Mayor Nirenberg announces housing taskforce

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks at a recent council meeting. TOMAS GONZALEZ / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

Keeping a promise he made while on the campaign trail, Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced today the formation of his Housing Policy Taskforce, a five-member group responsible for addressing San Antonio’s affordable housing shortage and for crafting policies that will prevent displacement of residents because of gentrification.

“They will be charged with ensuring that San Antonio maintains its competitive advantage in housing affordability, while we grow in a sustainable way,” Nirenberg said as part of his vision-for-San Antonio speech at a luncheon hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Leading the taskforce will be Lourdes Castro-Ramirez, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. The other members are Maria Berriozábal, former City Councilwoman; Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers; Jim Bailey, associate principal at Alamo Architects; and Noah Garcia, senior vice president at Vantage Bank Texas.

Checking white church privilege

Frederick Jones, 17, has played basketball at the court behind the Episcopalian Church of Reconciliation in northeast San Antonio since the middle school. He says the court saved his life. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

Several years ago, the Episcopalian Church of Reconciliation had a problem: Teenagers kept kicking holes in the six-foot fence surrounding the property.

In response, the church built a new fence — one that had intentional openings so people living around the church could walk onto the property. Then, they built a basketball court and a community garden to draw in even more people.

That basketball court saved Frederick Jones’ life.

How and where you can weigh in on $2.7B city budget

Last week, members of San Antonio’s City Council were shown the mammoth $2.7 billion, FY 2018 city budget and offered at-first-glance comments. The budget was crafted through a so-called “equity lens” — some districts are due to receive more funding to address long-term imbalances in infrastructure and services.

The city’s top example is street improvements, which also ranked as the No. 1 priority among 6,000 survey results the city gathered from citizens in April and May.

In response, city staff is recommending an additional $30 million in street upgrades — for a total of $99 million — go toward Districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 10, where the average street conditions are considered substandard. City Manager Sheryl Sculley told council members at last week’s meeting that other districts won’t see a decrease in their streets funding.

Starting tonight, the public gets its chance to weigh in on streets and all other aspects of the budget — from public safety to parks to neighborhood services. Tonight’s meeting will be held 5:30-7:30 at Phil Hardberger Urban Ecology Center, 8400 N.W. Military Highway.

Going to where the hunger is

Aiden Serrano, 4, eats lunch with his mom and sister on the NEISD mobile cafe bus. The bus stops at the Creston Ridge mobile home park and serves kids a free lunch Monday through Friday during the summer break. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our report on San Antonio’s summer hunger crisis. Part 1: Why so many San Antonio children spend the summer hungry 

Most weekdays in each of the past two summers, Renee Rangel and her children, Aiden Serrano, 4, and Desiree Serrano, 14, have crossed their small front yard in the far northeast corner of San Antonio and boarded a yellow school bus. This summer, the bus shows up promptly at 1:10 p.m.

They sit in renovated booths — bus seats turned to face each other in pairs with small black tables between them — and eat a hot meal.

The Serranos’ favorite meal is pizza, but the pair likes most of the other options — even the healthy sides like fruits and vegetables.

“It’s expensive to have the kids home for the summer,” Rangel said. “The children need three meals a day, and it’s hard to afford that.”

Why so many San Antonio children spend summer hungry

Royal Ridge Elementary in NEISD is one of many sites that serve free lunches to kids during the summer. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of our report on San Antonio’s summer hunger crisis. Part 2: Going to where the hunger is

One afternoon in mid-June, I sat in a scrum of print journalists, photographers, and television crews at a press conference. With San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich at his side, San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper announced that the need for summer food had doubled. Popovich called childhood summer hunger — which affects 238,064 children in Bexar County — “disgusting,” and said it was every citizen’s responsibility to address the need.

The press conference did its job: virtually all local San Antonio news outlets carried the story, as did We did, too. As of the end of July, the Food Bank had secured funding for 7.1 million of the 9 million meals it estimated would be needed throughout the summer.

