Friday, December 11, 2015

Developers leave San Antonio families few choices

The problem suffered by County Commissioner Kevin Wolff and his wife Sandi is not likely to bring tears to the eyes of many.

But when I read of their sad plight in the San Antonio Express-News, I could feel their pain.

They want to downsize now that they have, mainly, lost several members of the household.

His mother lived with them, but has died.

The two dogs are gone and his brother took the two cats.

Their daughter Sydney is off at college.

That’s why I say “mainly.”

College students still live with their parents part-time.

And even after they graduate, it may be years before you’re really sure they’re gone.

But Kevin and Sandi no longer need either the space or the upkeep of a 4,600-square-foot ranch house on a half acre with a swimming pool.

They want to downsize.

Their problem is this: They are a two-politician family.

He’s a county commissioner. She’s is a member of the North East Independent School Board.

They both must live in the areas they represent, but those areas don’t largely overlap.

In total, they have about 4.5 square miles to choose from.

And virtually none of those square miles include what they want — her ideal of a “tiny” two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot abode she would love, or the somewhat larger 2- or 3-bedroom house he fancies.  

Both say they’d like a condo with a more urban feel.

But that’s not the way America has been building its suburbs for the last half century.

We have delighted in uniformity.

Massive subdivisions may go “from the $250,000s,” but they don’t go too far from whatever number they are advertising.

Developers decided people in big houses didn’t want to live near people in medium-sized houses.

And people in medium-sized houses didn’t want to live next to people in small houses.

And nobody wanted to live next to people in apartments.

The reason I feel the Wolff’s pain is that I have been lucky enough to know what they are missing.

My wife and I both moved into what came to be known as “Baja King William” as young renters before we could afford to buy houses.

We lived a hundred yards apart but wouldn’t meet until years later.

When we married, we bought a small, two-bedroom starter home and fixed it up.

It was perfect for us and our first child.

But when a second child came along, we got a good buy on a 4,000 square-foot house that turned 100 years old the year after we bought it.

It was about 150 yards away from our starter house.

We sold it when we moved to Houston for an interlude.

When we came back, one of our daughters was in college, the other out and working.

We were, like the Wolffs, ready to downsize.

So we bought a 2,200 square-foot loft carved out of an old furniture warehouse — the equivalent of about four blocks from the big house we had left.

So to recap, we began our marriage with a modest starter home.

When our family and our income grew, we moved into a large family house.

When the girls were — mainly — out of the house, we downsized to a loft.

All within a four-block radius. 

What’s more, while we were in the starter house, my in-laws retired from a job in Indonesia and bought a nice house on King William Street to be near what was then their only grandchild.

And that daughter, now a young adult, lives in an apartment about five blocks from us.

That’s what I call a neighborhood with family values.

It features a variety of housing, allowing several generations in various stages of life to live within walking distance of each other.

King William isn’t the only area that provides such choices.

Alamo Heights does also.

So, for those with a more limited budget, do such neighborhoods as the Jefferson area.

But few suburbs of the past 50 years do.

In some cities, suburbs with mixed housing are being built.

They are going back to the future. San Antonio developers, please take note.

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