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Report: San Antonio vacates and demolishes homes at exponentially higher rate than other major Texas cities combined

Paul Flahive
Texas Public Radio
A new report comes as the city continues to develop plans for a $150 million affordable housing bond.

This story was updated to reflect responses from the city of San Antonio.

A new report out from the University of Texas Austin School of Law says San Antonio uses code enforcement aggressively in communities of color, removing people from homes at rates hundreds of times higher than other major cities combined.

The report out Thursday said the city issued vacate orders and orders to demolish 626 single family homes that had been occupied between 2015-2020, a rate nearly 4000% higher than Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth combined in that same period. In total, it issued 1,000 orders during the window.

“I've been doing this work for about 25 years, and I have never heard of this happening at this level in these large Texas cities, and Houston and Dallas definitely have lots of poverty, and they still have a pretty large stock of older substandard housing,” said Heather Way, author of the report and co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at UT Austin.

Dominic Walsh
A building at the corner of North Mesquite and East Crockett streets
Dominic Walsh

The report said the city often bypasses the hearing process when issuing these orders. There were 337 orders to vacate issued outside of a hearing process, a dubious honor the report says the city holds alone among other major Texas cities.

“We disagree with the conclusions reached by this report,” said Michael Shannon, director of Development Services at the City of San Antonio. “Due process is the keystone to all code enforcement actions on a systematic and consistent basis, as required with the enabling statutory authorities and local City Code ordinances.”

The processes in other cities are different and it wasn't clear to city staff if this analysis was apples to apples.

“Notices to vacate are used only when a structure is determined to be unfit for human occupancy and constitutes a threat to the health, safety and welfare of its residents as required in the San Antonio Property Maintenance Code. Our overriding priority is, and always will be, the health and safety of our residents,” Shannon said.

Generally the city uses a hearing to determine that a structure is unsafe for residents and for the community before it demolishes them. The report said this was skirted at times the past five years. It found 86 demolition orders where no hearing was held. And it said the city only held hearings for vacate orders 17% of the time.

When it did hold hearings, the report cites direct observation of hearings where residents were treated disrespectfully.

At one Buildings and Standards meeting on June 13, 2019 — the report said — an impoverished resident was pleading for understanding. The cost of repairing her home was too great for her. The chair of that board responded:

“Ma’am, do you know how stressful it is for us to look at this property and know that human beings are living here? That’s very stressful on us too.”

The city using city code enforcement through pro-active drive-bys from city staff seems to target homes in urban core neighborhoods. They write up homes with overgrown, junk-filled yards and structures that appear unsafe.

The report argued these measures are being used disproportionately in areas adjacent to downtown that have older housing stock, high poverty and long standing communities of color. It pointed to census tracts in District 2 on the city’s East Side — a rapidly gentrifying community that has been historically African American, as well as many in District 5, one of the poorest in the city.

The so-called “Decade of Downtown” launched by former Mayor Julián Castro has been cited by many as displacing people from downtown adjacent neighborhoods — a feeling the report supports. Many of the most affected areas are in downtown adjacent tracts whose property values have been affected in recent years — and could be prime targets of redevelopment.

The report pointed to the city’s own findings that aggressive use of code enforcement in these communities could lead to exacerbated gentrification but the author stopped short of saying there was a connection between the dovetailing of the development community’s interest and city actions.

“Those connections could be made by some (who) read this report,” said Way.

Further, the report argued the city is breaking state law by not offering relocation costs to people it displaces, a practice they find well established in cities like Fort Worth.

The city disputes the idea that it has violated state law saying it adheres to all of them.

“Staff consistently provide information on all resources available for assistance to come into compliance to property owners, including relocation services,” a city staffer said in an email.

It wasn’t clear if San Antonio provides monetary compensation for people displaced but the law seems to indicate they should. Here is a passage from the Texas Property Code Section 21.046 which deals with Relocation Assistance.

“If a person moves or discontinues the person’s business, moves personal property, or moves from the person’s dwelling as a direct result of code enforcement, rehabilitation, or a demolition program, the person is considered to be displaced because of the acquisition of real property.”

In the last year, the city has spent tens of millions of dollars on rental assistance and home maintenance programs. But the programs met the needs of too few, said the report.

Wednesday night, the city’s Housing Committee met for hours formulating a $150 million affordable housing bond that could pour money into programs devoted to these communities. Keeping people in their homes through repair and rehabilitation programs.

City workers clear out unhoused people from under a downtown overpass. Many displaced people are highly vulnerable to becoming homeless, says the report.
City workers clear out unhoused people from under a downtown overpass. Many displaced people are highly vulnerable to becoming homeless, says the report.

“Ballot language for the 2022 housing bond should explicitly target funds for extremely low income housing development and preservation,” said Rebecca Flores, a resident of District 5 speaking at the bond meeting Wednesday night.

“Tax breaks and other incentives awarded to developers for the decade of downtown have used our public revenue of millions of dollars, while not building affordable housing for low-income residents," Flores said.

Ultimately the report provides many recommendations for the city concluding it should cease issuing vacate orders and doing emergency demolitions outside without a hearing and increase support and assistance programs and counsel in any hearings.

In an email, the city said the report represented simply the opinions — not “a law review article” or “scientific study” — of the authors, who they said did not engage meaningfully with city staff for this report.

“There was no real attempt to engage with city staff tasked with implementing policy and procedures,” said a city staffer.

Way disagreed, saying she and her co-authors sought to discuss the study with city staff a number of times and ultimately did have several phone calls and conversations with them.

“We tried very hard to connect with staff,” she said “And initially they weren’t responsive, but we learned alot from those conversations when they finally did respond.”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org