Residents discuss Section 8 housing woes
by
Chuck McCullough, SA Express-News
May 25, 2005

Residents of a Northeast Side neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of Section 8 housing in Bexar County expressed surprise and guarded optimism after a meeting with two local housing authorities.

Many at the May 13 meeting say new leadership at the San Antonio Housing Authority, which subsidizes more than 300 homes in the area, appears to be taking a new approach to the old problem of too much subsidized housing in a small area.

"When the SAHA people first started talking, I thought it would be the same old message and excuses," said Al Walker, president of the Montgomery Area Neighborhood Association, or MANA, which represents part of the unincorporated area east of Windcrest including the subdivisions of Camelot, The Glen, Scottswood, The Forest, Camelot Townhomes and Seville.

"But after a while, the SAHA people were taking notes saying they would look into suggestions we made. I am more optimistic after this meeting than I've been before when dealing with SAHA, but we'll still have to wait and see," he said.

MANA resident Janice Gray said she has become cynical after dealing with the Section 8 housing problem for so many years, but adds, "I am hopeful something will happen now after meeting with SAHA."

She has lived in the Camelot Townhouse subdivision since 1983 and said the assessed value of her home dropped from $78,000 to $26,000 in two years because of the concentration of Section 8 housing on her block. The appraised value since has gone back up to about $55,000, she said.

The main concerns of MANA members are the concentration of Section 8 houses on some streets and the lack of trash pickup at those homes.

Montgomery Road area officials said they thought SAHA could do more to control the piled-up trash and dilapidated conditions in those units.

SAHA and the Bexar County Housing Authority have issued Section 8 housing vouchers for 428 residences in the 3,500-house Montgomery Road area, according to the two housing authorities.

SAHA has 345 "rental assistance" Section 8 houses in the area and BCHA has 83, the agencies reported.

"These are privately owned residences, not owned by SAHA. We provide Section 8 rental assistance," said SAHA public information officer Melanie Villalobos.

Attending the meeting was SAHA President and Chief Executive Henry Alvarez III, who took the job nine months ago after holding similar positions in San Diego and Washington County, Ore. He replaced longtime SAHA leader Melvin Braziel, who retired last year.

Alvarez said SAHA is limited in what it can do at the Section 8 houses where it provides rent assistance because they are privately owned.

But after listening to concerns and suggestions from the MANA members, the SAHA president and staff began discussing ideas and possible solutions with neighborhood members.

Normally, SAHA offers Section 8 rental assistance inside the San Antonio city limits and BCHA does the same in the county — both unincorporated sections and suburban cities, Villalobos said.

SAHA Section 8 assistance in San Antonio doesn't usually involve trash pickup as an issue because it is part of normal city service.

BCHA officials said trash pickup has not been an issue with their units.

"In the case of the Montgomery Road area outside city limits, garbage pickup is a separate contract matter and it wasn't an issue on our radar screen," Villalobos said.

After listening to MANA members, several of whom have become well versed in federal laws concerning Section 8 housing, SAHA is looking at the possibility that it can demand trash pickup as part of its Section 8 contract with landlords, she said.

"We consider garbage pickup to be an essential service or utility and our Section 8 contracts require providing essential services to the renter," Villalobos said.

Since the meeting, SAHA officials have been busy, she said.

"We greatly appreciate these neighbors bringing their concerns to our attention. I've since visited the area, and I, too, share some of their concerns. We are researching and analyzing what our options are, and we will do everything we can to improve our influence in this community as quickly as possible," Alvarez said.

"We went to visit the area to see which units (houses) we have in the area, and we also drove down a number of streets where (residents) mentioned there is a concentration of Section 8 housing. SAHA is looking at its options in an effort to de-concentrate those areas of Section 8 housing," Villalobos said.

"In addition, we are sending our quality control inspectors to look at a number of units, we are expediting the inspections of units where we offer rental assistance. We are starting to keep a closer eye on those units."

Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who represents the Montgomery Road area, called the May 13 meeting at the Bexar County Courthouse. Also attending were BCHA Executive Director Laura D. Morales; a representative of U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio; and three MANA members.

Morales said her agency also is moving quickly to inspect its Section 8 rent assistance units in the Montgomery Road area.

"We are speeding up our inspection of BCHA Section 8 properties and concentrating on the Montgomery Road area first," she said.

"We are smaller and thus may be able to move a bit faster than SAHA in the Montgomery Road area, but we will continue to work with SAHA and residents on this issue. Our goal is not to terminate Section 8 families but to find out if there is a concentration of them in this area and on some streets and work to remove that concentration," Morales said.

Adkisson and others said addressing the decades-old problem of Section 8 housing in the Montgomery Road area will lead to addressing other issues such as crime, deterioration of properties, trash and falling property values.

"We have the benefit of a new SAHA leader taking a fresh look at this situation. Secondly, (Rep.) Charlie Gonzalez is interested in this issue, and third, we have strong neighborhood leadership from that area. I am optimistic we can finally begin to do something about this area and bring about a long-overdue renaissance of the Montgomery Road area," the commissioner said.

Adkisson said the county is pushing for a sit-down meeting with Gonzalez and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program, as well as the two local housing agencies and MANA members.

"This area was a problem when I took office seven years ago, and the problem goes back long before that. If we can be successful in the Montgomery Road area, it could become the Manhattan Project of community redevelopment," Adkisson said.

"I'm encouraged because this is the first time we have gotten cooperation from SAHA," said Jay Farmer, a MANA member and resident of the area since 1980.

"I've lived out here for 25 years, and we have a number of issues. If the Section 8 problem can be addressed and resolved, that will also work on other issues like worn-out streets and crime. After meeting with SAHA and the others, I feel there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

cmcc@express-news.net

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