InterviewNeighborhood Change

Interview with Mayor Ivy Taylor, San Antonio, Texas

The first African-American mayor of the largely Latino and Anglo city, and strongly identified as an urban planner, Taylor casts herself as someone interested more in getting work done than leaving a political legacy. However, she has not shied away from controversial positions, and her initial position that she would not be running for re-election fell by the wayside as she announced her candidacy on February 16, less than two weeks after this interview.

By Miriam Axel-Lute, Harold Simon, and Keli Tianga

Miriam Axel-Lute: How did you first become aware of the community development and community planning world, and what have been some of the milestones that have kept you in that world as you’ve moved along?

Ivy Taylor: I actually came to it a little bit late. I went to college and majored in American Studies, came home and bumped around in jobs in advertising, and didn’t really feel fulfilled. I decided I needed to go back to school to study something to put me on a career path that I’d be interested in.

I was looking through the catalog for Hunter College, because I figured I’d just go to school at night, and they had a degree in urban planning. I had literally never heard of it. I started investigating and decided that it combined many of the things that I was interested in, in particular affordable housing. I ended up going to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where within the planning program, we had to select an area of focus, and mine was housing and community development.

Miriam Axel-Lute: At some point you participated in an NCCED (National Congress for Community Economic Development) internship program. How did that play into your career development?

Ivy Taylor: Well, that actually put me on the path that I’m on. Without NCCED, I wouldn’t be here as mayor of San Antonio. They matched up grassroots nonprofits with interns that were either studying planning or public policy. When I looked at the available positions for that summer, the position in San Antonio sounded the most interesting because it was going to be working with a coalition of affordable housing providers. I had never been to San Antonio before.

Miriam Axel-Lute: And what did you do with those affordable housing providers?

Ivy Taylor: I created a housing access directory. At that time, there were several groups that provided various services related to affordable housing, but nobody ever knew what anybody was doing. They saw in my background, which had been in advertising, a little marketing twist. The idea was for me to develop a communications plan for the organizations and also put together a directory of the services that they provided.

Keli Tianga: You were born in Brooklyn, and you lived in Queens. Did growing up in those neighborhoods have any influence on your interest in urban planning?

Ivy Taylor: I don’t know. My context was so limited when I was growing up that I really didn’t have a framework for planning, for public policy, for a lot of these issues the way I’ve come to have years later. But wherever you grow up, you think every place else is like that, right? So New York was my frame of reference; when I got other places, it was hard for me to understand the whole sprawl phenomenon, and related issues like lack of transportation options. All those things just weren’t part of the context in New York [City].

Miriam Axel-Lute: Do you think you brought any sort of fresh perspective that people in those places didn’t have?

Ivy Taylor: Well, no. I’m very sensitive in my role here, that we’re not trying to be anyplace else. We have to work within the framework and the context of whatever locale you’re in. I developed an appreciation for a different way of living, but also did understand that there were some elements of living in a dense city that made life a little bit easier for people who didn’t have a lot of resources than when you got in a locale where things were more spread out.

Miriam Axel-Lute: In San Antonio, you were in local government, and then you were in the nonprofit world, and then an elected official. How is it to move between those different contexts?

Ivy Taylor: Well, when I first came here, I assumed that I would work at some fabulous nonprofit that was doing cutting-edge work, because that’s all I learned about at UNC. I didn’t really think a whole lot about the role of government other than the funds that HUD provided. I just thought there were all these great nonprofits everywhere that were changing communities.

When I moved here, I found much fewer nonprofits than I had anticipated, and there weren’t any opportunities for me at that time, so I started out in local government. I was frustrated because I didn’t think there was the level of innovation in local government that there needed to be. I also didn’t think there was a commitment to provide funding needed for inner-city revitalization.

So, I left after six years working at the city, [and] went to a nonprofit [Ed note: Merced Housing Texas]. What I found there that was very liberating was the ability to implement creative ideas, to the extent that they could be funded.

But then, after being there for a while, I realized that the life outcomes of our clients were still pretty limited. I had a moment where I was, like, well, affordable housing really isn’t the magic bullet here, because we’re providing great, safe, affordable housing. We provided social services at apartment communities we owned, as well, and our families were still struggling so much.

So, then I started thinking more broadly, from a public policy perspective, of what else could I do as an individual to help change outcomes for more people, and that’s when some community members suggested that I run for City Council, which I thought was absolutely bonkers at first. But then, I said, maybe, given the experience that I’ve had, I can bring that to the table, being a policymaker.

