Leonard Walker, 57, and his wife Trelina remember living in Wheatley Courts for five years without central air or a washer and dryer. In 2013, they left their home when they learned of the U.S. government’s plan to demolish the outdated and notorious courts and erect, in their place, new apartments.
Now, the Walkers are back — renting a unit in the new complex called East Meadows, a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments on the East Side, about two miles from downtown. And they believe they’re living the high-life.
“Man, I don’t have to walk or deal with change — and all that — anymore,” Walker said referring to the washer and dryer that came with the unit.
The closest laundromat to East Meadows is Nora Washateria on North New Braunfels Street, more than a half-mile from the complex. East Meadows residents no longer have to drive or walk that distance carrying baskets of clothing to do laundry.
The revamped area is tranquil. The occasional sounds of hammering and drilling come from nearby construction — harbingers of East Meadows’ upcoming phases.
When school starts in a couple of weeks, students from Wheatley Middle School, which abuts East Meadows to the north, will fill the sidewalks. For now, kids toss the football around in the school’s field and play basketball at a nearby court during the last days of summer.
More security cameras and hourly security patrols on the property are bonuses for former Wheatley Courts residents who had wished for a safer environment.
“It was gunshots, fighting, gunshots, fighting,” Walker said. “I’ve seen homeboys and homegirls get killed.”
In 2012, San Antonio received a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The mission was to demolish the decaying Wheatley Courts and build a safe, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood in its place. This neighborhood is part of a four-square-mile area known as EastPoint, where other federal dollars are paying for educational, workforce training and safety programs.
The Choice Neighborhood grant has funded a large portion of the massive revitalization effort at East Meadows, which includes participation from the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. The San Antonio Housing Authority is overseeing the project.
Experts say it’s premature to tell if East Meadows has achieved its lofty goals, but tangible, more immediate, improvements can be seen. Residents, like Walker, agree.
“When I tell people where I live now, they say ‘Oh, at Wheatley Courts?’ and I reply ‘Nah, it’s East Meadows. Wheatley Courts is dead now’.”
By February 2014, 205 residents had been displaced from Wheatley Courts, which were being razed so that construction could begin on the new community. They were forced to find other means of housing until the project’s first phases were finished; this scattered them across 12 school districts.
By this time, SAHA had hired a national group called Urban Strategies to step in and help the residents in their transition. Alicia Walter, senior program manager, handled all of the cases — she still does — assisting residents with financial, educational, workforce, childcare and transportation needs.
Now that parts of East Meadows are built, some of the former Wheatley Courts residents have decided to return. Another 171 former residents have stayed away for various reasons, Walter said.
“Some wanted to stay where they were because of schools; some had family in those areas,” Walter said. “Others didn’t want to give up their Section 8 voucher (which some obtained after Wheatley). They liked the ability to choose where they live.”
Of the 215 units planned for the initial phase, 186 have been completed (140 are leased). The units are a mix of affordable housing and market-rate units.
Residents who qualify for affordable housing units pay 30 percent of their monthly household income in rent. Market-rate prices for one-bedroom, one-bath apartments start at $799; three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouses start at $999.
As of July 22, 68 public housing units have been finished — 61 are occupied and 34 of those units are tenanted by former Wheatley Courts residents, Walter said.
There will be 414 total units once the project is completed. The first phase is composed of 215 units (already mentioned), second phase 80 senior living units, and the third phase 119 units. Walter said 228 units of the total will be affordable housing to match the amount Wheatley Courts offered.
The first residents moved into East Meadows at the end of December, Walter said.
The biggest question: Has the Choice Neighborhood project lived up to expectations?
Dr. Christine Drennon, a Trinity University professor who has studied the Choice Neighborhood initiative, said that it will take years, not months, to fully assess East Meadows’ impact. She notes that upgrades such as sidewalks, streets and lighting have made an impact already.
“A quantifiable impact cannot be seen yet,” Drennon said. “East Meadows is still in its first phase and isn’t even fully occupied. But the people moving in are happy with their units and the biggest things they express is that they’re low income people living in a big, beautiful development.”
Drennon said the fact that the local, state and federal government are willing to make investments, like the Choice grant, in these underdeveloped areas has a tremendous impact on families living there.
“The East Side has been neglected for generations and now public money is coming to improve it,” Drennon said. “Now families and residents are thinking, ‘OK, we matter.’ It’s symbolic, not quantifiable.”
Jackie Dixon, 54, lived in and around the Wheatley Courts area with her family for a large portion of her life. Dixon and her sister Laronda Price, 44, were sitting on collapsible armchairs — the kind ubiquitous at tailgate parties — outside of Dixon’s new unit in East Meadows.