But I couldn’t shake the story after I filed it.

The press conference had been short. Only a handful of questions were asked afterward. I had been researching summer hunger long enough to know many of the news organizations there had written about summer hunger for the past several years. Yet there was not much discussion about why the Food Bank was seeing double the need.

East Meadows residents talk life after Wheatley Courts

Leonard and Trelina Walker left the Wheatley Courts in 2013 before returning to a new home in East Meadows. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

Leonard Walker, 57, and his wife Trelina remember living in Wheatley Courts for five years without central air or a washer and dryer. In 2013, they left their home when they learned of the U.S. government’s plan to demolish the outdated and notorious courts and erect, in their place, new apartments.

Now, the Walkers are back — renting a unit in the new complex called East Meadows, a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments on the East Side, about two miles from downtown. And they believe they’re living the high-life.

“Man, I don’t have to walk or deal with change — and all that — anymore,” Walker said referring to the washer and dryer that came with the unit.

The closest laundromat to East Meadows is Nora Washateria on North New Braunfels Street, more than a half-mile from the complex. East Meadows residents no longer have to drive or walk that distance carrying baskets of clothing to do laundry.

The revamped area is tranquil. The occasional sounds of hammering and drilling come from nearby construction — harbingers of East Meadows’ upcoming phases.

Listening In: How a trip to the grocery store changed Chris Carrillo’s life


Chris Carrillo’s story is rare and he knows it.

The San Antonio native grew up in poverty, spending a lot of his time on the West Side — and he made it out. He’s one of the few. When he was a kid, Carrillo and his family bounced around the city, and eventually landed in a neighborhood near Alamo Heights.

When his mom sent him to the store, his world opened.

“You see people just smiling, just walking about with big smiles on their face like there’s no worries in the world,” Carrillo said. “I go there and I see Mercedes. I see some of the nicest vehicles I’ve ever seen, and people just smiling, and it opened up my eyes to — there’s a different way of living.”

March for single-payer healthcare draws 100 downtown

Sofia Sepulveda, co-chair of Healthcare-NOW San Antonio Coalition, urges marchers to demand a single-payer health care system during Saturday’s rally at Hemisfair. JOSE ARREDONDO / FOLO MEDIA

More than 100 people assembled at Hemisfair park on Saturday in the blazing heat during the Medicare For All march. Sofia Sepulveda, co-chair of Healthcare-NOW San Antonio Coalition, addressed the marchers during a rally about single-payer health care — a system where health care is provided to all by one entity.

“Regardless if we are Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal — we all need health care,” Sepulveda shouted to the marchers who gripped their embellished signs. “This affects everybody.”

The march started and ended at Hemisfair downtown and was organized by Healthcare-NOW San Antonio Coalition — a group of progressive community organizers, nurses, social workers, physicians and union organizers.

Old School Activism

Jack Elder, 74, continues to be involved in his community through his weekly Meals on Wheels route and volunteering at the Catholic Worker House. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

Every Tuesday morning, Jack Elder washes dishes in a small white house on Nolan Street on San Antonio’s East Side. Sometimes he makes coffee or sets out pastries on a kitchen island cluttered with baking dishes and serving spoons.

In the backyard, around midday, Elder tends to rows of squash, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables. He scoops composted coffee grounds and food scraps onto the rows. Not much is growing now because of the heat, but during much of the year the vegetable rows and fruit trees provide supplemental food. By late May, a few handfuls of carrots, a row of squash and several small, still-green tomatoes have started to grow. Elder bends slowly, as if the movement hurts the joints in his lanky limbs, to examine the produce.

For 30 years, Elder, 74, has done some variation of this routine at Catholic Worker House, a homeless center in Dignowity Hill, where he began volunteering in the late 1980s. Recently, the house has been serving meals to between 75 and 125 people twice every weekday.

