Fighting an eviction, as Kayla Miranda has learned, is a commitment.
The single mother of four is challenging an attempt by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) to remove her from her Alazan-Apache Courts apartment, a “three-bedroom” unit that’s smaller than some one-bedrooms in the newer city-subsidized downtown developments.
Her daily routine is stressful enough as she shuttles her kids to and from school in another part of town. In between, she runs her own errands and raises her two-year-old nephew, De’Andre, whose parents are in prison. With the threat of eviction looming over her household of five, Miranda squeezes in meetings with the neighborhood association that’s helping her and other Alazan-Apache residents organize. Then there are the trips to eviction court far out on Bandera Road, and meetings with her pro bono lawyer and at state Rep. Diego Bernal’s office, which is looking into the matter.
“And nobody’s paying my gas, nobody’s helping me watch the kids, nobody’s putting in for all this extra expense,” said Miranda, 36, who’s lived at the courts a little more than two years. Her only source of income is her nephew’s $771 Social Security check, which she uses to pay the monthly rent of $168*.
“My kids see me down every day—tired, exhausted, frustrated. And I’m worried. If we don’t live here, where are we going to live? I can’t afford anything else.”
Miranda’s is one of seven other households at Alazan-Apache who accuse SAHA of harassment by way of, what they describe as, bogus lease violations. If they’re not addressed, the infractions snowball into what’s called a notice to vacate, the landlord’s first attempt to take back possession of the property. Last month, Miranda lost her case at eviction court, and has appealed.
Miranda and some of the other residents facing eviction, or who have been evicted recently, describe an authoritarian community at Alazan-Apache, where SAHA case workers, who are assigned to each household, and management patrol the property and hand out lease violations frivolously. SAHA is supposed to be helping its residents, among San Antonio’s most vulnerable, Miranda says. Instead, “it’s like prison. It’s like having a bunch of guards walking around,” she says.
This is the first in an occasional series on evictions in San Antonio, an incredibly complex topic we’ll be exploring in the coming months. If you have been evicted, or are going through the process, we’d like to know. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
SAHA paints a different picture.
David Nisivoccia, SAHA’s CEO and president, declined to address specific cases. Big picture, he says evictions currently account for 3 percent of all public housing units in San Antonio. If they’re issued notices to vacate, it’s because they didn’t follow the rules largely set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said.
“We always root for our clients,” Nisivoccia said. “I think it’s important to note that 97 percent of our clients abide by the rules and regulations.”
Nisivoccia outlined several options available to residents hit with a lease violation or who face an eviction. Residents have several chances to appeal within SAHA’s system at any point during a disagreement, he said. The housing authority, he said, also points residents toward services that help pay utilities or rent. For folks who fall behind on rent or fee debt, he said repayment agreements are often available.
“The housing authority is in the business of housing people,” Nisivoccia said. “We don’t want to evict people. And we have certain mitigation initiatives in place to help people navigate through that system” if tenants find themselves with mounting fees or the prospect of being evicted.
The residents agree that SAHA’s appeal system is a good one, but that it’s not being consistently followed by Alazan-Apache management and the case workers who interact with them most. Nisivoccia, they say, paints a quixotic picture of how these situations should be handled, not how they actually are.
“It’s always going to be our word against theirs,” Miranda said. “He’s the CEO. Of course he’s going to defend his process and his system. He’s not going to sit there and admit the system is flawed. They’re going to close ranks the same as the (management) office does.”
Their assertions have grabbed the attention of the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that offers free eviction defense; the city of San Antonio, which has paid the eviction debt of 15 families living at SAHA properties through a program enacted this past May by City Council; District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales’ office, which has intervened in at least one case at Alazan-Apache; and of Rep. Bernal, who is considering proposing a bill at the next legislative session to address some of the residents’ concerns.
The fees are what get them.
In interviews the Heron has conducted with about a dozen families going through the eviction process—at Alazan-Apache and non-public housing units—the tenants complained most about fees.
The fee total SAHA says Miranda owed, and which landed her in eviction court, was $891.
The bulk of the debt, $710, was for a dog, Joy, a terrier mix who belongs to her ex-husband, who watches the kids from time to time. She insists Joy doesn’t live there, but says she was inexplicably hit with a pet fee, which accrues by $10 a day if it’s not resolved. The other charges were for maintenance repairs, such as to the stove and front door, which she says SAHA should have handled itself.
She says Alazan-Apache management has been targeting her with lease violations after a dispute in which a paranormal group she’s a member of was excluded from the last National Night Out gathering at the courts. She admits to being late on rent in previous months, but contends she made the payment every time, including the late fee.
There had been other lease violations issued to Miranda, which were dismissed through SAHA’s appeal process. But some time between March and April, these latest ones—the pet fee and the maintenance fees—stuck.
Since then, as she pays rent, the funds are applied to the fee balance first. In these situations, when a tenant pays the rent and doesn’t address the fees, the rent owed for that month is never settled. Miranda contends the fees were unjustified. As a result, SAHA took her to eviction court over nonpayment of rent.
