The San Marcos Workforce Housing Task Force, formed in September 2018 as part of the city’s push to remedy a lack of affordable housing, is now focused on gathering community input on a draft of its action plan.
Laura Dupont, the chair of the task force, says it has not been easy getting all the neighborhoods in the city to embrace the action plan, which is expected to be presented to the City Council in October. One of the major challenges, Dupont said, has been centered around debate over whether the action plan benefits renters or homeowners.
“There has got to be an all-in by the community,” said Dupont, who in addition to sitting on the task force serves as senior vice president at Corridor Title Co. “There has got to be political bravery on our elected officials’ part, because people are resistant to change.”
In addition to the workforce housing task force, San Marcos has also commissioned three council members—Lisa Prewitt, Melissa Derrick and Saul Gonzales—to serve on the council’s workforce housing committee.
Mayor Jane Hughson, who mentioned workforce development as a goal in her State of San Marcos address July 31, said she has “great confidence” in the task force and the City Council committee.
“Given the composition of our community and the income levels, we have a huge need for housing that people can afford,” Hughson said.
Much of the data being used by the task force stems from a 2019 housing study conducted by Root Policy Research, which reported that more than 65% of renters and about 27% of the residents with mortgages in San Marcos were “cost-burdened,” meaning that more than 30% of their income went toward housing.
The housing assessment also found that 72% of residents in the city were renters, while 28% were homeowners.
Though U.S. Census data was used to put together the report, researchers also conducted a survey that gathered input from approximately 2,000 San Marcos renters and homeowners as well as people who commute to the city for work. Data from the survey was also separated into student and non-student respondent populations.
Root Policy Research presented ways in which non-student renters and homeowners in San Marcos cope with high housing costs.
Survey results showed that 41% of renters and 11% of homeowners had financial support from friends or family to deal with their living situations. It also showed that about 33% percent of the renters and 13% of the homeowners surveyed sought additional employment due to housing costs.
Additionally, 28% of survey respondents who were non-student renters and 12% who were non-student homeowners reported that they had foregone needed medical treatment.
Dupont said she recognizes that housing problems exist across the board and added there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The task force identified major needs related to housing in the city, from which four primary goals were set: to expand opportunities for housing, preserve and enhance existing stock, leverage community and regional partners, and quantify and meet the housing needs of current and future residents.
Strategies to address the four goals, along with a total of 23 correlating actions, were also outlined.
One of the two issues highlighted as a top need was additional affordable rentals for residents who have an annual income of less than $25,000. The other high-priority need was the need for homes priced to sell near or below $200,000.
According to the plan, San Marcos’ housing market is “generally affordable” for people earning more than $50,000 per year. But the median family income in 2017 was $49,551 and the median household income was $34,748.
“This means that homeownership in the current market is out of reach for many people in San Marcos,” the action plan reads.
Preventing displacement of non-student renters, according to the draft plan, is another need. The document states that almost 18% of non-student renters in San Marcos in the past five years were forced to move, most commonly due to rent increases, flood damage, the cost of utilities or the landlord selling the home.
Strategies to create more affordable rent options included removing what the task force described as “regulatory barriers” for developments that commit to providing affordable housing options.
This could mean removing or lowering impact and permit fees, but the task force also recommended adjusting material, parking, height and maximum density requirements.
Dupont said the strategy is not about creating a more lax set of requirements, but it is aimed to produce a predictable set of rules for developers looking to bring more affordable housing into the city.
“It’s truly not about lowering any standards for development,” she said.
Dupont said creative solutions for rental opportunities are not limited to apartment complexes, but also includes bringing in more duplex-type structures.
Other strategies intended to increase the number of affordable single-family homes included down payment assistance, assistance for home rehabilitation and tiny home ownership.
Ultimately, she said, diverse housing products should be available throughout the city, rather than an isolated area.
The task force held its second open house on Aug. 14, where attendees had a chance to review the group’s action plan.
About 40 people attended the event, held at the San Marcos Activity Center. During her presentation, San Marcos Planning Manager Abby Gillfillan emphasized the need for the community to buy into the effort to expand affordable housing in the city.
