Photo of downtown San Antonio, Texas with the Tower of the Americas standing tall over the buildings.
Image credit: Henry Becerra on Unsplash

In San Antonio in February 2024, more than 300 attendees—including folks from nonprofits, foundations, faith-based institutions, impact investors, and entrepreneurs of color—came together for an event sponsored by a group called Neighborhood Economics.

What is neighborhood economics? As NPQ detailed last year, the organization emerged out of the broader impact investing movement—and specifically from folks who sought to direct more energy to going “deep and local and long-term.”

Organizers described the goal of this year’s gathering: to “explore strategies for addressing systemic injustice, creating pathways to wealth, getting your faith community involved in economic justice, and overturning the legacy of redlining.”

Explore is the key word. The gathering provides a critical space to surface new ideas in economic justice work.

While the scope of the conference is national, each year Neighborhood Economics focuses on a specific host community, with a focus on communities of color. Last year, the group met in Jackson, MS, a city that is over 80 percent African American. In San Antonio, organizers chose a place that is over 65 percent Latinx. With nearly 1.5 million residents, the city is also the nation’s seventh largest.

San Antonio has played an outsized role in community development nationwide. For example, it is home to both Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro—two of the 16 people to have held the office of US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It is also the birthplace of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and is widely seen as the cradle of the Chicano movement. While the city has provided a political base for nationally prominent Latinx leaders, at the level of neighborhoods, the city remains one of the most economically segregated cities in the country.

“This moment is calling us to do something different.”

At the conference, as attendees gathered in San Antonio, some key themes and strategies emerged, both of what to do and of strategies to avoid.

Lessons from San Antonio’s Past 

At the opening session, Patricia Mejia, vice president of inclusive engagement for the San Antonio Spurs (and who from 2018 to 2023 held a similar position at the San Antonio Area Foundation), sketched out the city’s history.

While celebrating the city’s civil rights achievements, Mejia did not hold back in noting the impact of economic segregation on people’s lives in San Antonio. To pick one data point, in one zip code, the high school graduation rate is 98 percent; in another zip code in the same city, the high school graduation rate is only 53 percent. Additionally, life expectancy varies by up to 20 years in San Antonio, depending on where you live.

A central theme Mejia emphasized was that past top-down initiatives, whether governmental or philanthropic, had largely failed city residents. San Antonio, Mejia recalled, has its share of such initiatives. It was a “model city” during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency in the 1960s. In the early 2000s, the Annie E. Casey Foundation selected San Antonio as one of 10 national “Making Connections” sites. When Barack Obama was president, a 22-square-mile section of the city became one of five nationally selected Promise Zones.

Of course, these programs did offer some gains. A 2013 Annie E. Casey report on Making Connections, for example, cites lessons learned in terms of the importance of “two generation” (parents and children) approaches in improving community wellbeing and the link between third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation rates. Still, the Casey report acknowledges that “population-level changes [were not achieved] in the initiative neighborhoods.” In short, economic segregation persists.

“This moment is calling us to do something different,” Mejia implored. “How do we use this history to both recognize that we are not the first, we are not alone, but we are in crisis and must act differently?” Mejia challenged conference attendees to advocate for community-led strategies that work at the level of cultural change.

Following Mejia’s address, Ramon Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, reinforced Mejia’s analysis. “Some of our communities have been foundation or government roadkill,” Vasquez said. Vasquez saw a possible way out in community ownership. A year ago, the organization that he heads opened the city’s first tribal center in San Antonio owned and operated by Native Americans. “We have to figure out ways to buy our land back,” Vasquez emphasized. Mejia, who supported the tribal center while at the San Antonio Area Foundation, emphasized that community-led initiatives such as the tribal center “create a sense of pride” and address the “disconnection to who our ancestors were.” Such efforts, she added were critical steps to build a more equitable San Antonio.

Doing the Math

Understandably, community development conferences tend to focus on strategies to build community wealth. But it is also important to interrupt processes that reinforce economic inequality. A presentation by Joe Minicozzi of the consultancy Urban3 highlighted this theme—emphasizing how property tax assessment systems often perpetuate economic inequality by charging homeowners in neighborhoods that are largely inhabited by people of color of modest means a much higher property tax rate than the rate that wealthier, predominantly White communities tend to pay.

This occurs through the assessment process, which, as University of Chicago political scientist Christopher Berry has shown, is highly regressive. Effectively, if you own a low-cost home, it is highly likely that the tax-assessed value of the property will be greater than its actual sale value. By contrast, if you own an expensive home, its tax-assessed value will likely be significantly less than its actual sale value.