Sometimes Elder makes small talk with the other volunteers or helps the visitors find cups, and sugar, for coffee, but most of the time he prefers to work in silence.

“[Jack] has been nothing but help and kindness since I’ve been here,” said John Meadows, one of the live-in volunteers at the Catholic Worker House. Laughing, he said, “He invites us to his Christmas party every year, no matter how drunk we get.”

“Jack was a serious activist in the ’80s,” a man washing dishes says over the dull roar of the 100-plus people milling around the 1930s house and backyard while Elder and the other volunteers wash dishes.

Filling the void: Southside’s only bookstore

In April 2016, Kenny Johnson opened Dead Tree Books at 5645 S. Flores St., Suite 105. PHOTOS BY JOSE ARREDONDO / FOLO MEDIA

Taquerias, flea markets, fruterias, public parks, stray dogs and Spanish missions are easy to find in the Southside. A general bookstore, not so much.

The only one is Dead Tree Books, which occupies an old one-story retail building on the busy intersection of South Flores Street and East Southcross Boulevard.

Longtime bookworms Kenny and Lisa Johnson always envisioned opening up a store. That dream evolved into reality April 2016, when Kenny used a retirement program offered at Walmart, where he worked for 30 years, to launch the store.

“We want books to be available for anyone,” Kenny said. “Our goal is to have people walk out of this store with an armful of books.”

Listening In: Dee Dee Sedgwick on the home repair ministry that’s fixing roofs and lives


Dee Dee Sedgwick, right, executive director of Blueprint Ministries, speaks about the work her nonprofit does to help repair roofs and substandard housing in San Antonio’s most impoverished areas. The ministry, the largest of its kind in San Antonio, relies mostly on high school student volunteers throughout Texas. “There’s an opportunity to show these kids what life is like beyond their gated community, if I can say that without offending,” Sedgwick said.

East Side residents unite against violence

Oscar L. Dean Sr., pastor of Corner Gate Christian Church, leads a prayer at the end of a meeting on East Side violence Sunday night at The Lemuel Smith Christian Center. JOSE ARREDONDO / FOLO MEDIA

East Side residents packed the Lemuel Smith Christian Center, 102 Hub Ave., on Sunday to address fatal violence and to create solutions to reclaim their community.

The meeting is the first of many monthly meetings to come for the East Side community, according to meeting organizer Alvin “Big Al” Gertman, who cuts hair at Divine Edge Barber Shop.

“I’m tired of doing fundraisers and barbecue sales to help someone bury their loved one,” Gertman said as he gripped the microphone in the warm compact building. “Enough is enough.”

Dignowity Hill residents show support for homeless services

Chris Plauche of the Catholic Worker House discusses the lack of funding to properly serve the mentally ill that come through the ministry at a meeting Thursday night at the Ella Austin Community Center. WALLY PEREZ / FOLO MEDIA

Dignowity Hill residents and reps from some of the homeless ministries in the area met Thursday night to discuss vagrancy issues. Some residents have complained about some homeless relieving themselves in public, fighting and trespassing.

However, a majority of residents who attended the discussion at the Ella Austin Community Center said they should take on a larger responsibility in helping the homeless.

Dignowity Hill residents, homeless centers to discuss vagrancy issues at roundtable

Walter White (left) and Brad Britt — both 50 and homeless — hang out Wednesday at a park next to The Salvation Army Dave Coy Social Service Center, 226 Nolan St. PHOTOS BY BRIANNA RODRIGUE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

A discussion titled “Dignowity Dialogue — Homelessness” will be held 6 p.m. tonight (July 20) at Ella Austin Community Center, 1023 N. Pine St. This is not an official meeting of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.

An influx of gentrifiers into the near-East Side neighborhood of Dignowity Hill in recent years means not only new faces, but new voices and concerns in an urban area known partly for its homeless population and the organizations that assist them.

