The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Lyle Larson: Not a Friend to the Less Fortunate

Today's Express-News has a particularly disturbing article about County Commissioner Lyle Larson's efforts to keep low-income housing out of his quadrant of Bexar County. What's his excuse? Well that's what my constituents want!

County Commissioner Lyle Larson can't build a wall around his North Side precinct to keep out poor people, but he's doing his best to show constituents he's not making it any easier for them to move in, either.

The Precinct 3 commissioner has shut off an important financial tool used to create affordable apartment housing in his precinct unless it is for seniors or remains 100 percent on the tax rolls.

"I'm not a rocket scientist," Larson said. "This is just how I feel because of the feedback I get."

Larson's stance has civil rights advocates and housing officials questioning whether the policy promotes discrimination against people with low incomes.

County Judge Nelson Wolff called it a bad idea.

No nonprofit developers have complained, because they are afraid that would hinder future deals with the county. Also, they can turn to other agencies for help.

But the policy can mean one less option for financing as developers try to shave costs in every possible way to keep rents low. That could make it harder for low-income families to find an affordable place to live on the North Side.

Larson instituted the rule more than two years ago, and the Bexar County Housing Finance Corp. board, which is made up of the county commissioners, went along with him and adopted it as official policy in November 2003.

County bond financing is an important avenue for developers of affordable housing; the only other bond finance options are the San Antonio Housing Finance Corp. and, to a lesser extent, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Larson's main justification for the policy is that North Side apartments are so plentiful, rents have been driven down.

"We've experienced a huge influx of growth in northern Bexar County," Larson said, "and I don't believe that the government should help subsidize development."


Larson said he thinks of affordable housing financing as economic development that is best steered toward poorer precincts, "not areas that are being developed in a rampant way."

But critics said his policy could keep the poor from enjoying the benefits of an economically healthy part of the county, with lower crime rates, proximity to better jobs and more stable neighborhoods.

One key benefit for families is education, and the school districts in Precinct 3 have the some of the highest-achieving students, best programs and nicest facilities in the county.


"There's a lot of folks who have to traverse the city" to reach low-paying jobs on the North Side, Phillips said. "It's important that affordable housing be located where the jobs are."

Several studies have shown it's good for the children of those low-income families to attend school with more affluent kids.

The economically disadvantaged child in that situation seems to advance more quickly, said Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.


At first glance, the county's policy looks like it could violate the federal Fair Housing Act, said Patricia Campbell, regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Fort Worth office.

It might hinder the construction of housing, or assisted housing, for families with children, or for younger people with disabilities, Campbell said.

Her office has not closely examined the policy, she said, but it would investigate if a complaint were filed.

Brendan Gill, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said the policy needs to be reviewed as to whether "there was a rational basis for this different standard in the most affluent precinct."

That precinct, Larson said, is saturated with multifamily development and there's no reason to foster more of it.

"It has nothing to do with discrimination on social or ethnic lines," he said. "I think that's always the cop-out."

Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project said Larson's reasons sound familiar.

"He's certainly expressed the right words to protect himself from litigation," Harrington said. "What he's really trying to do is, he wants to keep out poor people, basically."

Larson bristled at the charge that his policy amounts to discrimination.

"That's the weakest argument that anybody can use in modern times," Larson said, "especially if you've got a track record of never ever showing any of that."


The rest of the commissioners went along with Larson on his policy, in keeping with a longtime gentlemen's agreement of county government.

"We tend to respect the wishes of each commissioner in their precinct," said Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who chairs the housing finance board. "You need that other commissioner on other things."

Wolff seldom participates in the housing finance corporation meetings and didn't know about the policy until he learned of it from a reporter.

"I don't think it's good public policy to have one set of rules for three precincts and one set of rules for another," he said.

"It just seems to me that it ought to be handled on a case-by-case basis," he said.


Larson also said school districts have complained that they are burdened by affordable housing projects that get tax breaks. The schools must accept the additional children of families who live in those apartments but are denied the tax revenue from the properties.

Officials from Northside and North East school districts, which span much of Precinct 3, said affordable housing can put them in a bind.

"I don't want to say that we want to turn down children ... and children will benefit greatly from our instruction," NESD Superintendent Richard Middleton said.

The state funding formula means property-rich districts get less per student from state government, and NESD relies on local property tax revenue for 75 percent of its funding.

Affordable housing is just and necessary, he said, but projects that get property tax breaks tighten the fiscal noose on school districts that already depend heavily on property taxes.

An influx of new students with no corresponding increase in property tax revenues, is "cause for concern," he said.

That concern is true for any school district, property-rich or poor, said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, a consortium of low-and middle-wealth school districts.

"It wouldn't matter if it was Edgewood or Alamo Heights or others," Pierce said.

Northside depends less on local property taxes than North East, but it still gets almost 60 percent of its revenue that way, said George Torres, deputy superintendent for business and finance.

The district is losing about $3 million a year, out of an operating budget of $460 million, to low-income housing tax breaks. That loss is a more than threefold increase since 2002, and Torres is glad Larson is listening.

Schools do get extra federal funding for low-income students, and last year Northside received almost $10 million for all of its qualifying students, but officials could not break out the number of students who live in housing off the tax rolls, and whether the per-student payment makes up for the tax loss.

"When you take property off the tax rolls ... the services have to continue," Torres said. "We appreciate these efforts."

Many school district officials across the state agree.

Neighborhood groups have been more vocal than schools, and Larson listens closely to them. He has plenty of letters on file from neighborhood association members opposing affordable housing projects, along with his replies assuring them that he would oppose funding for the projects, too.

One letter concerned a 2001 attempt by the National Farm Workers Service Center to use public financing to buy an apartment complex called Worthing Oaks on Nacogdoches Road.

"I am opposed to any type of tax abatements, bond issues, or special favors pledged or given to this organization," neighborhood resident Homer Webb wrote.

Webb wasn't alone. Then-neighborhood association President Frances Von Rosenberg wrote to Larson that 25 out of 26 neighborhood residents opposed the project.

Larson said that "not in my backyard" stance is typical of his constituents.

"To be candid with you, there's not too many folks in my community that want to have multifamily housing built next to them," Larson said.

'I don't believe that government should help subsidize development,' says the Honorable County Commissioner. Someone want to guess alongside me on what side Larson was on for the PGA Village fiasco? Affordable housing financing is no. And what's with this practice of county commissioners allowing their colleagues to rule their precincts like fiefdoms? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't one of the main tenents of a functioning democracy accounta-freakin'-bility? But apparently this is a treasured custom on commissioner's court, just as important as any of the treasured customs we see in the US Senate. Give me a break, you're a county commissioner in one of the 254 counties in Texas.

But, but the commissioner blurts out, the taxes we're gonna lose! They're gonna cripple our exemplary school district! Please, as Wayne Pierce points out, it don't matter where low-income housing is built, it's going to affect the revenue of whatever school district it's in. It's not as if low-income housing is fully taxable in the other three precincts. If you wanna talk about taxes though, why don't you out and ask the superintendents of the southside school districts how much money they lose- or used to lose- from all the land that Kelly, Brooks, and Lackland sit on. And this idea that Larson's constituents are somehow more opposed to multifamily housing development than the other 3/4 of Bexar county is just ridiculous.

Why there are one set of rules for 3/4 of Bexar county and a completely different set of rules for the other quarter is beyond me. How quickly do you think these neighborhood associations would change their minds if those who live in low-income housing and have to commute to their job in Larson's precinct all of a sudden just decided to take a job closer to home and their family? Just another example, albeit on a more local level, of what exactly happens when you give your soul to the right.