In 2021, drawing on Berry’s research, the New York Times noted that in Cook County, IL (county seat: Chicago), there were 1,015 homes sold for exactly $100,000 from 2007 to 2016. “Their average assessed value before the sale was $151,585. During the same decade, 149 homes sold for exactly $1 million. Their average presale assessed value: $647,030.” In short, people with $100,000 homes paid 50 percent higher than average property tax, while those with million-dollar homes paid a third less than average. Nationwide, the Times added, “from 2007 to 2016, homes in the bottom 10 percent of property values in a given county were taxed, on average, at an effective rate that was twice as high as the rate for homes in the top 10 percent of property values.”

Minicozzi ran the numbers for San Antonio. In Alamo Heights—a well-to-do, majority White neighborhood—under-assessment benefitted more than a third of the area’s homeowners. By contrast, in the Southside neighborhood, which is heavily Latinx, nearly half (48 percent) of residents were over-assessed. Current practice, Minicozzi said, is “tantamount to redlining applied in our assessment system.” Achieving economic justice, Minicozzi added, requires “doing the math,” so that the tax system supports, rather than impedes, the building of wealth in communities of color.

The Role of Faith Communities

As noted above, members from faith communities played a major role in the gathering. Indeed, the primary local host of the convening was the Travis Park Church, located in the heart of downtown San Antonio. Of course, churches, mosques, and synagogues can be vital partners in a range of community building strategies, but at this year’s gathering, a key area of focus was on mobilizing the assets of faith-based institutions.

As speakers at the conference acknowledged, many downtown faith-based institutions are far from thriving. But that struggle, speakers suggested, also holds opportunity.

“The real estate is not the hard part. The hard part is getting that new narrative and vision of what is possible.”

The Rev. Lisa Greenwood, president and CEO of Wesleyan Impact Partners, put it this way. “The tsunami has come and now there are far fewer inhabited church buildings in our neighborhoods.” She asked panelists what could be done in this situation.

The Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams, who is a pastor of Bethel Church in Morristown, NJ, responded, “If you’re in a building that has deferred maintenance with an old furnace where you have 10 members on Sunday and it seats 2,000 and all of the budget goes to maintenance,” maintaining the mission requires imagining a different building function. For example: “We could renovate the kitchen and feed the homeless.” Williams added that “Churches can live, even thrive, if they are willing to consider adaptive use.”

Earlier in the conference, the Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggan, who is executive director of the United Church of Christ’s Church Building and Loan Fund, made a similar observation. “Imagine, if in this season of drastic change, we could get churches to realize the values they generate. Unlock it by being more connected with what’s happening in community. That is what we spend a lot of time doing. We train 200 or 300 churches a year. We try to help churches see a different reality, to tell a different story. The real estate is not the hard part. The hard part is getting that new narrative and vision of what is possible if we do something different that is missional and impactful.”

The scale could be significant, as a new book called Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition details. As editor Mark Elsdon, a cofounder of Rooted Good, writes in his introduction, “as many as 100,000 buildings, and billions of dollars of church-owned property, are expected to be sold or repurposed throughout the United States by 2030.”

“To control your destiny, you’ve got to control the dirt.”

A Community Ownership Strategy in San Antonio Begins

In San Antonio, a 40-organization coalition has come together to form ESTAR West—estar means “to be” in Spanish and is an acronym for Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses Thriving Alongside Residents—is seeking to build a community-based wealth building strategy in a four-square-mile area centered on the city’s Westside Latinx business community. The initiative seeks to combine business development and support with neighborhood preservation, housing development, and cultural work.

Often community development conferences show off projects. But here the goal was focused on information sharing and learning. Ramiro Gonzales, CEO of Prosper West, one of the ESTAR West coalition partners, noted that the coalition was “just starting to put together” a land acquisition fund. He hoped to learn from others at the conference that were developing community-owned real estate projects, such as Kensington Corridor Trust in Philadelphia.

The San Antonio coalition has great visions. This includes the goal of creating a community land trust. But the team knows that they have their political and economic organizing work cut out for them. In conference workshops and at a site visit, the challenges were clear. Damien Goodmon, an organizer on the board of Downtown Crenshaw Rising in Los Angeles, called out the displacement risk and advised fast action.

Gonzales said he was proud of the business support infrastructure that was being built. Still, he said he was very aware of how fragile progress based on technical assistance can be. “We can do all the work we want around servicing families or businesses,” he observed. “But if they get taxed out, all of that is diminished.”

“To control your destiny,” Gonzales concluded, “you’ve got to control the dirt.”