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San Antonio

San Antonio effort to rebuff critical report hits snag

San Antonio's G.J. Sutton Building is undergoing demolition.
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
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The effort to rebuff a UT-Austin report critical of San Antonio code enforcement practices has dragged as its presumptive academic partner, UTSA, bowed out.

Little progress has been made in the city’s four-month effort to generate a competing report against one critical of San Antonio’s code enforcement practices that have forced people out of their homes. The report out from a University of Texas at Austin Law Clinic late last year alleged the city deprived many of due process rights and often didn’t distribute displacement funds.

The city rejected the UT report saying its data was flawed, and City Manager Erik Walsh vowed that the city would generate its own study with an academic partner at a Dec. 13 meeting with media.

Walsh said he directed staff to work with the University of Texas San Antonio. The city-partnered report would challenge allegations made in “Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions.”

Those efforts have been delayed by a snag. Its presumptive partner UTSA declined to work on the report with the city.

“We reached out to UTSA and they said they couldn’t do it,” said Ximena Copa-Wiggins, a City of San Antonio spokesperson for Development Services. They are continuing the search for another academic institution.

Ousted house
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
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The lot of one of hundreds of former homes identified by the Ousted report as having been demolished

The “Ousted” report cited more than 600 instances where the city had legally vacated or demolished homes people lived in over five years, an exponentially higher incidence than other major Texas cities. The report also said the city had moved people numerous times without proper due process and that it wasn’t offering displacement funding to residents in violation of state law.

Multiple city leaders including Walsh, Development Services Director Mike Shannon and City Attorney Andy Segovia attacked the “Ousted” report, calling it “unscientific,” pointing to discrepancies between its and the city’s numbers and generally downplaying its findings.

Shannon — who oversees code enforcement — told city council members they hoped to work with UTSA on the report three times at a Dec. 13 meeting of the Planning And Economic Development committee. But said they hadn’t yet communicated with the higher-ed institution.

“At the time the city came to us with this request, our researchers already had other work underway related to housing and we wanted to keep our focus on those efforts,” said Joe Izbrand, UTSA Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Affairs.

Another city official said the school also was concerned about a conflict of interest generating a report aimed at contradicting the work of professors at a sister institution under the same system. The idea of some conflict of interest was confirmed by a city spokesperson.

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Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
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Michael Shannon at Dec. 13 meeting addressing "Ousted" report

The city first approached UTSA since it already has a standing contract with the school for studies like this one. It isn’t clear how many institutions the city has approached to take up the work.

The city wants to address the allegations made in the UT-Austin report. One controversial allegation was that the report indicated near-downtown areas that had a high proportion of Black and Latino residents were being targeted by code enforcement.

“It left people with a lot of questions,” said Mario Bravo, District 1 Councilman. “If we’re going to question [the “Ousted” report] I think it’s important that we do have a report that is completed.”

The report’s author, UT Law professor Heather Way, previously called the city’s attempts at refuting her and her team’s work “smoke and mirrors.”

The study added fuel to an already smoldering housing situation in areas affected by increasing redevelopment.

“We've been living this experience. The disproportionate number of code violations leading to demolitions has been an issue that our association has been dealing with since our formation in 2017,” said Leticia Sanchez, a member of the historic West Side Residents Association at the Dec. 13 council committee hearing.

Many who attended the Dec. 13 meeting like Sanchez decried the idea of a second university report.

“We have an issue here, let's talk about the solutions rather than a tit for tat on studies,” said Teri Castillo, Councilwoman for District 5, at the Dec. 13 meeting.

City officials had conceded that there were hundreds of times between 2015-2020 when officials ordered homes vacated or demolished that were occupied. And that numerous times displacement funds weren’t given out. But Shannon stood by the idea that the city had always used due process. It has used emergency demolitions of homes found to be immediately dangerous. But the city still wants its own study of San Antonio’s code enforcement policies and outcomes.

The use of the city’s emergency demolition orders have continued. The city’s Building Standards Board has heard emergency demolish orders for 14 homes since December.

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