Of course, in this realm, the frustrating part can be that a lot of times people don’t want to do what’s right. They just want to focus on what’s political. But my perspective has broadened as far as how all these different issues intersect and how, as a policymaker, you have to balance advocating for certain segments of society with the larger society.

Fair Housing and Displacement

Miriam Axel-Lute: We were speaking earlier this week with John Henneberger of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and he was talking about Texas being ground zero for the fight for fair housing. He was describing fair housing as being much bigger than how we usually think about it, not just about mobility and the right to be able to move, but also the right to be able to stay in improving neighborhoods and equalizing treatment between neighborhoods. How are those kinds of questions playing out in San Antonio?

Ivy Taylor: We are struggling with all of them. I’m chairing a task force right now that was created by the previous mayor in the wake of a controversial zoning decision. The city had made some improvements to the San Antonio River, and there was a mobile home park that had been there for a long time that had river views. The owner decided he was going to sell the property to someone that wanted to develop it for, not high-end apartments, but higher quality and higher cost housing. The city was called on to rezone the property. [Ed note: The council did approve the rezoning, in May 2014, with then-council member Taylor absent but having sent a letter in support of the change.]

Obviously a very difficult case. People had lived in this trailer park for, some of them, 10, 15 years or more, many of them did not speak English, they were on fixed incomes, they’re paying $300 a month rent.

But the whole reason I got on the City Council was to make projects like that happen, to promote the idea that the inner city should not be red lined. I felt very, very strongly that for us to deny the zoning would be to send a message that we feel that middle-income or high-quality housing should only be built in certain parts of town, and that other parts of town should be left to languish and not have any new investment. And I did not want to send that signal.

This should be an area where people can invest, where we want to have new housing, where we want to have a mix of incomes. Now, certainly it’s apparent that the down side of that can be displacement.

This was kind of a worst-case scenario, but I still felt it was very compelling that we needed to go ahead and allow for the zoning that would facilitate redevelopment of that property into a type of housing that simply has not been available in that side of town for a long time.

If I lived in that part of town, and my daughter were to leave and go away to college and come back and not want to live with me, and she has a job but she wants to still live in that side of town, why shouldn’t she have an option [for] high-quality, middle-income rental housing? I don’t think that those opportunities should only be clustered in certain parts of town.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Generally when we talk about equitable redevelopment, we’re talking about bringing in investment in a way that benefits the people who are already living there. So, what was expected of the developer in return for the public benefit that they got from the rezoning, in terms of supporting the residents who already lived there?

Ivy Taylor: I think that principle holds true more so if the public is making an investment. The public was not making an investment. The public was only going through the regulatory framework to provide the correct zoning.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Zoning is a benefit from the public. Not everybody gets a zoning change.

Ivy Taylor: OK. What ended up happening was an effort to facilitate placement of those folks, to aid them in transitioning into other housing scenarios.

Miriam Axel-Lute: So, there was transition assistance provided by the developer.

Ivy Taylor: Yes.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Was the mobile home park located in an area of uniformly concentrated poverty?

Ivy Taylor: The mobile home park [itself was concentrated poverty], yes. The rest of the area is kind of up and down. There are owner-occupants of modest bungalow homes nearby, and there’s spotty development along the commercial corridor. There are some bright spots, and there are some challenges that several of the representatives of that area have been trying to deal with for a while.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Was there no opportunity for development that didn’t involve displacement in that area?

Ivy Taylor: In Texas, we’re pretty strong on property rights. That’s part of the framework. So, if the folks who own the property want to redevelop it, it’s kind of hard to make the argument of preventing them from doing that. The location was really ideal for the type of development that was being proposed. It was going to be pretty close to the San Antonio River.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Did anybody propose the idea of having the development include affordable units?

Ivy Taylor: I don’t remember that being a part of the conversation. I think that certainly would be reasonable, but, in this instance, I think the income level of the people who were living in the trailer park was so low that they were more at a public housing level. And so, I don’t know that a private development could get to that level of subsidy.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Where did the residents go? You had people at a public housing income level who were actually being housed in private housing. Where did they end up?

Ivy Taylor: They ended up in different places. I think I’m going to go back and ask for a report; I don’t know if anyone has kept track of where everyone ended up. Some people took advantage of the [relocation] assistance, and some didn’t because they got involved with a lawsuit. Some of them went to other mobile home parks; there was an agreement with another mobile home park owner to help facilitate them relocating there.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Did some of them actually move their homes?

