The city’s Development Services Department (DSD) went on the offensive this week after being lambasted in a recent report by a University of Texas at Austin professor over its code enforcement practices and how often they lead to the demolition of homes.
The report, released last month by Heather K. Way of The University of Texas School of Law, concludes that the city uses “aggressive code enforcement practices” that displace residents at rates “unprecedented among large Texas cities.” The city’s DSD department, in response, says it’s simply following local statutes, and has called the report “fundamentally flawed.”
Meanwhile, District 5 City Councilwoman Teri Castillo has rebuked the city’s response to Way’s report, which is to commission the University of Texas at San Antonio to conduct its own study on code enforcement as it relates to home demolition. The West Side councilwoman cited a handful of reports, including “Opportunity at Risk: San Antonio’s Older Affordable Housing Stock” (2018), which already describe a code enforcement issue in certain San Antonio neighborhoods. A housing advocate before she decided to run for office, Castillo has fought for more resources for those whose homes rack up code violations, especially in her district, where demolitions outpace other districts.
“Given the context already established with the lower property condition ratings of pre-1960 housing, the sizable share of minimum housing violations makes sense,” “Opportunity at Risk” reads. “However, the number of violations on single-family owner occupied properties, lack of permit investment, and concentration in three City Council Districts (1, 3, and 5) is cause for concern.”
During the budget process a few months ago, Castillo proposed amendments that funneled more funding toward home repair. And the housing bond committee last week made owner-occupied home repair one of five priorities for the proposed $150 million housing bond, which voters will decide next May.
“I am disappointed that the City of San Antonio has committed to moving forward with spending additional public dollars on yet another study rather than implementing and investing in material solutions for our families,” Castillo said in a statement.
On several points regarding San Antonio code violation policies, DSD and Way disagree.
The key discrepancy hinges on just how many notices to vacate—the document the city issues when it deems a single-family home as unsafe for occupancy—and orders of demolition that the city and the Building Standards Board, a quasi-governmental body, have issued in recent years.
From 2015 to 2020, according to Way’s research, San Antonio issued 626 “orders to vacate and orders to demolish occupied single-family homes.” In the same timeframe, San Antonio issued 406 orders to vacate for occupied single-family homes, while Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth issued 16 similar orders during the same timeframe combined, according to Way’s report, “Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions.”
Way says the data was obtained via an open records request, and the city, in its multi-page rebuttal, confirmed Way’s team obtain data via open records. But a DSD spokesperson said Tuesday that the department doesn’t know how Way reached her conclusion.
In a presentation to members of the City Council Monday morning, DSD Director Michael Shannon said during the same timeframe there were 331 notices to vacate, and 72 orders for demolition by the BSB of occupied homes for a total of 404 compared to Way’s 626.
“The data (in Way’s report) is not accurate, the methodology is unsound,” Shannon told members of the council.
Way thought the discrepancy may lie in the whether fiscal year or calendar year totals are being used, but DSD contends it sent Way’s team fiscal year data.
“I think it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors that detracts from the core issues here,” Way, co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at Texas Law, said in an interview. “Even with the latest numbers they are reporting, the reality is that the city is displacing hundreds of residents from their homes and doing very little to help them.”
To that point, District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo asked Shannon on Monday about the large number—Way’s 626 or DSD’s 404—and how it still dwarfs those of other major Texas cities.
“If its 16 in all those other cities combined and ours is 404, then we still have a problem,” Bravo told Shannon.
“Again, I question that data, first and foremost,” Shannon said. “Because I think it’s clear that the data they reported about San Antonio is incorrect. We have been spending the last couple of weeks looking at our data to try to make sure we can present to you and council and the public what the real data is for San Antonio. I do know that the cities are different in a lot of different ways, but we have not dug into the other city data and how they got that information. But I do know that their processes and codes are different.”
Monday morning, while council members sitting on the Planning and Community Development Committee deliberated on the finer points of the code enforcement issue, including just how many notices to vacate and demolitions have occurred in San Antonio from 2015 to 2020, they all agreed the issue is one that needs to be further investigated, and most said it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
During the meeting, and in a follow-up letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the rest of the council, and City Manager Erik Walsh, Shannon continued to point out that Way’s report was done independently, and was not sanctioned by The University of Texas at Austin. His aim seemed to be more about how the report was referenced in initial media reports, and not Way herself, who points out on Page 2, “This report reflects the research and views of the individual authors only. It does not represent the views of The University of Texas School of Law or The University of Texas at Austin.”
