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Government/Politics

San Antonio officials condemn ‘Ousted’ report critical of city’s home demolitions

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Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
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A home ordered to vacate in San Antonio

San Antonio city officials attacked the credibility of a report targeting its code enforcement department.

Heather Way, director of the University of Texas at Austin Law School’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic co-authored the report Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions three weeks ago.

The report said the city was pushing people out of their homes at a much higher rate than other Texas cities, questioned legality of the city’s use of relocation funds, and accused it of not going through proper due process procedures.

Monday, city staff called the report flawed for both its numbers and its lack of context.

While city staff have disputed the report since it came out, Monday’s presentation to the Planning and Community Development Council Committee was the first time it cited its own data in its rebuttal.

The city also announced Monday that City Manager Erik Walsh directed staff to engage the University of Texas San Antonio to conduct a study of the issue.

There weren’t many areas where San Antonio staff found common ground with the critical report, presenting data differences on paid relocation costs, the number of vacate and demolish orders, and the due process involved.

“Where did their data come from? I'm not sure,” said Mike Shannon, head of San Antonio’s Development Services department — which oversees code enforcement. “I know for a fact that the city gave them, through open records, data. The data that was shared with them … those numbers are not the same as what's in the report.”

While the Ousted report said the city from 2015-2020 issued 626 orders to vacate or demolish, the city said it was a third less at 404.

Way said all the data came from open records requests to the city.

He called the lack of context on why vacate orders were sent a “major flaw. A quarter of the number the city provided were from the Dangerous Assessment Response Team which deals with problem properties accused of serious code violations and possible criminal activities over an extended period.

“Those properties have a two year history of major code violations, a lot of times criminal issues at the property, and we work with multiple departments to hit those,” he said.

The report said only eight people received funds from the city for relocation between 2018-2020. Shannon said that number was incomplete. Between the single funding source Way cited and two other funding city pools, he said that number was actually 169 households receiving more than $500,000 dollars since 2015.

“It's great to hear that there are some other funds available, but the reality is still even using the city's number the vast majority of families impacted by these orders are not receiving any (monetary) relocation assistance whatsoever” said Way.

Way called the city’s presentation and focus on discrepancies in the numbers a distraction, “smoke and mirrors.”

“The reality is, even when you use the city's latest numbers that they're talking about, that the city still is a far outlier when it comes to issuing these orders to vacate and demolish single-family residences in the state,” she said.

In her report she said all Dallas, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth had a combined 16 vacate orders.

Staff — pointing to what it called “flawed” data around San Antonio — questioned the methodology collection in other cities.

Way said she conducted in-depth conversations with city staff in each of the cities, asking how often each one ordered a household to be vacated.

“We couldn't begin to duplicate or go back and verify what information they got for the city,” said Andy Segovia, city attorney. “We don't know who they talked to. We didn't know the form was at a survey. Was that a discussion? Was that an accumulation of data? We don't know how they reached out to other cities. And again, usually, in an academic study, you have those sources identified.”

The city did not attempt to contact the reports’ co-authors for clarification.

The lack of context was an area of concern for city staff who described the process for vacating a home as long (6-18 months) with multiple intersections with city staff. Outside of emergency demolitions where a structure is deemed unlivable, sometimes due to a structure fire, he said each resident was provided fliers concerning assistance. He talked about code enforcement going to peoples’ homes with case managers to address other issues going on in the home. This idea that city staff were issuing orders to vacate without assistance is wrong.

“We never went there and issued a notice of vacate without somebody saying, ‘We're here to provide you a system to find you somewhere else to go.’ said Rod Sanchez, assistant city manager.

The city has 11 navigators across two departments that can be enlisted for these issues. Shannon described code enforcement officers going out of their way to assist residents who had been cited, sometimes mowing the lawns of people in their spare time. He pointed to similar efforts being conducted by the Code Busters, a community group formed by the Democratic Socialists of San Antonio that will help residents resolve code enforcement issues.

“I think we need to have a conversation about reimagining the ways in which we enforce the city code to where our officers code officers don't have to do it on their free time to help these folks in the community,” said Teri Castillo, councilwoman for District 5, which the study highlighted as one of the two largest districts for code enforcement action.

Councilwoman Castillo responds to controversial housing report: ‘We need to do better as a city’

Castillo compared the actions of code enforcement in these high-poverty, largely minority communities as “modern-day redlining.” The Ousted report itself juxtaposed images of red-lining maps with maps of the vacate and demolish orders.

Andy Segovia, city attorney, became visibly agitated by the comparison.

“To suggest that our code officers are out there with their clipboards, determining whether they write orders to vacate, depending on the color of the skin of the owner, there's no basis in fact, for that,” he told council.

Council members peppered staff with questions about the competing datasets. Community members from westside advocacy organizations noted that they had been talking about the displacements for years.

Councilman Mario Bravo was more interested in what the city can do now than the tit for tat of delving into datasets.

“Whether this report is completely factual or accurate or not. I’m really glad we are having this conversation,” he said.

Council members on the committee asked that Shannon provide a timeline to them on its study with UTSA after the holidays.

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