When Rep. Bernal first heard about the complaints from the residents, his first concern was that the 2,200 air conditioning units installed at public housing properties earlier this year, an effort he orchestrated, were a contributing factor. Some residents say their utility voucher, which are afforded to public housing residents, wasn’t adjusted for the added cost of running their new AC units, an issue Rep. Bernal has asked SAHA and CPS Energy to solve.
His inquiry into the residents’ complaints have also led him to question SAHA’s policy for how residents’ debt is resolved. Other housing authorities, such as in Austin and Fort Worth, separate rent and fees into two tranches.
“One makes sense to me,” Bernal said of the separated structure. “The other—I’m not saying it’s done this way on purpose—but it feels more like a payday loan structure where if you accumulate fees and fines, and also owe rent; that money goes to the fees and fines first before it goes to the rent.”
By the numbers
In San Antonio and throughout the county, eviction defense lawyers are hard to come by. If a tenant is having trouble making ends meet, how can they afford to hire someone to defend them? As opposed to criminal court, defendants in civil cases in Texas typically do not have a right to counsel.
Adding to the paucity of eviction defense lawyers is the sheer number of cases.
Each year, for the past four years, about 16,000 eviction cases reached some sort of conclusion in Bexar County, according to research conducted by Amelia Adams, an analyst with Texas Housers, an Austin-based housing advocacy group. In 2018, of the 15,925 cases that were heard locally, the landlord won 79 percent of the cases, which amounts to 12,580 evictions. In 57 percent of those cases, the landlord won because the tenant failed to show up to court, according to Texas Housers’s research.
That same year, another 19 percent were dismissed for one reason or another.
The state’s property code is such that if a tenant owes back rent, no matter the specifics of the dispute, they’re nearly guaranteed to lose the case and be slapped with an eviction on their record.
Then they have five days to appeal, or five days to leave the home. Others who stay past the five days without appealing are eventually removed by Bexar County Constables. We are currently looking into these statistics.
[ Editor’s note: This would be a good point to pause and explain a few things about eviction data. It’s complicated. Texas Housers pulled its data from Bexar County, but the set, which the Heron also received, didn’t come all neat and clean and ready to comprehend. A fair amount of work had to be done to clean and organize the spreadsheets before they could be analyzed. The Heron is in the process of doing its own analysis, which we’ll release early next year. Also, for this piece, SAHA released eviction data for its properties, which is organized by fiscal year, instead of calendar year. SAHA also gleaned some numbers from the Eviction Lab, Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist Matthew Desmond’s group out of Princeton University, which studies evictions nationwide. For now, let’s stop here. But know that making sense of this data—never mind trying to factor in the illegal evictions that happen outside the system—is a worthwhile effort and one the Heron is dedicated to tackling in future reports. It’s also worth noting that evictions have skyrocketed in Bexar County the last 10 years for reasons we presume include stagnant wages, the rising cost of housing and the area’s population growth. This, too, we’ll explore in future articles. ]
Nisivoccia insists that while evictions do happen, they are uncommon at SAHA properties compared to those in the for-profit market. In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 20, SAHA evicted 177 households, which was down from the previous fiscal year’s figure of 247, according to SAHA records. At Alazan-Apache Courts on the near West Side, where there are 741 units, there were 44 evictions the last fiscal year compared to 55 in 2018, 21 in 2017, and 38 in 2016, according to SAHA.
This year, San Antonio’s risk mitigation fund, a program the City Council approved in May that helps families on the verge of displacement stay in their homes, or with moving costs should they be uprooted, paid back-rent for 15 families living in SAHA communities.
One of those individuals was Francisco “Pancho” Perez, a semi-retired mariachi who recently performed with the surviving members of Las Tesoros de San Antonio, and who had lived at the Alazan-Apache Courts for 13 years. The city paid $3,500 to help square Perez’s debt, which included violations for an unregistered chihuahua, Chiquito, and other alleged infractions and issues.
A few months ago, Perez’s family was on a path toward eviction when Leticia Sanchez of the Historic Westside Resident Association got involved and called Councilwoman Gonzales’ office on their behalf. The councilwoman’s staff negotiated that the family move from a three-bedroom apartment at Alazan to a two-bedroom at Mirasol Homes. Perez’s son, Panchito, had recently been incarcerated, and the family of three had one bedroom too many, which, for SAHA and HUD, was one of the issues.
Vero Soto, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, which oversees the anti-displacement program, said anyone with a debt related to an eviction is eligible for the assistance, as long as they make below 80 percent of the area median income. They don’t look at the specifics of the case to see which side might have been at fault in the dispute—the landlord or tenant.
The area median income (AMI) for a family of four in the greater San Antonio area (Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe and Wilson counties) is $71,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Here’s how it breaks down for lower-income households:
» 80% – $56,800
» 70% – $49,700
» 60% – $42,600
» 50% – $35,500
» 40% – $28,400
» 30% – $21,300
“We’re not here to judge,” Soto said. “We’re not here to say, ‘Oh, they’re going to do it again.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to get assistance (to the tenant) in the situation … and do it with compassion.”
