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Montopolis Battle Lines

Neighborhood dispute lingers after council approves housing project

By Elizabeth Pagano, Fri., Oct. 26, 2012

Site of a planned affordable housing project in the Montopolis neighborhood
Site of a planned affordable housing project in the Montopolis neighborhood

From its beginning last summer, it was clear that the fight over a proposed affordable housing development in Montopolis, La Estancia Del Rio, had the potential to turn ugly. In the months since then, it delivered on that promise. The case won council support at the Oct. 18 meeting and is unlikely to return. But the community – where a thick line was drawn between longtime, mostly Latino residents who supported the project, and newer, mostly white residents who opposed it – remains sharply divided.

"We need to make sure our property values go up," reads a letter from Caitlin Harris-Moore, President of the Frontera Montana HOA, and Kai Jai Conner, representing the Arbors at Riverside Condo­min­iums. The letter, addressed to Montopolis and Riverside residents, stresses the need for "higher quality retail" and higher income residents in the area.

Susana Almanza, head of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, brandished the letter at City Council, pointing to claims that the development would add another 15 police incidents per month and fears that only an estimated 30% of the student population would speak English, overburdening the school system. With heated rhetoric like that, it's not hard to see how the discussion quickly veered off track from the normal discussions of impervious cover and into much more uncomfortable territory.

"I think these comments border on racism, and classism," said Almanza. "Because we basically have a white group of people who moved into the Frontera Montana, a subdivision that's affordable – which I think is very ironic. We welcomed them into the community. We embraced them, but then they turn around and say 'we don't want more affordable housing.'"

In the last contact team meeting before the case headed to council, the conflict reached a fever pitch, with accusations from both sides of bringing in ringers to vote on the issue, and of children voting. The paler side of the argument found themselves in the position of decrying the participation of "basketball players" in the vote – saying they had been specifically recruited on the spot – apparently tone-deaf to the cringe-worthy sound of specifically calling out nameless basketball players in a discussion that was already so racialized.

Longtime neighborhood activists Pam Thompson and her husband, Stefan Wray, claim they were the target of racial slurs at that Oct. 4 meeting, and were taunted with accusations that they were white trash and "lived in a cardboard shack." Thompson, who sat on the contact team's executive committee, resigned on the spot. (Almanza says she was going to be asked to resign anyway, due to poor attendance.) Vice Chair Larry Gross also resigned, although he made it clear that he was not taking sides in the fight.

Also attempting to stay out of the fray: City Council. Though several council members alluded to the trouble in Montopolis in their closing remarks, during their hour's worth of discussion on the development they remained myopically fixated on issues of connectivity, diving into the minutiae of road placement and the viability of removing planned gates. Leaving the discussion of the wider controversy for another day, council voted – unanimously – to approve the development.

"We're very concerned about the concentration of poverty," says Conner, who spoke on behalf of the 42 residents of The Arbors at Riverside. She points to the fact that there are already 712 affordable housing units within a half-mile of the proposed development. But Amelia Lopez, of MWM DesignGroup, bristles at the notion that La Estancia Del Rio will be a haven of poverty or increase crime. She says the average family of four at the 252-unit development will earn about $44,000, and calls the opposition's categorization of the people who will live there "insulting." The rental units will be built by the venerable Cesar Chavez Foundation and are intended to transition families into home-ownership, and the complex will feature free after-school tutoring for school-aged residents.

Those who opposed the development pointed as well to its lack of compliance with the not-yet-passed East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan, which is scheduled to go before council in early November. The plan will create a new zoning district, the East Riverside Corridor, making most of the properties subject to new form-based code intended to ensure that new development is more pedestrian friendly.

Almanza says her neighborhood has already seen the impact of the regulating plan. She invites anyone to see what's in store by looking at the new development at I-35 and East Riverside – which came at a cost, she says, in the form of 1,700 lost affordable housing units in the East Riverside Corridor.

"Montopolis is a poor, working-class community, and we've seen what's happened in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, the Holly neighborhood. So, we're like, 'We're the next stage.' We could be displaced from our homes, where we've lived for decades," said Almanza. "We're really afraid. We're afraid of high taxes, of being moved farther east over 183, if we don't get affordable housing in the area."

In the aftermath, Harris-Moore found herself in her front yard, wondering how the neighborhood would proceed. She said she hoped that by earlier participation in future discussions, her opinion would carry more weight with the old guard. "It seemed a lot of it came down to race, and that was disheartening," said Harris-Moore. "It's the saddest part to me."

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