- Interview by
- Alex Birnel
Teri Castillo is a rising star in Texas progressive politics, part of a new generation of elected officials in the state who side unabashedly with the organized left. A first term San Antonio City Councilwoman in San Antonio’s working-class District 5, Castillo is also a University of Texas at San Antonio master’s graduate in urban history, a Burbank High School alum, a housing organizer, and a recreational boxer.
Since being elected to city council, Castillo has fought against gentrification and for public investment in goods and services, and she has often been spotted on the picket line. She sat down with Jacobin contributor Alex Birnel for some reflections on her first term as she heads into a bid for reelection.
During your first term on the San Antonio City Council, you haven’t been shy about showing pride in San Antonio’s West Side, the community at the heart of District 5. What has the West Side taught you, and how do you bring these lessons into the city council?
The West Side’s District 5 is San Antonio’s most economically poor city council district. We’ve been marginalized and divested from, but we also have a history organizing — whether it’s for educational access or quality housing, communities here have always fought back. In keeping with that history, and with many of the leaders of those struggles still active today, the West Side is still here fighting for water quality, public housing, and access to public spaces.
What the West Side has taught me is that the struggle continues. There’s been folks doing this work for decades, generations, and they’ve been able to secure big wins. The powers that be make it a challenge to secure justice on a large scale, but it’s not impossible. As long as you’re on the ground with the community and leading from the bottom up, you can secure huge victories for the community. And that’s what we’ve been able to do as an office in our first term.
We’ve brought historic public investment to District 5, despite it coming with a lot of opposition. It took a lot of debate, but ultimately we secured what we needed for our constituents.
You’re a housing justice organizer who cut her political teeth fighting against the demolition and gentrification of one of the city’s oldest public housing projects. What was that fight? Who did you organize? And what forces were aligned against you?
The city of San Antonio isn’t unique in that we’re experiencing land speculation, predatory real estate practices, and private economic investment that’s pushing housing costs up as wages stagnate. However, District 5 is unique in that we have a large percentage of our city’s public-housing stock. It was at risk of being demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing — meaning the families on the waiting list for our public housing, the majority of them seniors and children, would have to wait years longer. There was also no plan put forward for where the displaced families were going to be relocated.
The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) started trying to get rid of tenants at the main public housing complex. Our community organized alongside the tenants to challenge the predatory practices that were going on, ranging from illegal evictions to bogus fines and fees. We organized to change the lease policy, but as a result of our organizing, their strategy changed and new methods for getting rid of tenants were adopted. So we went to our city council office, we went to some of our state representatives, and we went to our Congress members to let them know that there was this issue with illegal evictions.
We were turning every stone and getting nowhere, but we continued to organize and fight. We would show up to SAHA meetings to demand fair housing practices and to challenge plans for demolition. Ultimately, our pressure worked: it led to SAHA’s CEO, David Nisivoccia, resigning. We now have a CEO who’s committed to keeping public housing and recognizes housing as a human right. And we’ve seen a complete shift on public housing here in San Antonio. Once the CEO resigned, the rhetoric changed to, “Why were we going to do that? We should have been focused on preservation the whole time.”
That fight is still ongoing. And there’s still plenty of developer interest around our public housing stock and the land that it’s on, so we can’t take a step back. There’s a lot of work ahead. It’s important that we continue as a city to keep public goods public, not just housing but also health care, education, transportation, and so on.
San Antonio hasn’t gone untouched by the renewed energy in building up the power of organized labor. And rather than watch from the sidelines, you’ve been out on the picket line with striking workers. How does labor inform your political work?
A majority of my constituency works in the hospitality industry, or they’re construction workers, or they’re teachers. It’s important that we support workers in securing just work practices as well as wages to ensure that they can keep up with the cost of housing, health care, and education.
We need to make sure that we’re standing by our labor unions as they advocate for higher wages, better health care, and workplace safety. For example, we’ve worked alongside the San Antonio Alliance, the teachers’ union, to advocate for higher wages for teachers, because we know that that’s where the majority of our kids spend their time. And that’s about the whole community. We need to make sure that our teachers are taken care of so students can be taken care of. It’s all interconnected in the fight for economic justice.
That’s also why we joined the picket line with the steel workers at the Grand Hyatt who were protesting Chevron. It was just very powerful to see the solidarity. l saw workers come from all over the state of Texas, all over the United States, to challenge Chevron and to support one another.