However, Soto and her staff said if they find a landlord was at fault, if they were acting in bad faith, they’d help the resident relocate to another home rather than pay off the landlord. Between May, when the program began, and the end of September, the program helped 237 households avoid or deal with displacement. Of that total, 30 were evictions.
Soto said she and her staff have spoken to the irate Alazan-Apache residents as well as Nisivoccia about the issue.
“I think they do have a lenient process,” Soto said of SAHA’s appeal process. “They probably have to do better communications about their process. It seems to me people were more customer service dissatisfied. They just misunderstood what the process was.”
When asked about some of the residents’ chief complaint, that they’re being targeted with unjust lease violations, Soto said she couldn’t comment without knowing the specifics of the cases.
[ Editor’s note: SAMMinistries has a similar program that’s more robust, and that’s been around much longer. It’s one we’ll write about at a later date.
Next month, the city, as part of its risk mitigation fund, will begin a "right to counsel” program, which will offer free eviction defense. The $100,000 allocation, a pilot program spearheaded by District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, is estimated to serve between 50 to 100 people a year.
"We have to go the extra mile, and this program is really about creating a representation, or a right to that representation,” said Treviño, who traveled to New York City on Thursday to learn more about its $200 million right-to-counsel eviction defense program. "The stats show that usually things are settled more often than not when somebody has counsel than not.”
The city is close to a partnership with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRGLA), an organization that already offers free eviction defense to tenants, to fulfill the service.
TRGLA was eventually connected with Miranda, who, last month, lost her defense in eviction court at Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2. Judge Roberto A. Vazquez shaved off some of Miranda’s debt when she presented receipts for some of the rent paid. When she tried to broach the pet fee, Vazquez stopped the hearing abruptly, and ruled in SAHA’s favor.
In an interview weeks later, while summarizing Texas’s property statute, Vazquez said the scope of the matters he’s allowed to consider in eviction cases is narrow: back rent.
"About 90 percent (of tenants) have a decision that’s going to go against them if they tell the court, ‘Yes, I owe rent’,” Vazquez said before throwing up his hands. "There’s nothing left hear.”
"Unfortunately (non-rent factors have) no bearing, because the property code is so heavily-weighted toward the landlord that a lot of it is not relevant in the final decision,” Vazquez said.
In the weeks after the hearing, Miranda, with TRGLA by her side, said she’s close to settling her debt with SAHA. A TRGLA spokeswoman declined to comment or shed any light on whether the organization is helping other public housing tenants.
In recent days, Nisivoccia reached out to the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association for a meeting, which could happen as early as this week. Sanchez, who has most helped the residents organize, said their goal is to get SAHA to place a moratorium on evictions until Nisivoccia can talk with his staff and find the source of the "trumped up fees.”
"If he’s not in favor of doing that,” Sanchez said, "we’re thinking of filing an injunction to keep them from evicting any future evictions. That’s our goal right now.”
On Wednesday, Nisivoccia is scheduled to address the complaints to the Housing Commission, the city board Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed to tackle San Antonio’s affordable housing issue. Last month, Sanchez and about a dozen residents spent almost an hour airing their concerns to the commissioners at the last meeting. They plan to attend Wednesday’s meeting as well.
What the future holds
Before this phase of her life, Miranda held a variety of jobs, including as a 7-Eleven manager, but quit work to help take care of her autistic son, among other factors in which she needed to focus on her kids. One of her two brothers, who is mentally handicapped, used to watch the kids, but he was placed in a group home by their father, who is now estranged from the family.
This all happened in late 2015, and it took Miranda two and a half years to finally get into public housing. For a time, they lived in a motel, and with family members before that.
I asked her a question that had been on my mind as I interviewed Miranda over several weeks: Why don’t you get a part-time job?
"That’s a good question, and that’s a question that can be answered about our broken system,” says Miranda, who said she was evicted when she was 19, back when she was ignorant about how to contest it. "I can get a part-time job that adds income … Say I get a part-time job. My rent goes up. Food stamps go down, and the help I get with the kids—I lose a lot of that.”
Aside from the recent problems she faces at Alazan-Apache, Miranda says what’s most important is that her kids are doing well in school. In their rooms, their various accolades are proudly displayed from the charter school IDEA Eastside, which they attend.
"If you can be careful and not hit my awards,” Nadia, 14, told our photographer, V. Finster, as she tried to maneuver inside one of the cramped bedrooms where the kids were hanging out recently after school.
Miranda is optimistic her situation will be resolved with the help of the TRGLA attorney, and that her current life, which includes taking online courses in business management at the University of the People, will go on. Eventually, maybe in four years, she estimates she’ll be in a better position to improve her family’s situation.
For now, the lives of her kids are stable, relatively speaking, in an unideal situation.
"That’s the most important thing for me right now,” Miranda said. "They’re young, and it’s my responsibility as a parent to give them the best chance.”
* — Miranda’s rent, like all public housing residents’, fluctuates depending on their income. She says she used to pay $51 a month, but it went up when she’d bring in an additional $400 a month for donating plasma. She hasn’t donated since February, but Alazan-Apache management hasn’t lowered her rent as it should, she says. It remains at $168. [ Back to the top. ]