San Antonio’s volume of orders to evacuate and demolish homes is ‘unprecedented’ among major cities in Texas


San Antonio has heavily used code enforcement measures on the nearby west and east sides and ordered homes to be evacuated and razed at a much higher rate than other major cities in Texas, displacing vulnerable people of color, according to a new report.

The city has issued 626 orders to evacuate and demolish single-family homes occupied between 2015 and 2020, according to the study published by the University of Texas at Austin Law School.

This is an “unprecedented” level compared to Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth, which issued just 16 combined orders during the same period.

“I was surprised at how much of an outlier San Antonio was, just the sheer volume of those orders,” said Heather Way, lead author of the report and co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic. university.

The authors compared the distribution of housing orders with the number of owner-occupied dwellings in each census tract. They found that the greatest number of orders had been issued on the west and east sides, which were also disproportionately targeted for sweeps for code violations such as overgrown yards and abandoned houses, said. The report.

In both areas, people of color have been systematically discriminated against for decades through redlining – the government’s designation of certain areas as risky for investment. Colored neighborhoods were generally outlined in red, limiting the ability of residents to access home loans.

The investment is behind schedule and many houses are old and in poor condition. The nearby west and east sides have also recently gained more attention from developers and investors, fueling concerns about longtime residents being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Having to leave their home “can be really traumatic for families,” Way said.

“This is their home, and when the city issues families leaving notices, they often have no other alternatives – especially no affordable and safer alternatives,” she said.

District 5 City Councilor Teri Castillo, who represents the West Side, said the report reflected residents’ concerns.

“We are seeing our most affordable housing stock – the occupied structures – being demolished at an increasing rate and mostly concentrated in the city center,” she said. “We have to understand and remember that these are the homes of the people and these are the lives of the people that we are talking about.”

In this year’s budget, Castillo got $ 1 million for a demolition diversion pilot program and more money for a home remediation initiative. His request to appoint two code enforcement case managers to the affordable housing team of the Department of Development Services was unsuccessful.

“Going forward, making sure we continue to build on the pilot program, making sure we provide full services and rethinking the ways we apply the code – moving to a model where our compliance officers at code connects people to resources ”is important, she said.

The city is currently considering changing its development code, which also offers an opportunity “to help protect our residents,” Castillo added.

The city does not agree with the findings of the UT study and is reviewing them, which is expected to take several weeks, a spokesperson said.

Inspiration for the research came from conversations with community leaders about city code enforcement measures. The authors originally planned to focus on city policies and practices to help homeowners struggling to repair their homes, but that changed when they analyzed the numbers for San Antonio.

“We quickly realized that the city was so outrageous about its downright just aggressive use of these evacuation and demolition orders that we decided to focus,” Way said.

The city spokesperson said that while the report compares San Antonio to other cities, it also highlights regulatory and operational differences between them. Way said the authors focused on the same question for all cities: when and how the orders were issued.

The spokesperson also said the perpetrators had made “no real attempt to engage with city staff responsible for implementing the policy and procedures, ”which Way also disputed.

San Antonio residents can be removed from their homes if it is deemed unsafe for them, and demolition orders are issued when a home is considered a danger to public safety and cannot be easily repaired, according to the report. .

The authors said the city often does not offer residents a due process hearing.

San Antonio officials issued 337 release orders between 2015 and 2020 outside of a hearing process with the Building Standards Board, a quasi-judicial panel that hears code violations and appeals. During the same period, none of the state’s other largest cities issued such an order outside of a hearing process.

When hearings take place, residents often do not have legal representation. The authors of the report said they saw several cases in which they were treated badly.

One example in the report occurred during a Building Standards Board hearing on June 13, 2019, when a resident said she didn’t have the money to fix her house. She also said repeated visits by code enforcement officers were distressing.

“Ma’am, do you know how stressful it is for us looking at this property and knowing that human beings live here?” The chairman of the board replied. “It’s very stressful for us too.”

Michael Shannon, director of the city’s development services department, disputed the claims.

“Due process is the keystone of all code enforcement actions on a systematic and consistent basis, as required by enabling statutory authorities and local city code ordinances,” he said. in a press release.

“Release notices are only used when a structure is found to be unsuitable for human occupation and poses a threat to the health, safety and well-being of its residents, as required by the Property Maintenance Code. of San Antonio, ”he added. “Our top priority is, and always will be, the health and safety of our residents. “

The city often does not provide resettlement assistance to residents displaced by code enforcement measures – which the report’s authors say violates state law.

The spokesperson said the city adheres to state and local laws and that “staff systematically provide information on all resources available to help homeowners become compliant, including relocation services.”

The city’s home repair programs are also lacking. A major repairs initiative only helped 65 families last year. Residents without a clear title to their home may have difficulty accessing help.

“This obstacle is particularly problematic for the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic homeowners in the city who have inherited their homes from family members without legal paperwork,” the authors wrote.

The report lists seven recommendations for the city, including that it stop issuing orders without a hearing process and increase access to its home repair programs.

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