In your first term, you voted against the police union, voted against developers, and even scared grocery behemoth H-E-B into action during the local redistricting process, when their headquarters was almost drawn into your district. What motivates you to stand up on things like policing, gentrification, and economic justice?
No doubt, there’s unlimited need but limited funds. And when we look at where we’re allocating our money as a city, whether it’s to the bloated police budget or using public dollars to finance market-rate housing, we know that we need to shift where we’re putting our public dollars.
We have to shift away from being a city of austerity, where we’re putting all of our money into police while we continue to defund parks, housing, and public health despite us being in the middle of a continued pandemic. Changing that is my priority. In San Antonio, we’re experiencing economic investment that’s outpacing stagnant wages. We need to make sure we’re fighting alongside workers to secure those higher wages. If we want to uplift our most vulnerable, we have to shift dollars to our most vulnerable. When you invest from the bottom up, you have the opportunity to uplift all communities, not just one segment of the population.
If you had six votes in your corner, what would you pass on city council?
One of the most recent fights that we had was around the CPS Energy [the municipal electric utility] rate structure. We know that our residential users pay a higher rate than commercial users as a percentage. We need to restructure the rate to where commercial businesses pay their fair share and don’t get sweetheart deals, and to where our residential users are able to keep up with their bills. Right now we have so many residents throughout the city of San Antonio at risk of utility disconnections. If there were six city council members that agreed, we could get rates done right and have that conversation with CPS and their board about needing to restructure energy costs in a progressive way.
With climate change, another thing that’s key is making sure that we have more worker protections. One of my colleagues put forward a consideration request around heat illness protections, and my hope would be that we continue to put more policy forward to protect those who work out in the elements, often in extreme heat. Construction workers should have the basic right to drink water while on the clock.
And finally, we’re becoming a majority renter city, and we need to ensure that our tenants have the protections necessary to face that fact — from mandating notice when a landlord is going to enter their apartment to enabling people to organize and challenge their corporate landlords.
How does your council office work with groups on the ground? And are you a member of any groups?
Our office works with organizations on the ground, and we hit the doors to continually listen and learn from our constituency to see what they want us to advocate for. We work with the San Antonio Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on their “CodeBusters” efforts, led by their mutual aid committee, because our district receives a disproportionate amount of code compliance violations, leading to a pipeline of home demolitions. Our office also works with the San Antonio Alliance as a supporter of the “Schools Our Students Deserve” coalition and platform. And we partner with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center doing good housing work.
And yes – I am a San Antonio DSA member.
How do you relate to state and local leadership power structures as a young left Latina?
With my background as a community organizer, no stone goes unturned. That means that if you are an elected official who overlaps with my district, I’m going to meet with you and have a conversation about what our district priorities are. And if you do not overlap with my district but you sit on a committee that overlaps with my district’s needs, I’m reaching out to you to find out what we can work on together. That’s exactly what we would do when organizing in the community, and we continue to do it here in elected office. We build coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis with existing elected officials, despite sometimes being on the opposite side of other issues, and despite sometimes being in different parties.
At the same time, there are folks who share the same vision as our office, and when they run for office, we support them. We support people like Greg Casar, who is running for Congress and whose district overlaps with my district. His campaign shares this vision that’s going to uplift residents of District 5, so we’re ensuring that we’re hitting doors for him. Because in addition to coalition building with existing politicians, it’s ultimately going to be easier to work together with someone who has a similar vision of a better San Antonio.
When we look at the fights waged by Emma or Gus or Rebecca Flores or Maria, they always include communities coming together and building power collectively, whether it’s in the workplace or out on the streets. There have always been forces trying to smother the fight. But ours is a history of struggle, and we recognize that this is nothing new. The fight continues.
A great example is the 2022 bond that the voters recently approved. Our office nearly doubled the amount of bond investment in District 5 since 2017. This is a district with a history of flooding, and we had no drainage projects in 2017 — so I asked for drainage projects. We didn’t get everything we asked for, but through great debate, we secured over $25 million for drainage projects. The media said I was a naive rookie, they shot me down. But we brought the community into the process, and people from District 5 showed up to bond committee meetings, they brought their neighbors to Public Comment, and ultimately their presence resulted in adding parts to the bond that were not even on the list.
In the end, our office secured nearly double the amount from 2017, and more funding than any other city council district. But we need to recognize that that wasn’t given to us. We were given very little at the start. We secured that victory because the community came out and participated in the fight.