The residents complain that some of the homeless who frequent the neighborhood’s five social services centers — located closer to downtown’s edge — relieve themselves in public, trespass and engage in noisy arguments and fist fights.

Some of the residents are calling for the relocation of the services out of the neighborhood. Others want to open a line of communication with the centers and the population they serve.

Brian Dillard, president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, has scheduled a roundtable discussion with the five area homeless ministries and nonprofits for tonight. The roundtable is not an official event of the association.

A changed perspective: San Antonio’s more than downtown

Broadway is due to receive $42 million in bond upgrades in the coming years. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

In my past journalistic life as a blogger and columnist at the San Antonio Express-News, I wrote quite a bit about downtown and its abutting neighborhoods. Living downtown, working downtown, writing about downtown, I became obsessed with downtown.

Far from my mind in my downtown writing days was the rest of the city.

Listening In: How Johnny Williams, AT&T Center janitor, ‘toughed it out’

Johnny Williams, a janitor at the AT&T Center, talks about the “checkpoints” in his living room on the East Side. PHOTOS BY JOSE ARREDONDO / FOLO MEDIA

For eight years, Johnny Williams has worked as a janitor at the AT&T Center, near his East Side home. Folo Media Editor in Chief Patton Dodd talked with Williams recently about the series of “checkpoints” in his life — little encounters he says that are signs from God that tell him he’s on the right path. With the help of a ministry that helped repair his home, he’s found stability.

Local churches step up to face foster care crisis

John Wilhelm, program director for 4KIDS of South Texas, presents information about the group during a meeting this week at Grace Point Church West. WENDI POOLE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

A 3-year-old girl carries a Peppa Pig backpack around the Williams house everywhere she goes — she even sleeps with it at night, Celine Williams says. She puts as many of her things as possible in it so she can keep them close.

In May, the child was given the backpack by South Texas Alliance for Orphans, a foster and adoption ministry associated with Grace Point Church on the Northwest side, after she and her four siblings were dropped off at the Williamses house by Child Protective Services.

Celine and Lionel Williams both work full time and have five biological children — four of them are older than 20 and have moved out of the house.

Yet, within six hours of receiving the call from CPS, the Williamses were preparing their home to take in the little girl and her four siblings, who range in age from 7 months to 8 years old.

Families from Grace Point responded just as quickly. They brought high chairs and booster seats, plug covers and nail clippers — items to help with the transition.

SAY Sí artists are equal to the task of depicting inequality

Visitors gather around “Human Geography” on Friday night during the opening night of SAY Sí’s “Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal.” The piece presented dropout data, student population and average real estate prices across San Antonio’s school districts and ZIP codes. BEN OLIVO / FOLO MEDIA

When you enter SAY Sí’s exhibit “Stories Seldom Told: Less Than Equal,” you’re handed a piece of paper with a ZIP code on it. On Friday night, I was randomly assigned 78263, which put me in the East Central Independent School District.

Everything I experienced in the exhibit was determined by the ZIP code I was given.

In SAY Sí’s black box theater, guests with ZIP codes from upscale areas were granted up-front and spacious seating. Those with ZIP codes from low-income areas were directed to enter through the back entrance; they walked through a metal detector and were wanded by a police officer played by Ren Alvarez, 15, a sophomore at Stevens High School.

When the city doles out SAWS development waivers, affordable housing gets the ‘scraps,’ builders say

Habitat for Humanity volunteers and staff recently place part of a home’s lattice in the Lenwood Heights community. Last year, the West Side development received a portion of $335,000 in SAWS impact fee waivers that was awarded to the nonprofit. BEN OLIVO / FOLO MEDIA

Editor’s Note: The description of how the SAWS fee waivers for the ICRIP program are allocated was incorrect in the original version of this story. Also, this story has been updated to reflect that an across-the-board waiver of SAWS fees for affordable housing projects could be considered by City Council as early as this fall.

If you’re trying to build affordable housing beyond the downtown area, obtaining incentives from the city of San Antonio may prove difficult.

