A neighborhood on San Antonio's East Side had suffered from neglect and was plagued by an ever-growing litany of seemingly insurmountable problems: crime, gangs, an old public housing project, and a high school dropout rate that was higher than elsewhere in the city. Transformative changes needed to be made to overcome years of disinvestment.
In December 2012 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to alter the course of the 3.5-square-mile East Side neighborhood that included the Wheatley Courts public housing project. As of May 31, HUD had invested nearly $30 million in the area. The neighborhood received only one of four Choice Neighborhood implementation grants in the nation that year, and Trinity University's Urban Studies program helped it become reality.
The Choice Neighborhood showcases HUD's newest model of subsidized housing: raze an older public housing development and replace it with a mixed-income property while reinvesting in surrounding neighborhoods and supporting residents in transition. Christine Drennon, sociology professor and director of urban studies at Trinity, said the urban studies program took part in the initial grant writing efforts in partnership with SAHA and has continued as a research partner, annually conducting an impact assessment.
When the grant was announced, the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) was chosen to administer it but would need help from city and county governments, nonprofit agencies, and even private sector companies to turn things around.
SAHA reached out once more to Drennon, and an academic partnership was born. In the spring of 2016, she taught a class of 12 students who visited with homeowners, schools, public safety officers, businesses, and agencies to learn how the Choice Neighborhood has been impacted to date. The class gathered data and anecdotes to help Drennon produce the 2015 Choice Neighborhood Impact Assessment for SAHA as a touchpoint for the project's progress.
To do this, Drennon divided the class into five subgroups to analyze the topics of education, economic development, public safety, residential life, and community development. Students put in long hours conducting interviews, taking pictures, reading reports, examining crime and real estate data, trying to fathom why San Antonio's eastside neighborhoods had been so neglected and what it would take to improve the quality of life there.
HUD Secretary Julián Castro, also a former mayor of San Antonio, expressed support for the student involvement in the project. "These students are gaining real-world experience that takes the Ivory Tower concept and turns it on its head," Castro said. "This engagement increases their connection to the surrounding community while offering mutual benefits. SAHA benefits from their creativity and fresh perspectives to old challenges, and these young people are being exposed to actual, on-the-ground approaches to urban issues that confront every community around the nation."
In the summer, two of Drennon's students, Aroosa Ajani '18 and Beth Legg '18, condensed student reports to contribute to the 2015 Choice impact assessment for SAHA. It detailed the progress of the investment's impact on neighborhood and public housing residents and on people's daily lives.
Ajani, a double major in business analytics and technology and urban studies from Houston, said she was surprised at the range of answers when the students asked whether former Wheatley Courts residents were interested in moving back to the neighborhood. "We got [answers from] so many people [who were] excited and hopeful for the new development but were still wary of public housing," Ajani said, adding that the emphasis on community development aided her understanding of how the socio-economic climate of a space is just as important as the space itself.
The highlight of the report was the planned opening of a new public housing development, East Meadows, a 215-unit multifamily project which did open in the fall of 2016 as a replacement for the razed Wheatley Courts housing project. About 60 of the previous 661 residents returned to the neighborhood. During their field interviews, students said residents who were thinking of moving back wanted social service and health programs along with increased social interaction—in addition to a safer environment.
The report also pointed out that workforce training was offered, prompting more people to move from part-time to full-time employment, and 71 new businesses were opened in the Choice Neighborhood. Efforts continued to improve schools in the area and strengthen community pride. In classroom presentations, students noted that volunteers painted homes in need of a cosmetic touch-up and plans were being made for street improvements along with tree plantings and public art projects in keeping with the concept of art as a driver in neighborhood revitalization.
Although a sound foundation has been laid, the grant period is not over, and more field work is ahead. In their 2015 impact assessment report, the Trinity students listed 14 quality-of-life goals from a community plan that are designed to trigger continued physical and social development. "Not a dream deferred, but reality that was only imagined previously," they wrote.
Their site visits and field work throughout the semester were incredibly impactful. William Miles '16 interned at SAHA as a requirement for his degree in urban studies and had worked with Drennon on this project before enrolling in the class. Looking at the area from the research perspective, he began to see it in a new way. Miles realized that neither problems nor solutions exist in isolation. The class, he said, "helped me to see how everything is connected."
Miles, a San Antonio native who considered becoming a police officer, took his class assignment to heart. He was on the public safety subgroup and spent many days talking with cops walking the beat and with residents who live in fear. He was drawn to the concept of a community garden, and he helped establish a local nonprofit garden, Gardopia, at the corner of Nolan Street and New Braunfels Avenue as a way to engage residents and keep gang members out of the neighborhood.
Steven Lucke, CEO and head gardener at Gardopia, grew collard greens and cauliflower and encouraged nearby residents to adopt specific plants to cultivate. The presence of people, including Trinity students, tilling the ground and watering vegetables during the day curtailed some loiterers, Lucke said, adding, "Will has made a huge difference. He's the MVP."
The class also taught Miles how data is constantly changing and is sometimes contradictory. As an example, he recalled one weekend working in the community garden. "People were happy and feeling safe, the sun was shining, and all was good," he said. "However, a couple weeks later after a spate of gang-related shootings in the area, people were scared and much less optimistic. So the situation is very fluid when it comes to looking at community impacts from crime, which was a big takeaway from the class for me."
As a result, Miles, who took a position as a grant coordinator at SAHA after graduating, said the class helped him to pursue quantitative and qualitative data from various points of view and to take into consideration related topics, such as how students fared in school or how business development did or did not occur.
Throughout the semester, Drennon urged students to look at data to support their findings and to examine "big themes" for their final report. She urged them to look beyond the obvious and to ask hard questions. For example, when one of the students looking at educational aspects of the project reported encountering a young man who identified himself as a "troublemaker," Drennon patiently said, "That's insightful but not scientific."
Some of the data was troubling. A known crime "hot spot" on Houston Street and New Braunfels Avenue was characterized by used drug paraphernalia, stray dogs, and overgrown weeds. One resident described the area to students as a "war zone." Students appeared hopeful when they discovered a "cold spot" – one with a low incidence of crime – until it was pointed out that the area was covered with railroad tracks and nobody lives there.
Despite the ongoing quest for hard numbers and scientific data, the Trinity students were observant, providing some astute details:
- Some attended a "Justice for All" neighborhood meeting designed to better understand the community's fear of crime and need for open dialogue. Also in attendance were San Antonio's mayor and police chief as well as the county's district attorney. "People who went to this were angry," students reported.
- Other students interviewed a waitress who would not drive down Nolan Street because she feared gangs.
- Still other students met teenaged girls who described their community in three words: "Violence, drugs, prostitution."
SAHA officials appreciated the efforts of the urban studies students. "What we love about them is they will work," said Virginia Martinez, administrative assistant in the Office of Community and People Engagement for the Choice Neighborhood Initiative at SAHA. "They do not just say ‘go fix something.' They become part of the community. They want to be part of the change. Their manpower shows it."
The report was delivered in September to SAHA as rich information that will help the agency with further implementation of the grant. Earlier in the year, David Nisivoccia, interim president and CEO of SAHA, said the student work is important because, "Never before in the history of SAHA have so many resources been focused on the same part of town." He thanked the Trinity students for their work and encouraged them to pursue a career at the housing authority or related agencies. "We are always looking to the next generation to come up with fresh ideas."