be fully funded? According to Hinojosa, SAHA has some resources, but they still need more money.
“We may have some vacant land that we’re not using that we can sell ... but that won’t be enough,” Hinojosa said. “We’ll also be reaching out to the city.”
In May of this year, San Antonio voters approved Proposition A, which expands the way the city is allowed to use bond money. With the voters’ approval of the charter amendment, housing affordability projects can now be included in the upcoming 2022-2027 bond program.
The question is how much of that money will get to public housing complexes like Alazan.
“My biggest concern is that our city government won’t take that route and instead will decide to support private developers,” said Lopez.
Aside from local money, SAHA is also hopeful more funding will come from the federal government.
There is a dire need for public housing in San Antonio. Hinojosa said SAHA has almost 50,000 people on their waitlist for housing, and they are only able to provide housing for 20,000 families at any one time.
“The reality is that Alazan and so much other public housing across this country needs upgrades,” Lopez said. “It needs modernization, but SAHA can’t be expected to do that alone. And we shouldn’t have to turn to private developers.”
Lopez said three years ago she conducted research on how many San Antonio families would qualify for federal housing, and the number was staggering.
“In 2018, 35 percent of all San Antonio households made less than $35,000 a year,” she said. “Very importantly, of those, 73 percent of those households were Black or Latino or both.”
The average income for Alazan-Apache residents is lower than that, at $8,877 a year, according to SAHA.
“When we have people who are on the precipice of homelessness, or people paying more than a third of their income on housing in this community, we have a problem,” Lopez said.
Benavides said if rent goes up, he will likely end up back on the streets again, in a situation he told us the Alazan Courts saved him from once before.
“It won’t bother me none,” he said. “It’ll just bother the city because the city will have another person in the streets, living under a bridge.”
Watch last year’s episode of KSAT Explains about the Alazan Apache Courts here or in the video player below: