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September 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 17, 2004

Efficiency studio project moves ahead Efficiency studio project moves ahead (September 17, 2004)

Subsidized housing will target San Antonio workers

By Jon Wiener

Ground was broken on the city's first subsidized efficiency studio project last week, an effort that will cost $21.8 million and create 120 units of low-income housing.

A crowd of more than 80 gathered for the ceremony in 90-degree weather on Sept. 8. Following speeches by state Assembly member Sally Lieber and County supervisor Liz Kniss, local city council members took up shovels in recognition of the first phase of construction.

The three-story, 120-unit studio apartment complex is being built at 210 San Antonio Circle. It is the city's 10th subsidized affordable housing project, according to neighborhood services manager Linda Lauzze. But these units, which are 325 square feet and include a full kitchen, are unique for their small size and low rent, she said.

Tenants will be selected from a raffle held next year. Only those earning between 20 and 45 percent of the county's median income (roughly $15,000 to $33,000) will be eligible to live in the apartments, which will range from $250 to $700 per month, depending on an income-based sliding scale.

Chris Block, executive director of Charities Housing Development Corporation, a division of Catholic Charities and the agency behind the project, said he is hoping people will be moving by Christmas 2005.

"A lot of us remember a time when 'affordable housing' was sort of a dirty word," said Block. "Now it's seen as a public benefit. It's something that makes a community great, in the same way as music and art are seen as a public benefit."

Community support for the project has been widespread, according to architect Dan Wu. The city is contributing $5.34 million in deferred loans that will not be repaid for at least 55 years. That total includes a free lease of the city-owned lot at 210 San Antonio Circle, next to the new building of the Community School of Music and Art. The money comes from a combination of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grants and a city tax on downtown businesses.

One of the target markets for the units are the minimum wage workers at Wal-Mart and elsewhere in San Antonio Shopping Center, Wu said.

Critics of affordable housing projects argue that they are a hidden subsidy to companies that should be paying higher wages. Lieber, whose bill to raise the state minimum wage to $7.75 by Jan. 2006 is awaiting the governor's signature, said this project is worth it anyway.

"There's no doubt that when employers pay poverty wages that taxpayers have to pick up the dime." But, Lieber said, "Housing has just become so far out of reach for everyday people that it really takes a community effort like this."

"These are jobs that can't be exported to India," she added.

Greg Perry, the only city council member out of seven not to make an appearance at the groundbreaking ceremony, shared a different opinion of the project he called "pointless." Referring to the imbalance between jobs and housing in Mountain View, he said, "The problem is not that we need more shoeboxes. It's that we need 20,000 full homes."

Economic pressure to build more housing is increasing throughout the city, and several developers are proposing to turn commercial property into multi-family housing. Three separate projects totaling more than 50 acres are already in the preliminary stages of the approval process. The council is expected to have a study session to discuss the matter in December or January, according to assistant city manager Nadine Levin.

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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