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How Teri Castillo Plans to Protect San Antonio From ‘Salivating’ Housing Developers

The housing advocate’s run for city council could be a Texan litmus test for the broad appeal of policies popular with working class voters.

Teri Castillo

Teri Castillo, a historian, housing advocate, and candidate for San Antonio’s City Council representing the Fifth District, is determined to protect her neighborhood and its residents from developers.

“Real estate and big business are salivating at what they want to do with District 5,” Castillo told The Appeal, noting that redevelopment projects typically require the mass displacement of residents. 

“The more I kept getting out [as an organizer], I was like, oh, crap, the next person will have the ability to vote against a lot of this,” Castillo said. The “this” Castillo is referring to is what she describes as a hostile city bureaucracy seemingly intent on gentrification at the expense of residents, many of whom are her friends and neighbors. 

Castillo is running to represent District 5, a historically poor neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side. Her platform centers housing, public safety, and environmental protection as ways to reverse the “political erosion” of community power in city government.

“Community folks, especially in District 5, we’ve always been active, we’ve always shown up and given our opinion, we’ve participated in meetings,” said Castillo, 29. “But when it comes to leadership, there’s always been that lack of political will to implement what the people want.”

The lifelong San Antonio resident, whose parents and grandparents all called the city home, is part of a continuing movement from the left to assert itself electorally around the nation. Victories at the federal level—particularly from “The Squad,” four prominent women of color in Congress who have championed policies addressing climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and cancelling student loan debt—have helped spark the candidacies of a new generation of Democrats who are focused on everyday people. 

Texas has had no shelter from those winds of change. Despite its long reputation for leaning Republican, the Lone Star State is increasingly seen as a potential battleground for Democrats. Castillo’s run could be a hyperlocal litmus test for the broad appeal of policies popular with working class voters. 

Last month, the Black and Latinx advocacy group Texas Organizing Project (TOP) endorsed Castillo, who has volunteered with the group. Bryan Ramirez, a board member from Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, called Castillo “an active voice in our community for years” who would be a “progressive champion” for the district because of her work as a housing advocate in District 5, where more than 90 percent of residents are Hispanic.

“She knows what communities of color are having to endure in this moment, and TOP members are eager to see her serve,” Ramirez said.

The story of District 5 is the same as many council areas across America. It is a food desert where many residents lack internet access. Developers have their eyes on the neighborhood for redevelopment and thus gentrification, community members told The Appeal. District 5 is also poor. With an average yearly income of approximately $14,000—the lowest of any San Antonio district—residents are watching a growing city with a booming economy leave them behind. 

The district has always been seen as the “bad side of town,” said Graciela Sanchez, a community organizer who runs San Antonio’s Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. That’s partly because of systemic, institutional issues that have gone unaddressed, contributing to poverty and low wages. So all it takes is one moment, one thing that costs too much, one bill that can’t be paid, and people in District 5 are on the street, said Sanchez. It’s hard to recover from that. 

“Then you’re out of a job, you’re out of healthcare, you’re out, you know, you’re out in the streets,” Sanchez said. 

District 5 is literally, Castillo agreed, an example of the wrong side of the tracks: “Completely different infrastructure and quality of housing, even a heavier police presence, depending on which side of the train tracks you were on.” As a result, she said, the neighborhood—which has “great real estate, great use of downtown transportation, good food”—is a target for developers, and policy that helps residents is thus hard to come by.

Castillo’s housing policies would change that. If elected, she’s hoping to push for millions in existing federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds to be allocated to owner-occupied rehabilitation projects, the expansion of affordable housing stock, and robust public oversight of housing around the city so that those with fewer resources are not overwhelmed by legal and institutional challenges.

Decisions about the District 5 neighborhood are largely made by powerful people out of touch with the needs of residents and who have a view of the district that’s not based in living there, according to Sanchez, who described city government as “apartheid San Antonio.” 

“It’s majority people of color, majority Mexican, Mexican-American,” Sanchez said, referring to District 5, “and yet it’s still run by white men that control the city.” 

The City Council is made up of 10 members representing 10 numbered districts and acts as the city’s legislative body, writing local laws, appointing city officials, and providing oversight of the mayor’s office. San Antonio’s population is about two-thirds Hispanic and less than a quarter white, and the council reflects that diversity; there are six women and two Latinx men serving. District 5’s current council member, Shirley Gonzales, who has reached her term limit, is Latinx. (Castillo and 10 other candidates are competing to take her place in the May election, while more than 60 people are facing off for the remaining council seats.) 