“Housing is not something that the city solves on its own,” Gillfillan said. “Housing is something that the city can help facilitate and help be a partner in, but it is something that is going to take the broad community to address.”
Ramika Adams, a board member of the Calaboose African American History Museum, was one of the 19 task force members. She told Community Impact Newspaper at the August open house that she felt the task force was successful in including different voices in the community.
“The voices were heard throughout the organization, and for me personally, it was very much more conducive to including the needs of the community,” Adams said.
Patricia Simpson, who has lived in San Marcos since 1989, attended the open house with her daughter, Sarah, who commutes to the city for work.
Simpson said the open house was an “eye-opener.”
“It was enlightening and a very good presentation. There is a growing problem with housing and where people are going to live,” she said.
A day ahead of the open house, San Marcos Planning and Zoning commissioners had a chance to share some of their thoughts on the action plan.
Commissioners expressed gratitude for the work of the task force, but also spoke about some of their reservations regarding potential plans for addressing the city’s affordable housing needs.
James Garber, chair of the commission, said he was not sure the zoning changes suggested as part of the plan would be the right approach.
“For me, for a city to rezone or take the initiative to rezone is somewhat heavy-handed,” Garber said.
Garber said he also would like to see a neighborhood character study completed to learn what people in San Marcos would like to see preserved.
Other commissioners agreed that they, too, would like to see a neighborhood character study.
Commissioners Betseygail Rand and Gabrielle Moore, however, said they were not in favor of the study being used as a hindrance to the plans for increasing affordable housing options in the city.
“I can see the neighborhood character study being used as a procrastination technique, a roadblock and a tool to prevent action,” Moore said.
The planning and zoning commission will again discuss the draft of the housing action plan on Sept. 24. The last meeting of the task force is scheduled Sept. 12 at the San Marcos Activity Center.
Additionally, the task force will be speaking at the San Marcos CISD board meeting on Aug. 19 and will hold an informational land-banking meeting on Aug. 29.
A philosophical discussion
Dupont said that though the task force is looking at a variety of options to address affordable housing, any solution without a focus on multifamily options is unrealistic.
“If you want to create affordability, you have to go dense—you have to; that’s the only way to do it; and you have to go smaller,” Dupont said. “If anybody thinks that we’re going to build single-family homes and create affordability, and create urban sprawl, I would venture to say that they’re just wrong; it won’t work that way.”
But that is exactly what some of the residents who have responded unfavorably to the task force’s draft action plan fear most—a growth of multifamily housing options in their neighborhoods.
Sara Lee Underwood-Myers is the president of the San Marcos Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Underwood-Myers said she appreciates the task force, but—thus far—does not understand its direction. She added that many members of the organization have raised concerns about the action plan favoring renters.
“People are very concerned about developers coming in, buying it up and making everybody a renter. That’s a concern,” she said.
Members of the task force have also said they have heard criticism about their backgrounds.
Out of the 19 members, five were associated with a nonprofit or community organization. Four members had ties to the real estate industry, and four others had ties to education.
Roland Saucedo was the only person listed as a “neighborhood representative” in the workforce housing group.
Saucedo told Community Impact Newspaper he had heard some of the same concerns that Underwood-Myers heard from community members.
“The spirit that has really been shared in the community, at least with the people that I’ve spoken with and the groups that I’ve spoken to, the main issue that everybody has is density,” Saucedo said.
To address some of these fears, Saucedo said the task force is moving forward with outreach programs to educate residents of the city’s specific needs for affordable housing. The most recent open house meeting was held Aug. 14 at the San Marcos Activity Center.
Saucedo agreed with Dupont’s sentiment that affordable housing options should not be isolated.
“We don’t want to have dissected communities. We want to have affordable housing in all the neighborhoods throughout the city,” he said.
Dupont said she and other members of the task force will continue their work to reach out to the San Marcos community to help them get a better understanding of what the city needs to do to begin “chipping away” at its lack of affordable housing.
In her opinion, elected officials will have to work with their constituents.
“What we have, in my opinion, is as philosophical discussion,” Dupont said. “We either say we’re inclusive and we say we want diversity, and we say that we want to create a space for everybody and we take solid actions that support that—or we don’t.”