Around 2,000 public housing units in San Antonio don’t have air conditioning; city hopes to change that

FILE – Petra Delarosa (right) and her nephew, Roque L. Resendez, sit on her porch at the Alazan Courts public housing complex. Most of the complex’s concrete buildings have no central air conditioning.

Diego Bernal was at a meeting last summer with Beacon Hill Elementary School parents when he heard someone mention their family’s public housing apartment — run by the San Antonio Housing Authority — didn’t have air conditioning.

The state representative and former city councilman assumed their AC unit must have been broken, but the person clarified that they didn’t have any air conditioning at all.

In a city that had 27 days last year that surpassed 100 degrees, Bernal said, that’s unacceptable.

“I said, ‘you’re (expletive) kidding me,’” Bernal said. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

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He started looking into the issue and discovered it was more common than most would have guessed. As many as 2,500 of SAHA’s 6,000 public housing units don’t provide air conditioning, according to the agency. An unknown number of residents have procured their own appliances, but one third of those affected are elderly or disabled — “the most vulnerable among us,” Bernal pointed out.

The city is closer to rectifying the situation at Bernal’s request. He and Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni forged a partnership between the city, SAHA and philanthropist Gordon Hartman to put $1.4 million into making sure those apartments get window air conditioning units before summer. Most of the public investment would come from redirected federal grants.

A City Council committee unanimously approved the plan Wednesday; the full council is expected to vote March 21.

“It’s not even a quality-of-life issue, it’s a life issue,” Bernal told the Express-News. He said the lack of air conditioning in public housing raises questions about public health and dignity in a place like South Texas.

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Pastor Jimmy Drennan of St. Margaret Mary Church on the Southeast Side said he’s witnessed the effects at the nearby Fair Avenue Apartments, a high-rise SAHA property directly across from his church.

“Unfortunately they struggle with that all the time,” he said. “Many times they come to the church to try to stay cool.”

David Nisivoccia, SAHA’s chief executive officer and president, said the agency was aware of the issue but consistently faces a dearth of resources. The agency’s last physical needs assessment indicated close to $500 million of necessary improvements.

“It’s very difficult to manage an aging portfolio that requires such investment when we only received … $11 million a year,” he said. “Our first priority usually are life safety items.”

Bernal’s project had the support of all five council committee members Wednesday.

The city would redirect grants it gets from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to devote $500,000 to the cause. SAHA would chip in $500,000 from its own HUD grants and other resources, and Hartman’s philanthropic venture would provide the rest.

“It’s not often in these jobs that we get to do something that really changes someone’s life, day-to-day,” Bernal said, “and I think this could do that.”

dylan.mcguinness@express-news.net

Dylan McGuinness covers City Hall and local politics in San Antonio. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | dylan.mcguinness@express-news.net | Twitter: @DylMcGuinness

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