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

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Reactions to a new report saying San Antonio is vacating and demolishing older housing stock at a rate thousands of percent higher than other major Texas cities — often displacing people of color from family homes and often without due process — have been swift. Some residents felt validated, and city staff persisted in its position that the report contained many flaws and at times is “meant to inflame not to inform.”

The report titled “Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions” showed that the city issued 1,000 orders to vacate and demolish single-family homes, and 626 of them were occupied — compared to a total of 16 orders between Houston, Dallas Austin and Fort Worth.

“The study corroborates what we've been hearing from communities with the increasing number of demolitions and the need for wraparound services,” said Teri Castillo, councilwoman for District 5 — the area with one of the largest incidences of vacate and demolish orders.

In a memo to city staff, the city council and the mayor, Michael Shannon, the head of the development services department head, said the report was out of line when it indicated that city staff were targeting communities of color.

“To suggest that Code Enforcement is consciously ‘targeting’ people of color or that the demolition order process is comparable to an infamous federal practice [redlining] designed to exclude people of color is irresponsible,” Shannon said.

But Castillo’s office said that her community does feel targeted by Code Enforcement. In the office budget amendments, it asked for staffers added to Shannon’s department who could do more for homeowners and assuage those frustrations.

Members of Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, the Historic Westside Residents Association, and others said they raised the issue with council and staff and asked for help to slow the demolitions of single-family homes, but received little or no response.

Part of the reason these low income areas have received so much attention, Castillo said, was because code enforcement officers were funded by U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which mandated they be in low-income zip codes on blight abatement. Her office asked those positions be replaced with general funds-supported positions, which would allow them greater flexibility in geography.

Vacate and demolish orders are used to tear down unsafe structures, but other code enforcement actions like for overgrown yards and non-life threatening items can start a downward spiral. A citation for overgrown yard can mean several hundred dollars in fines.

“And what that means for my constituency is they don't pay their utilities, right. So they're not paying their water or light. And the next step with that when your light and water isn't on is a code compliance violation. And that's a notice to vacate violation. So it's a ripple effect,” said Castillo.

Castillo echoed concerns raised by the report that were critical of how the process for demolishing homes now worked. Castillo said residents often were not given enough information about their options or rights. The report took the city to task over its breaking the law by not offering relocation assistance — offering only eight people out of 209 who received a vacate order between 2018-2020.

Castillo was also concerned about accusations in the report where hundreds of homeowners were not given a hearing prior to receiving vacate or demolish orders.

More money for programs that invest in people’s homes who can’t afford to fix them to code is what is needed, Castillo added. The city needs to “mitigate” moving residents of their property by reducing the number of demolitions being done.

“Our most affordable housing stock is our existing housing stock,” she explained.

San Antonio has been moving in this direction. Castillo pointed to millions more dollars in various programs aimed at assisting impoverished and elderly homeowners to make critical fixes to their homes, including $1.5 million for a pilot demolition prevention program. Other suggestions from reports generated by the Office of Historic Preservation reports and suggested by Castillo’s office were not utilized. For example, her office offered a budget amendment that would have added two positions to Development Services that were code enforcement case managers.

The city is currently in the process of a historic bond proposal to put $150 million toward affordable housing, with existing home rehabilitation expected to receive significant additional funds.

About 95,000 San Antonio residents spend more than 30% on their housing costs, which is considered “cost burdened” and property appraisals as well as costs continue to rise.

In addressing the controversial report, the city has challenged its accuracy, saying it contains several flaws, including drawing comparisons for vacate and demolish orders from programs that are different.

“In short, the Report itself demonstrates that conclusions are being drawn by comparing apples to oranges,” Shannon said in a memo sent to city council members, the mayor, and many staffers. TPR has reviewed the memo.

Heather Way, the report’s author, disagreed. She told TPR’s "The Source" that they sat down with code enforcement leaders at different cities and looked at their data and found that — unlike in San Antonio — the programs are used far less.

“It has to be a very extreme case where they're at just immediate risk of endangerment that we're going to force them out of that home,” she said. Way is also a co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

The report may influence next Tuesday’s Housing Bond Committee meeting, which is filled with passionate affordable housing advocates. The committee only has two meetings left before recommendations go to council.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org