| Because of code violations and construction problems, Springview South was half-empty until recently. Last year, more than 20 residents of other public housing developments received letters approving transfers to Springview. To date, none of the residents has been allowed to move in. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
On September 27, 2002, Felicia Esparza, a resident of the Sutton Homes public housing project, received some exciting and long-awaited news.
A letter from the San Antonio Housing Authority had finally arrived, granting Esparza her request to transfer to an apartment at Springview South Homes, one of SAHA's newest developments. All she had to do to secure her new address was to attend a meeting with a SAHA occupancy specialist on October 2. "Failure to attend this very important appointment `emphasis SAHA` may result in the unit offer being withdrawn," the letter said.
Esparza wouldn't think of missing the appointment, as it was her only opportunity to escape from Sutton, a chunk of concrete block apartments crammed into an East Side no-man's-land south of I-35 North and north of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Sutton's architecture is reminiscent of the type of projects built in another era of public housing, when the trend was to warehouse the poor, rather than dignify them with homes.
At Springview South, Esparza would be the first tenant to live in the immaculate 944-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in a row of handsome, sleek townhouses on East Commerce Street. The red brick had yet to be stained by gang graffiti, like homes at Sutton; at Springview South, Esparza would have a washer and a dryer, meaning she wouldn't have to air her laundry on the clothesline.
"I wanted to transfer because of the violence," Esparza, 21, said, as she sat at a kitchen table in her living room at Sutton Homes. When she initially requested to transfer from Sutton in May 2002, she had one daughter, Cristela, now 6, and was pregnant with her second child, Kayla, now almost 2. "I felt very uncomfortable," Esparza explained. "There were break-ins and gangs, and I couldn't let my daughter play outside."
On October 2, 2002, she signed a paper accepting the offer to transfer to Springview South, and SAHA told her it would begin leasing the units the following month. Thanksgiving passed, yet there was no transfer. Esparza said she kept calling, but SAHA officials told her the units hadn't yet passed inspection, and that leasing would begin in May 2003.
May came and went. In August, a serious accident happened at the Esparza home that should have expedited the family's transfer. Kayla was sitting on the windowsill in her second-story bedroom when she leaned back and fell through the screen 12 feet onto the ground below. She suffered a skull fracture, and spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit at Santa Rosa Hospital; she has since recovered. SAHA officials found that the screen latches were broken, a detail that officials had missed during an inspection when the Esparzas moved in.
A year after SAHA approved the family's transfer, the Esparzas apparently have been bumped from the transfer list; SAHA records obtained by the Current show that somone else is living at their unit on East Commerce Street. SAHA also dashed the hopes of 21 other public housing residents who in September 2002 had received letters approving their transfer requests to Springview; other tenants are living in the promised units, too.
"Nobody gave me a straight answer," Esparza said, adding that during a recent meeting with transfer specialist, SAHA denied having a record of her transfer approval. (The Current has a copy.) "I got several different answers."
There are more questions than answers surrounding Springview, a $48 million, federally funded project that has been plagued with shoddy workmanship, code violations, and bureaucratic snafus.
SAHA spokeswoman Melanie Villalobos acknowledged that Esparza and other residents were scheduled to be transferred to Springview South in September 2002. But when SAHA inspected the units before the residents moved in, it found several major construction flaws: Rooms for the washer-dryer units had been built too small, and SAHA crews later had to retrofit those rooms. Stairwells had to be reconstructed; kitchen renovations were also needed because cabinet drawers were blocked by appliances.
Villalobos explained that in April, while SAHA was trying to fix the code violations, the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a change in SAHA's occupancy policy. Before the change, SAHA was required to offer the oldest units first to people on the waiting list. Because of that rule, SAHA had hundreds of vacancies within the public housing system. While HUD okayed SAHA's request to offer new developments to those on the waiting list, it also prohibited those on the transfer list from moving to those new developments.
So previous Springview residents - more than 400 had been displaced when the original development was razed in 1998 - or those at the top of the waiting list had first dibs on the units that initially had been assigned to Esparza and others.
One-third of Springview South's 76 units are occupied; another 39 are spoken for and awaiting their new tenants. The remaining 11 apartments, SAHA says, will be filled by next month, but none by Esparza.
Questions also linger about accountability. SAHA hired 3D/I, which has offices throughout Texas and the U.S., as project manager; its job was to oversee all phases of construction. San Antonio-based Beatty & Partners was the architectural firm, who, Villalobos says, took SAHA's general specifications for the project and retooled them. Local contractor Valemas built according to Beatty's refined specs. Overseeing the entire project was Diana Kinlaw, then the vice president of development and asset management, who is no longer with SAHA.
Mike Beatty denied that the firm was responsible for the problems at Springview. ""No architectural job is perfect, but on balance we did an excellent job on that project," he said.
The Current contacted Valemas and 3D/I; none could be reached immediately for comment.
However, HUD has held SAHA responsible for many of the managerial problems at Springview; the development not only includes Springview South, but senior housing and single-family homes. The Express-News reported earlier this year that HUD's Inspector General reported in 1999 that SAHA had neither the staff nor the ability to deal with a project the size of Springview.
SAHA is still investigating how the Springview project went awry, and blaming the contractors. "SAHA is continuing to look at the responsiveness of its contractors," SAHA said in a prepared statement. "And we will pursue legal action as necessary."
Meanwhile, Esparza is still trapped in SAHA's bureaucracy. At issue is not that former Springview residents received those apartments, but that a botched construction job and bureaucratic missteps denied Esparza a home that had been promised to her. She said SAHA told her last week the transfer list has been frozen, as has the list for Section 8 housing. To leave Sutton, Esparza, a part-time insurance agent, and her boyfriend, a full-time landscape foreman, are considering buying a KB Home because there are no closing costs or down payments. Ironically, KB Homes, which builds both private and public housing, is responsible for the subpar workmanship at another public housing development, Mirasol.
"I can't move my way up," said Esparza, who has lived in public housing since her mother died seven years ago. "It could be 12 months. It could be two or three years. I just believe in Jesus and do what I can." •