But the power behind the council is rooted in the city’s business interests, Sanchez said, making the decisions that affect the district under the control of people who don’t have the neighborhood’s best interests in mind. 

For District 5 housing activist Kayla Miranda, Castillo represents something different. “She cares about the neighborhood so much, she loves this community,” said Miranda. 

Miranda and Castillo have worked side by side since late 2019, providing training sessions for residents on how to navigate housing challenges and educating them via teach-ins on their rights in an effort to protect them from powerful interests who want to profit off the neighborhood.

Castillo graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in history and followed up with a master’s in 2019. To her, the journey from historian of urban policy, urbanization, and metropolitan history to housing advocate was a natural one. 

“Understanding past laws and policies that have shaped space, perpetuating systems of inequality, and how they continue to get refashioned under the guise of progress, has motivated me to advocate strongly for communities,” she told The Appeal.

In order to reverse decades of policy that has concentrated poverty in the city’s urban core, Castillo said, San Antonio needs to work on decentralizing public housing and create a city where poor residents have a stake in the conversation rather than being shuffled from one place to another via voucher systems—which community activists say many landlords around the city simply do not take. 

“It’s important that communities be part of the policymaking process not only to hold our elected officials accountable, but to ensure that that policy gets pushed forward,” Castillo said. 

Castillo is part of a growing cohort of political hopefuls around the country, like mayoral candidates Michelle Wu in Boston and Scott Stringer in New York, who support Green New Deal-style policies for their cities. Castillo’s platform explicitly calls for addressing the climate crisis, urging investment in rain and stormwater catchment programs to utilize and protect natural resources and create green jobs. She came out in support of a Green New Deal for Housing in a June 2020 opinion piece. 

“Retrofitting and decarbonizing public housing, homes, and buildings into safe, sustainable, and truly affordable housing will create much-needed demand for employment opportunities, uplifting our communities and workers,” Castillo wrote in the San Antonio Report.

The winter storm that walloped Texas with snow and below-freezing temperatures from Feb. 13-17 highlighted the issues of inequality and poor management across the state. But the crisis facing San Antonians was exacerbated by poor city services: Buses weren’t running, and a warming station only opened days after the storm and days into the bitter cold. 

Community activists with Historic Westside Residents Association—including Castillo, who has been a member of the group since 2019—concentrated on mutual aid and in-district solutions to the storm. Volunteers delivered food to hungry residents and blankets to make sure people were warm. 

People in the city were still dealing with the after-effects of the storm when Castillo spoke to The Appeal on Feb. 23. The temperatures that shut down the power grid in Texas burst pipes around the state, and the damage shifted home foundations. Help for residents was coming, but slowly.

Castillo’s frustration over the city government’s lack of response remains, however. 

“It’s just the lack of planning, the lack of just not giving a shit about constituents—waiting till the water’s off and seniors in a building need to be evacuated in the midst of the crisis when the weather is below 30, it’s just it’s infuriating that the city leadership fails to act,” Castillo said. 

“This was a once in a lifetime disaster,” Castillo said. “But climate change is very real and temperatures are only going to get hotter and colder.”

Miranda said the current political environment in Texas could lend itself to something of a political revolution for the state. “People are starting to notice, hey, stuff is not happening the way it’s supposed to happen here,” said Miranda. 

Sanchez agreed, calling Castillo’s run part of a “national trend” moving local, state, and federal politics to the left irrespective of party, even in places like Texas. “I think we’ve had a lot of leaders that were seen as crazy, as just people to be ignored and we just keep on becoming stronger and stronger,” said Sanchez.

Texas Organizing Project, announced its backing of Castillo for City Council, saying in a statement that the group views the candidate as having “what it takes to enact bold, progressive policy solutions that will lift up our communities.”

But to Miranda, it’s Castillo’s interest in using power for residents, not for self gain, that makes her so suited to wield it for the district. 

“She isn’t doing it because she deserves to be in the public eye,” Miranda said. “She’s doing it because someone has to protect this neighborhood. And who better to protect it than the people that are already doing so every single day?”

As someone who never planned to run for an elected office, Castillo has framed her campaign as part of a community push for good government. The District 5 seat needs to be in the hands of an ally of, and be one of, the people who are directly affected by City Council decision-making, she said.

“We’re tired of platitudes and we’re tired of feel-good, fluffy language,” said Castillo. “We’re ready to hear answers and meaningful change, and we’re ready to see action.”