In her efficiency apartment at Soapworks downtown, Cruz R. Soto, 65, sleeps on a mattress made from cardboard boxes. Her caretaker, Daniel Moreno, collected them from Poblanos on Main, a Tex-Mex restaurant a 10-minute walk away, where he works. He zip tied the flattened boxes to a metal frame. The whole contraption is covered with a mattress topper and a red plaid blanket. Soto’s slept this way for a year. Many mornings she wakes up in debilitating pain.
Moreno, 50, rigged the makeshift mattress to combat an infestation of bedbugs that had sent her to the hospital. Insects, including roaches, began scurrying into Soapworks when construction started in January 2017 on the $175 million renovation of San Pedro Creek, which runs behind the complex.
“Where are we going to live? Where will we end up as human beings?” — Cruz R. Soto, 65, Soapworks resident
When she visited the emergency room, Soto was told to move by the doctor, but she knew that would be next to impossible. Soapworks is one of the few affordable apartment complexes downtown, for now. The property’s affordability is in jeopardy because of its recent sale and the creek project behind it. The new owners are sprucing up the apartments, which, along with the creek, are likely to attract more affluent residents.
Some time after construction started on the creek, San Pedro Creek Limited, Soapworks’ owner from the 1980s until the recent sale in October, sprayed for bedbugs. The next morning, after getting off his second job as a caterer at the AT&T Center, Moreno found Soto asleep, feet from where the maintenance crew had left pesticide and little brown corpses behind.
“Why couldn’t they have done this to me when I was younger and could work and walk?” Soto asked in regards to her current housing struggles.
Soto, a retired hairdresser of 38 years, receives $888 a month through Social Security ($450 of that goes to rent). She suffers from two bad knees, hearing loss and diabetes. She was already trying to figure out how she could purchase new hearing aids, which go for around $2,000, and pay for 20 percent of the cost of her second knee replacement, her copay for the procedure.
In October, the Barvin Group, a Houston-based development firm, purchased Soapworks and its sister properties — Soapworks 2 and Towne Center — and imposed a $20 monthly pest and trash fee. But Soto says she’s never seen pest control at the property, and neither has more than 10 Soapworks residents Folo Media has interviewed.
Soto has stretched her already strained budget to include the new fee and over-the-counter pesticide from the store, but that doesn’t seem to help. She started this month with less than $2 in her bank account. After paying her living expenses, which include $30 for clothes to replace the ones infested with bedbugs and a $13 renters insurance fee newly imposed by management, she will have about $11.
In Soto’s bathroom, there is a rat hole under the sink. The string to turn on the bedroom overhead light has broken so she has to plug and unplug it from the wall to control it. The previous management installed a window AC unit in a nook above her dresser, but didn’t give her a remote. Again, she uses the power cord to control it, but she has to wait for Moreno to turn it on every day because she can’t reach to plug it in herself.
When the rehab started at Soapworks, crews sprayed water into her unit while pressure washing, then filled the room with paint fumes when they spray painted her door without warning, she said.
She said she was given no notice when roofing work was happening, so she walked out one day and was almost pummeled by a falling tool, but Moreno sprinted after her and yanked her out of the way. She had been unable to hear the workers warnings, because she is hard of hearing. So, she placed a cardboard sign outside of her door that reads “Hearing impaired, knock hard to hear,” hoping that workers would read it. Instead, people began knocking on Soto’s door all hours of the night, for no reason.
“Here I am struggling to pay my rent, trying to live, you know,” Soto said. “I can’t afford a lot, hardly a mattress … If I could pay more (in rent), maybe (management) would help me.”
Since the beginning of the year, Soapworks residents have hosted three meetings to discuss their fears about displacement. Last Sunday, they invited District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño to listen to their concerns.
“Know that the city is behind you,” Treviño told the group, as he conducted a question and answer session with them in both English and Spanish. Later he said, “Safety is paramount. We won’t stand for unsafe housing.”
Treviño has ordered code enforcement to check on the properties every week. So far inspectors have found no violations, but they have stopped to speak with workers about safety practices several times, Treviño said.
The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, spearheaded by Bexar County, has promised to turn the former concrete-lined drainage ditch into something of a second River Walk. Twenty-four hour construction has started along the Soapworks part of the creek, several residents said. (The project is scheduled to be unveiled in late May.) Residents feel that displacement is imminent, based on management’s stated goal to create “middle-class” housing, and Soapworks’ rising property value.
Capstone Real Estate Services, Inc., the management firm hired by the Barvin Group, confirmed to Folo Media that they have no current plans to force any residents to leave. They told the same thing to the city’s Department of Human Services, Treviño said.
Until management confirms that there will be displacement, Treviño’s hands are tied. He tried to secure funds to help the residents move through the Department of Human Services, but couldn’t because the tenants are not being forced out at this time. He is looking to help residents find new affordable housing, but he can’t dictate what Soapworks, a privately-owned complex, charges for rent.
When Soapworks was purchased in October, the new owners quietly updated the web page to show significantly higher prices for the various floor plans. Then, they began renovating empty units, and the outside, as well. Though, many residents say the work that’s being done is akin to putting lipstick on a pig — they might have newly spray-painted mud brown doors, but only one of two of the washers and dryers in the communal laundry room work.
Capstone is attempting to paint a scene similar to the gas crisis last summer — it is not a crisis yet, but fear from the residents is causing a lot of unneeded trouble. The residents feel an exodus is coming, and are in the position to possibly stop a situation like what happened at Mission Trails, when 300 residents were displaced in 2014 to make room for luxury apartments.
“The only thing that is going to happen to me is that I’m going to have to leave San Antonio,” Soto said at the meeting. “So, what can San Antonio offer me?”
Treviño offered residents access to support services from his office, such as translating documents from English to Spanish, making copies, and even having city lawyers read leases, while he looks into their situation.
When May rolls around, many residents feel like they will not be around to see the grand opening of the creek, nor the Tricentennial celebration. There is a Tricentennial event for the creek that will kick off just feet from Soapworks, behind the adjacent Christopher Columbus Italian Society in a old parking lot that is believed to be the original site of San Antonio’s first mission, San Antonio de Valero (currently known as the Alamo).
The residents say the event should be for them, the long-standing neighborhood members who have made this area what it is. Instead, they said, it will likely be fill with gentrifiers.
Soto has shopped around for other housing options, but none of the low-income or senior living centers she has tried will take her. Either they require her to make two or three times the rent or they have 2-7 year waiting lists. Soto said she would spend an extra $100 in rent on a better place somewhere else — giving up small pleasures like going out every once in a while, and scaling back on groceries. So far, she has not found that opportunity.
“Where are we going to live?” Soto asked at the meeting. “Where will we end up as human beings?”