Ivy Taylor: I think some of them did. There were some who intended to, who tried to, but the homes were so old they weren’t able to actually make the trip.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Yes, they’re not really very mobile. What are the provisions to keep an area like this one, once there’s some investment, from becoming entirely high income?

Ivy Taylor: Well, we’re not San Francisco. That’s not going to happen tomorrow on the South Side of San Antonio. But, we do have an opportunity to be proactive. That task force was trying to look at some policies we can put in place that can mitigate negative impacts of inner city redevelopment. And there’s not going to be one magic bullet. It’s going to have to be a longer conversation.

Miriam Axel-Lute: So, with the task force in place, if a similar situation came up now, would there be additional things that would be considered?

Ivy Taylor: That’s a great question that we asked ourselves several times. As far as initial recommendations, which haven’t gone to the full City Council yet, and we’re in the process of public feedback, we decided we need to highlight some of the organizations that are in place that provide housing assistance and transition. We decided that we could do a better job at informing the public on zoning changes that are occurring. If it’s a project where the city is investing or providing incentives, then what we were proposing was that the developer would have to provide some sort of relocation assistance to people that are displaced.

It definitely was a tough case. No one’s completely happy, and there are some folks who feel much more strongly about the need for us to, well, I want to say protect the vulnerable, but really, candidly, for some people, they really just don’t want to see the neighborhoods change. And that makes it tough for the policy makers.

I have come to be more focused on how we can create stable mixed-income communities throughout our city, and I think for too long, especially here in San Antonio, we’ve focused the resources that we’ve had for affordable housing in particular sides of town, and that’s just led to more of a concentration of poverty and has not led to any other type of development or investment or change in circumstances in those neighborhoods. Certainly the people that are living in the new housing, they may be a little bit more comfortable, but it’s not changing the generational poverty.

Miriam Axel-Lute: When you try to deal with that, you run into NIMBY opposition in the higher opportunity areas, and you run into problems with landlords who won’t accept housing choice vouchers in a lot of places. Austin just passed a source-of-income anti-discrimination ordinance to try to deal with the latter part, but it’s facing court challenges. What do you see as the strategies that you want to employ in San Antonio to spread out that opportunity?

Ivy Taylor: I want to focus on workforce development. I feel like the conversation a lot of times comes from a perspective that poor people will stay poor, and so we need to figure out how to be able to meet their needs instead of how do we create real opportunities for people to change their circumstances now, not just their kids in 20 years when they’ve had a better education. How can we provide them the chance to improve their basic skill levels, attain higher skills through community college or certificate programs that then position them to be able to obtain better jobs so that they have more discretionary income and then choose where it is that they want to live?

Harold Simon: Does San Antonio have any kind of inclusionary ordinances, or have you explored the possibility of things like community land trusts that are essentially permanently affordable?

Ivy Taylor: Those are exactly the kind of ideas that the task force has been kicking around. Texas law here prohibits us from having an inclusionary housing ordinance. But we can explore land trusts as an option, and the task force has been discussing how.


Miriam Axel-Lute: One of the other pieces of accessing opportunity is being able to have transportation to jobs. I know transportation has been an issue that’s been in front of you since you came into the mayor’s office with the VIA Streetcar [a proposal for which Mayor Taylor canceled as one of her early acts as mayor]. Can you talk about making that decision?

Ivy Taylor: Well, I never envisioned being the urban planner that came in and killed the streetcar project! That was not anything I aspired to do. But, at the time when I came into the mayor’s office, things had just escalated so much with the opposition on the streetcar project that it became very clear that the public did not have a sense of that project being a starting point for a larger community system, which I think is what VIA wanted. That had not been communicated.

And then, scarier than that, “the streetcar” was starting to be used as substitute for “downtown,” like it was being described as “the downtown streetcar.” And some people were making a strong association, like downtown investment, downtown streetcar, it’s all one big downtown pot that we don’t like. I thought that was very dangerous for us because, in the last few years, we have made a lot of progress in investing in downtown, which I think will have some good outcomes for neighborhoods that are adjacent to downtown.

So, my strategy, which my colleagues supported, was to pause the conversation, redirect the money that the city was allocating to the project, and go back to the table on a larger transportation plan for the community, which was already being funded by the city and the local metropolitan planning organization, and see if we can try to re-engage and get a real project that would be better communicated and articulated that more people could buy into.