That’s because San Antonio lacks an incentives policy for affordable housing, and the city’s housing commission is trying to fix that.

The 15-member commission argues that affordable housing projects outside the center city aren’t getting their fair share of $3 million in “impact fee waivers” set aside by the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) every year. These funds cover the cost of infrastructure upgrades necessary to provide service to a new development.

For a developer, receiving such waivers can mean a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The problem for affordable housing developers is that a sizable chunk of the $3 million has already been carved out for other projects (mainly downtown housing) before they’re able to apply for the waivers. Or, as one of the housing commissioners puts it: “affordable housing gets the scraps.”

This is how the waiver system works:

Students invite public into their stories of inequality

Sofia Rodriguez, 14, freshman at Harlan High School, and Korie Quinones, 14, freshman at Burbank High School, work together on finishing their installation titled “Human Geography” June 29 at SAY Sí. The piece will debut during “Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal,” an art exhibit focused on shedding light on inequality in high schools in San Antonio. WALLY PEREZ/FOLO MEDIA

“Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal” opens 6-10 p.m. Friday at SAY Sí, 1518 S. Alamo St. Free.

Visitors at an upcoming art exhibit may discover what many San Antonio youth say they already know: inequality makes life feel like a maze.

The largest installation at the exhibit, which is hosted by the educational arts program SAY Sí, is a paper mache maze completely covered with copies of standardized tests.

According to Rick Stemm, SAY Sí’s new media instructor, the maze, titled “Scientia Potentia Est,” represents the gauntlet of tests students are forced through—tests which he says have no proven effectiveness.

People who enter the maze will be given navigation tools based on an assigned ZIP code. Some zip codes are given help and proper instruction on how to get through the maze; some are given incorrect instructions and are pushed out.

The future of the West Side rests in small hands

Lea Watson, director of Multi-level Education Outreach, sings with the children of Peace Camp at Divine Redeemer Presbyterian, 407 N. Calaveras St. BRIANNA RODRIGUE / SPECIAL TO FOLO MEDIA

On a recent Monday afternoon, four young children sit in the front a West Side church sanctuary and tie black pieces of cloth over their eyes. Four other children help them to their feet and guide their partners through the rows of pews, laughing, as they compete to reach a predetermined spot.

When the game is over they head back to the front of Divine Redeemer Presbyterian, where pastor Rob Mueller is waiting for them.

“What is the hardest part of helping your friends?” he asks after the children have taken their spots on the floor around him.

Mueller spends most of his summer in the church sanctuary with children from the neighborhood—many of whom are not church families—as part of its program Multi-level Education Outreach (MEYO).

The program is designed to improve the West Side by educating its children—a mission the church has been doing in one way or another since it was formed 101 years ago by a Mexican pastor who fled a violent civil war.

Neighborhoods are the focus of new city department

Veronica R. Soto will head the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department. COURTESY CITY OF SAN ANTONIO

The City of San Antonio recently formed a department that will manage the $20 million, bond-funded Urban Renewal Plan and the city’s housing programs — including Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships Program — that will also focus on neighborhood engagement.

Heading the Neighborhood and Housing Services Department will be Veronica R. Soto, who previously served as director for the City of El Paso’s Community and Human Development Department. She begins July 10.

The Urban Renewal Plan is designed to remove blight and add affordable housing units to some of the more distressed parts of town. The city will use the $20 million — bond dollars approved by voters in May — to purchase properties, prepare the sites for development and then sell the land to a developer for affordable housing.

The new department will also engage communities when changes are proposed to their environments. Often, neighbors worry about character of their communities and have complained about not having enough input from the city, or a strong dialogue with the city.


folo \ˈfä-(ˌ)lō\ noun. A story that follows up on an earlier report.

Folo Media reports on the challenges and opportunities for vulnerable communities in San Antonio, Texas, one of the most inequitable cities in the United States.