During the budget process a few months ago, Castillo proposed five amendments that would assist residents who have issues with code violations. Two passed.
One, was $1.5 million toward the formation of a Demolition Prevention & Mitigation Pilot Program, with the intent of reducing demolitions by “connecting at-risk homeowners to separate minor or owner-occupied funding that will be disbursed through a more switch and direct process.” The other was the infusion of $2 million to the city’s Under 1 Roof program, bolstering it to $5.25 million, which replaces roofs with materials that lower the temperature of the home, thus lowering the household’s energy bills.
“When we compare the notices to vacate with the redlining maps, the comparison is stark,” Castillo said. “So I think it’s important that we move forward with policy solutions.”
During the meeting on Monday, City Attorney Andy Segovia took issue with Castillo comparing the city’s code enforcement practices with redlining, when she made the same point during the meeting, saying her comments has “no basis in fact.”
Castillo said homeowners say they aren’t being given the appropriate information, including that their homes are in a pipeline for potential demolition. She suggests there be case managers or social works whose job it would be to connect homeowners with resources, or wrap around services, and explain the lengthy and sometimes complex process to them.
“We need to do a better job as a city to help our neighbors bring their homes into compliance rather than fining them, putting them into debt,” Castillo said. “And eventually, again, the pipeline where we lead to demolition and displacement.”
Castillo has questioned whether the city’s code compliance officers are connecting at-risk homeowners with resources that can either help them repair their homes or get them some level of aid, as Shannon says officers are trained to do.
The councilwoman said she’s asked DSD to provide the materials, such as a pamphlet, since before she was elected, and especially now as a City Council member, and the department has yet to provide her with on.
In her advocacy, Castillo has spoken with homeowners going through the process, even before she was elected as a member of the Historic Westside Residents Association, and she said most don’t understand it.
“My experience prior to being in office, working with community members, many of them were unaware that their homes were in this pipeline that was going to lead to potential demolition, weren’t aware that they could submit a scope of work or request attention,” Castillo said. “I think that that’s an injustice, right? Because when we talk about generational wealth and wealth building, and we’re looking at one of the most economically poor census tracts … to service your most vulnerable population, by not allowing to build that wealth by passing their property in their home to the next generation.”
Shannon said notices to vacate and demolition orders comprise less than 1 percent of code enforcement cases.
“I know our code officers, when they run into these tough situations, we do everything we can to keep our residents safe,” he said. “If there are things we can improve on, or add to the city’s process around this, we’ll be glad to take a look at that.”
Shannon said the city does not target certain neighborhoods, as Way’s report stated.
He presented data that showed from fiscal years 2018 to 2020, District 5 received seven “proactive code enforcement sweeps.” During the same timeframe, there were 11 in District 2; nine in District 3; seven in District 6; six in Districts 1, 4, 7, 9 and 10; and five in District 8.
“It’s no secret that this issue does involve older housing stock,” Shannon said in an interview. “To suggest that we are targeting certain areas is completely inappropriate, and incorrect. We don’t target.”
He and others attribute the high number of notices to vacate and demolition permits in District 5 and District 2, the East Side, to those neighborhoods’ older housing.
From 2015 to 2020, there were 24 home demolitions in District 5, compared to 15 in District 2, 14 in District 1 and 13 in District 3. Other districts’ demolition totals were in either single digits, or they had none.
Housing advocates, such as Graciela Sanchez, the executive director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, have been advocating for code enforcement policy changes in recent years.
“I’m angry, because we didn’t even need the … study to get to the numbers that we’ve gotten to today,” Sanchez told members of the council on Monday. “What Heather Way’s research has done is at least bring light to a city-wide level.”
Editor’s note: Code enforcement as it relates to home demolition is a topic the Heron is committed to reporting on. DSD and Way disagree on a number of topics, some of which we will dive into in separate upcoming articles.