The unfortunate thing with the project was that it just didn’t have a strong base of support anywhere; even people who liked the idea of a streetcar didn’t really like the route for a variety of reasons. Other people just felt like, well, how is that going to improve my transportation access and experience, because it’s going to be such a small footprint. And many people just felt that it was something that was for tourists and not for the average San Antonian. So, I made the tough decision that the time wasn’t right for us to move forward, because I just didn’t think we would be successful.

Miriam Axel-Lute: More broadly, you mentioned the transportation plan. How do you think about developing an inclusive transportation system that really reaches the people who need it, but also bears in mind that, these days particularly, gentrification often follows a transit line, so making sure that they’re able to stay and reap the benefits?

Ivy Taylor: Well, I can’t say that I have the answer to that question 100 percent. I know that it starts with an inclusive outreach component to developing the plan. The fact that we are also developing our first comprehensive plan for the city since the ’70s at the same time provides opportunities for us to merge the conversations, to not just have a conversation that’s focused on transportation, but talk about the other elements of our growth and development as a city and how we want them all to work together.

At the end of the day, the reason why I see inclusiveness as being so important is because, after the plan is done, the main thing is going to be implementation. And implementation means money. And if people just see it as a plan that was developed by a small segment of the community, or a handful of people who didn’t really know what they’re talking about, then it’s going to make it hard to justify spending dollars in accordance with the plan. So, that’s why I wanted it to be the community’s plan, the community’s vision.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Uber, the ride-sharing service, has come under a lot of fire lately for its economic practices and its safety practices. It’s currently threatening to pull out of San Antonio due to some regulations the City Council passed. What’s your perspective on that?

Ivy Taylor: I didn’t think I’d have to take this fight up again so soon. When we passed the ordinance, we said we’d come back in six months and re-evaluate, but now they’re putting the pressure on us by threatening to leave. They have been operating illegally the whole time they’ve been here, and our ordinance doesn’t even go into effect until March 1, and they’re threatening to leave.

It’s very frustrating. I feel like there’s a lot of undercurrent to that conversation that make me uncomfortable. When you talk about public transportation here in San Antonio, it’s usually not viewed as an option of choice, right? People who have no choice, that’s who takes the bus.

And now, we’re getting to the point where people who have a lot of choices, they don’t want to take taxis either. I want to be able to provide more options for San Antonians, especially since our public transportation system is so limited, but our obligation as the governing body here is to ensure the safety of the public.

It’s hard for me to understand how requiring background checks, vehicle inspections, and insurance for drivers is onerous. But it’s being viewed as a litmus test for how progressive and cool and hip our city is, and I just think that is just ridiculous. No other way to say it. I mean, all the things we work on, and whether or not we advance the city rests on whether or not Uber is here?

[Ed note: As of publication of this interview, the city seems to be holding firm.]

Looking to the Future

Harold Simon: Clearly you’ve gotten some successes, like the water project that was a big win, and some things that you decided, as you said earlier, this is not the right time to fight this battle, and let’s do it in a more thoughtful way. How do you keep that balance between all these different interests, who all have a right to have their own interests?

Ivy Taylor: Well, I pray a lot, and I try to prioritize the things that are doable, and try to work with the team that I lead, the City Council, on the things that they want to work on, or issues that are important to them. And I take it one day at a time. If I sit down and think too hard, I’d really be too scared to come in here every day, so, I just try to focus on getting things done. And I think the fact that it’s really not about me is very helpful, because if I were focused on what my legacy is going to be, or what my political future’s going to be, then that would make it a lot harder to make tough decisions.

Harold Simon: What do you hope to see for San Antonio over the next few years?

Ivy Taylor: I hope that we will develop a plan for our city that is just so fabulous that people will embrace and commit to [it], and that it will outlive any mayor or county judge, or any other politician, and that when it comes time to spend money, that people will say these are the things that we’ve prioritized in our plan.

I hope that that plan will reflect the need for us to have stable mixed-income neighborhoods throughout our city, and that we’d be willing as a community to invest the dollars that are needed to create that outcome so that people don’t feel like, well, if I make it, I have to leave this part of town, or if I live in that part of town, there’s not going to be the same access to schools, parks, other things that I expect.

And also, I hope we’ll be able to get our act together on creating that pipeline of citizens that can fully participate in the economy and that we won’t just take it as a given that people who are poor today, that they’re going to be poor and that their kids are going to be poor.

Shelterforce: Thank you.

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