San Antonio Struggles to Solve Severe Housing Problem : Poverty: The new HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros, led this city for eight years. Now, he is responsible for remedying the nation's housing problems.


Just west of downtown--away from San Antonio's river shops, its high-tech military bases and its shiny, new domed stadium--is a row of narrow, dilapidated houses that might more accurately be called shacks.

They don't meet building codes. Roofs leak, and boards are falling off. Hot water is a hot commodity.

For too many residents of this river city, these houses and others like them--not the Alamodome or the rest--are the real San Antonio, the reality they must live with.

This is the city that Henry Cisneros led for eight years. And he is the man who, as President Clinton's secretary of housing and urban development, has been put in charge of fixing the nation's housing woes.

"I must tell you honestly I could not hold up San Antonio as a national model, and I have to accept some responsibility because I was mayor for eight years in the 1980s," Cisneros said on a recent trip back to the city, the nation's 10th-largest with a population of 1 million.

"I could not hold up San Antonio as a national model of housing progressiveness," he said, "or of housing achievement."

The numbers back him up. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently ranked the city 43rd out of 44 major metropolitan areas in terms of the physical condition of housing for the poor; it escaped last place by barely squeaking past New Orleans.

The study also placed San Antonio among the worst in overcrowded low-income housing. It noted that from 1975 to 1986, a big growth period for the city, the number of low-income housing units declined, while the number of renters needing such homes increased.

No one here blames Cisneros for the full measure of despair. Community activists and municipal leaders point to the city's huge poor population, to a decade of federal neglect and bureaucracy, and to years of other local issues--mostly economic development--taking precedence.

But there is hope that the ascension of the city's hometown hero--he was born here, grew up here, married his high school sweetheart here--will benefit not just San Antonio, but all the nation's cities.

"I couldn't be more excited," said Winston Martin, executive director of the San Antonio Development Agency, which does business with HUD. "There's just no one in the country that's as qualified."

Since Cisneros' appointment, housing quickly has moved up the city's list of priorities. In his 1992 agenda for the city, Mayor Nelson Wolff listed it as the 43rd item. This year, it's first.

But putting housing at the top of the list is one thing; solving a problem of this magnitude is quite another.

Sister Lauren Moynahan, who runs a community outreach program on the city's west side for the Santa Rosa Health Care hospital corporation, sees the extent of San Antonio's housing problems every time she visits residents' homes to conduct health assessments.

Of 38 people surveyed since December, she said, five had no running water, four had no electricity and 10 had no heat.

"This is right in the heart of San Antonio," she said. "These people here, for being in an American city, a part of the world that has almost anything you can want, don't have the basics--like running water."

Patti Radle, co-director of Inner City Development Inc., a nonprofit group that assists a poor neighborhood near downtown, routinely sees dramatic overcrowding in the Alazan-Apache Courts, the city's oldest and largest housing project with about 1,000 units.

Radle remembers asking a group of schoolchildren to indicate how many people lived in their homes.

"This one kid goes like this," she said, holding up all the fingers on both hands, "and says, 'I don't have any more fingers.' I told him, 'Use your toes.' "

"There is a significant amount of substandard housing," said Apolonio Flores, executive director of the San Antonio Housing Authority. "There's no question about that. You can see that. All you have to do is drive around."

Or enter the small, falling-down house on the west side where a 64-year-old man lives with his older sister.

The bathroom has a tub and toilet, but no sink or hot water. A gaping leak in the roof has destroyed family keepsakes--"old memories," the man said, pointing ruefully to ruined pictures. He and his sister each have a bed in the front room, which doubles as a living room. Though the house is cramped, there is an obvious effort to keep things neat.

"I'm really depressed," said the man, who was too proud to allow his name to be used. "But God gives me that certain strength."

Advocates say several programs that started near the end of Cisneros' mayoral tenure, which stretched from 1981 to 1989, are starting to make a dent in the city's daunting problem.

The San Antonio Housing Trust Fund, the first of its kind in Texas, was created in 1988 with $10 million when a private company bought the city's cable holdings. Interest on the money has been used in low- and moderate-income housing projects.

One of the most prominent programs is Vista Verde, an effort to clean up another run-down area west of downtown. Families in those dilapidated shacks were relocated and deteriorating houses replaced with new ones. The city acquired the land, made it available to developers, then let residents buy the new homes under favorable terms. So far, 60 have been completed.

City Councilman Roger Perez, Cisneros' brother-in-law, said he and other officials are working on new strategies--trying, for instance, to persuade banks and other businesses in the private sector to get involved.

In public housing projects, the city and housing authority now are working on "self-sufficiency" programs--started after Cisneros left office--to get people off public assistance and out of public housing by helping them find jobs. After a certain point, the residents move out or pay market prices for the homes.

"I don't want to say we've had a fragmented process," said Perez, who began his housing advocacy during Cisneros' tenure. "I just don't think we've had a clear, unified and defined approach and attack for the housing challenges in our community."

City officials already have presented Cisneros with a "wish list" of projects set to go as soon as more HUD money is available.

Cisneros recently announced that the city would be among those getting extra Community Development Block Grant money, 40% of which is spent on housing. And Flores, the housing authority's executive director, praised the secretary for also quickly making money available for public housing security guards and for working to get federal money distributed earlier in the fiscal year.

But perhaps Sister Neomi Hayes, co-director of a temporary women's home called Visitation House, best summed up what many in San Antonio are thinking these days:

"I hope Henry comes through."

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