“It wasn’t an area based on gangs, it was based on family,” Price said. “Instead of looking from the outside in, you needed to look from the inside out.”
When Wheatley Courts was demolished, Dixon and Price moved in with family living nearby.
The sisters spoke highly of their time at Wheatley Courts, but acknowledged that it had a negative connotation within the city because people didn’t take the time to get to know those who lived there.
“It was a family thing,” Dixon added speaking of the culture she grew up around. “Some people got it all wrong. We looked out for each other.”
Not all residents shared Dixon and Price’s feelings. Residents like Walker, and Monica De La Rosa, 30, believe the former neighborhood was dangerous.
De La Rosa has lived at East Meadows since April with her husband Jimmy and their two daughters Abbie, 8, and Emily, 7, in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse. She had lived in Wheatley Courts for more than a year and said she heard gunshots or witnessed people fighting or arguing in the street on a daily basis.
In 2014, De La Rosa was relocated to Section 8 housing at the New Riviera Apartments on the Southeast side with help from Urban Strategies. Urban Strategies gave her $1,200 to help pay for the move, she said. The period away from Wheatley Courts went well for De La Rosa until an incident involving a shooting caused her to break her lease. She was concerned for the safety of her and her family.
When East Meadows opened, Urban Strategies helped her move back, once again paying for the move with another $1,200 check and making sure all of her paperwork was in order.
So far, De La Rosa is on the fence about the area. On one hand, the neighborhood is safer and overall nicer — a positive for her and her girls. On the other hand, she believes the rules are too strict, and she’s had poor experiences with maintenance.
Rain and pipe damage have caused leaks, which drip into her bedroom when it rains.
She reported the issues to the office and maintenance came out to inspect the problem, but didn’t act immediately, according to De La Rosa, who still had the issues in June. In early July, the water pipe had burst in her upstairs bathroom, leaking water into her kitchen below and damaging the ceiling in between. De La Rosa said because the incident happened on a Saturday, maintenance couldn’t fix the issue until Monday.
She said the problem was not fixed properly and was only covered up. The damaged area is still noticeable — lines and newer paint can be seen if looked at from the right angle.
McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS) manages the property and all maintenance work at East Meadows. Any leaks or other issues in the unit are reported to MBS, but the general contractor, Sullivan Land Services (SLS), is responsible for fixing the issues because the units are still under warranty.
“We have to follow the warranty process,” said Cady Seabaugh, vice president of communications for MBS. “(We) have to make sure it’s not a (problem) common to all buildings.”
Seabaugh said roofing has one kind of warranty and different situations fall under different guarantees. Seabaugh said residents like De La Rosa are supposed to be aware of the process, and was told it was explained to her.
Ants have also been a problem, De La Rosa said.
Also, residents aren’t allowed to smoke on the property, and there are noise restrictions, she said. De La Rosa said security has given her a violation for cleaning out her vehicle in front of her unit, and was told she had to do it across the street.
Despite the problems De La Rosa has had, she says the community and the units are an improvement over Wheatley Courts.
“I haven’t seen any crime or violence,” she said. “You used to see it every day in the streets at Wheatley.”
Walker has been in East Meadows over the last two months and has enjoyed every minute of it. His front porch is set up with two foldable chairs with a small table between them. Underneath the chairs are two small fans that keep him and his wife cool when sitting outside in the summer heat.
Some residents have taken to decorating the outside of their units more than others: Welcome mats, signs, plants or wind chimes can be spotted outside every other unit. One or two units have “no trespassing” signs displayed in their front windows — a possible habit carried over from Wheatley Courts.
The neighborhood is almost eerie in a Twilight Zone type of way. One minute the area imbues age with unkempt homes and in the next minute, brand new apartments and townhouses are seen.
The Spanish-style townhouses are brown and tan with their stucco exterior, curved roof tiles and small balconies. The apartments are three stories. Some resemble the townhouses, while others have somewhat of a craftsman style to them — wooden siding, white trim around the windows and white wooden patio railings.
Walker said a big change like East Meadows is what the East Side needs.
“If you can change the old, people will change with it,” he said.
Walker emphasized the importance of keeping East Meadows clean and safe, out of fear of the community falling back to the old days of Wheatley Courts.
“We gotta do our part, we can’t treat our homes bad and tear them up,” Walker said. “You gotta get off your ass to get help. If you’re thirsty, you think that glass of water is gonna come to you? You gotta go get it.”