Fair housing advocates demand choice for San Antonio voucher holders

ForRent

Kurt Bauschardt / Creative Commons

Citing increased administrative burden, potential confusion among voucher participants and budgetary limitations, the San Antonio Housing Authority is applying for a waiver from HUD to allow the agency to delay implementation of Small Area Fair Market Rents (SAFMR) while studies are done to determine local submarket boundaries. In the meantime, the agency is proposing a two-tiered rent schedule that goes up to 100 percent of fair market rent in areas it considers “high opportunity” and low voucher-concentration, while remaining at 90 percent in the rest of Bexar county.

But fair housing advocates believe this is a delay of an already long-overdue change.

“The housing authority should be doing everything in its power to desegregate,” Sandra Temez, Executive Director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio, urged commissioners, “And it has in its power these Small Area Fair Market Rents.”

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) held a public hearing Thursday afternoon regarding their 2018 Moving to Work plan. At the hearing, attorneys and researchers from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio and Texas Housers urged commissioners not to approve the plan. Their central message was that waiting on SAFMR implementation was an agreement to perpetuate economic segregation in the city.

This is especially important considering San Antonio’s infamous status as one of the most economically segregated urban areas in the country. Decades of systematically entrenched inequality have left their mark on the city and its communities, and it will require serious policy change to break these patterns.

The purpose of the SAFMR rule is to decrease segregation and concentration of voucher holders in high-poverty urban areas by tying rental subsidies to the cost of housing in the particular zip code, rather than the metro area as a whole. This has the effect of increasing voucher subsidies in more expensive neighborhoods and decreasing them in less expensive ones. The intention is to provide residents greater choice in where they rent a home. This could include neighborhoods with better schools, more convenient bus lines, lower crime rates or more job opportunities. Many of these areas have remained stubbornly off-limits to most voucher holders due to the high cost of housing.

SAHAPlan

As detailed in a report by the Furman Center, as a result of the implementation of SAFMRs, the share of units in high-rent zip codes affordable to voucher holders will increase from 18 percent to 41 percent, expanding the geographic area available to voucher holders.

San Antonio isn’t the only city directed by HUD to implement this rule. April 1st is the deadline for compliance across a list of 24 metro areas that have been found to have voucher populations with above average levels of segregation in high-poverty areas. Per HUD requirements, these areas have also been found to have sufficient available units in higher-income zip codes to facilitate deconcentration of voucher holders.

San Antonio’s status as a Moving To Work agency means that is is given increased flexibility in how it administers its housing programs. This includes permission to reallocate funding among various housing programs and apply for exemptions from certain federal requirements. However, they still have a statutory objective to increase housing choice among low-income residents.

According to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorneys, this special Moving To Work designation doesn’t eliminate SAHA’s obligation to further housing choice, let alone to comply with fair housing.

“SAHA cannot hide behind its status as a Moving To Work agency to get another two years grace period for addressing the segregation of voucher holders in San Antonio,” TRLA attorney Kate Rainey insisted. “It’s illegal.”

Other problems also grabbed the attention of housing advocates and some commissioners, including a procedure that removes applicants from the public housing waiting list if they failed to respond to a letter within ten days. Another sticking point was a proposed tiny home project for homeless students that ties their rental payments to their GPA and requires them to perform 64-80 hours of community service.

“It may sound good in a press release,” said Ilene Garcia of TRLA, “But it’s putting up another obstacle for an already disadvantaged student trying to get their degree.”

The commissioners voted to move the plan on to the full board for review while expressing reservations about its contents. They also requested an additional commissioner meeting to discuss the plan further. As the HUD submission deadline approaches, it will be crucial to follow SAHA’s discussion of the fair housing issues brought up at the hearing.

“SAHA is asking for another two years,” Temez told commissioners. “I don’t know how anyone doesn’t believe that is an undue delay. And in the field of fair housing, an undue delay is a denial of fair housing choice.”