Tyler Tully

If San Antonio wants to revitalize the inner city, then the people who care need skin in the game.

Take a look at what Baltimore has done. While previous mayors focused their investments and energies into bringing conventions, tourism, and jobs to Baltimore, Mayor William Donald Schaefer had another view in mind.

Understanding that jobs and tourism could only do so much for the city, Schaefer designed a program to address the root of Baltimore’s urban decay.

A vacant home (right) wilts away next to its newly renovated neighbor. Photo courtesy of the City of Balimore.
A vacant home (right) wilts away next to its newly renovated neighbor. Photo courtesy of the City of Baltimore.

The inner-city historic neighborhoods needed desperate revitalization. But instead of investing millions of dollars in gentrification projects, Mayor Schaefer shocked the status quo by initiating the Dollar Row House Initiative, where historically designated row houses were sold to potential live-in buyers for only $1.

Balitmore Mayor William Donald Schaefer was born in 1921 and passed away in 2011. Schaefer served in pubic office for more than 50 years. Courtesy photo.
Former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, 1921-2011. Schaefer served in public office for more than 50 years. Courtesy photo.

Understanding that the $1 initiative was a long-term investment, Schaefer set up a system designed to revitalize urban decay, provide a means towards neighborhood community building, and a means to economic development. For the program to work, buyers couldn’t simply flip the home as soon as they bought it. An investment of both body and soul was needed.

For $1, home buyers had to agree to put skin in the game. New residents were required to live in the home for at least three years, bringing it up to municipal code standards, and restoring the houses through renovation. He brought a similar approach to entice businesses, offering historic shell storefronts for only $100 to those who would re-open them.

Schaeffer’s investment paid off big time. Urban homesteaders pioneered in the inner city, bringing dedication, buying power, and bodies back from the suburban exodus. Where the city’s impoverished neighborhoods ached with prostitution, crime, and unemployment, they now saw a genesis of community that came with a reinvigorated sense of pride.

Douglass Row homes in Baltimore, Md. Public domain photo.
Frederick Douglass Row homes in Baltimore, Md. Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was landlord for houses in this neighborhood; no doubt they helped fund his many abolitionist activities. Public domain photo.

Partnerships Begin

Over the last 10 years, the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation (EBMC), a non-profit designed to operate the Empowerment Zone, has brought together “a number of partners including financial institutions, government, private foundations, businesses, the nonprofit sector and other intermediaries” in order to focus upon creating “communities of choice” in depressed areas of the city. Their aim was simple: provide the means for safe, healthy neighborhoods with economically sufficient residents.

Notice that it didn’t say “economically affluent residents.” The problem in Baltimore was clear to anyone familiar with its historic neighborhoods near the waterfront, including Babe Ruth’s childhood borough called Pigtown. Economically depressed, historic areas became havens for arson, prostitution, and drug dealing.

Pigtown Historic District in Baltimore, Md. Public domain photo.
Pigtown Historic District in Baltimore, Md. Public domain photo.

Sound familiar?

The prescription for Baltimore was simple, but it wasn’t easy. Instead of playing the perennial pastime of popping the ugly head of crime as it surfaced, the EBMC set out to confront the source of the problem: lack of community. You see, community starts with neighbors, and the EBMC decided to establish local community-based Village Centers that acted to target specific strategies within their own neighborhoods. Generally speaking, these specific strategies entailed efforts in business development towards job creation, workforce development for those jobs, community capacity building, and improvements in quality of life.

And their implementation worked.

According to the EBMC, over the last 10 years, the economically depressed inner urban areas have seen an increase in home ownership, resulting in over 11,000 new residents moving into the areas–a feat enabled by the EBMC’s ability to provide special incentives towards closing costs and property purchases for the inner city. With new neighbors committing a choice towards their own communities, EZ neighborhoods saw a reduction in overall crime by 25%, with a 56% reduction in crime from December 1994 to December 2003. The EBMC helped to create over 5,704 jobs, assisted in helping over 700 small business projects, and made 108 business loans in excess of $21 million.

A row of homes in the Seton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. – most neighborhoods have their own profile at www.livebaltimore.com.
A row of homes in the Seton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. – most neighborhoods have their own profile at www.livebaltimore.com.

But the EBMC is not the only player in this revitalization effort. Since 1997, Live Baltimore Home Center organization has focused all of its efforts on introducing potential neighbors to the cities’ urban neighborhoods. Neither a quasi-government agency or a department of the city, Live Baltimore exists to connect potential neighbors with access to economic incentives, tax credits, real estate professionals, and inner-city neighborhoods. Like the EBMC, Live Baltimore operates on a budget from a consortium of individual, private, and public sources.

Live Baltimore peddles these incentives at their bi-annual “Buying into Baltimore” pop-up events, where potential buyers can achieve a $4000 incentive if they purchase a home with 90 days of the event. But in order to qualify, these homebuyers must procure a Homeownership Counseling Certificate–a designation they receive by completing a simple, one-time, group-counseling session and one individualized session on the home buying process. The point is, Live Baltimore works with the city and private entities in order to help place new, informed neighbors into historic, up-and-coming neighborhoods.

A Proposal for San Antonio

If San Antonio wants to reform its urban core, we need to strike at the source of our urban decay. Taking a play from Baltimore’s playbook, we need to seriously reconsider the problems of San Antonio’s absentee landlords, delinquent tax dodgers, and vacant lots in historic neighborhoods. What we need is a new generation of urban homesteaders.

A vacant historical home on Nolan Street, right across the street from Dignowity Park.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A vacant historical home on Nolan Street, right across the street from Dignowity Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

As a former Realtor who worked in the San Antonio market for more than four years, and as a resident and neighbor in a neglected historic neighborhood like Dignowity Hill, my family and I have front row seats to the absurdities of city community-management. There have been many vacant properties in our neighborhood that community members would love to purchase, renovate, and sell to more good neighbors. But the city and state property codes will not seize a property for auction, even if it is vacant and has many years of unpaid back taxes. So instead of being renovated to its former glory, vacant homes remain eyesores and potential havens for crime. Well, there goes another pillar of urban renewal.

A recent report by KSAT-TV news indicates that “there is still about $19.3 million in delinquent property taxes owed to local governments” in Bexar county, but San Antonio’s taxpayers have a tax collection rate of  97.83%.

Let that sink in a bit.

City code compliance operations seem like a pit bull with no teeth–they look like they could enforce something from afar, but up close they just look like geriatric puppies. I can’t tell you how much dirt you have to kick up into the air before city code compliance addresses your concerns.

Recently, the code compliance folks finally came out to our neighborhood after much hullabaloo from our neighbors, only to walk our neighborhood and dole out dreaded orange notices that quickly washed away in the rain, along with our hopes of addressing the issues. What good does it do to hoist up orange notices if the owners of these non-compliant properties do not even live there to read them?

The owners of this home off of Nolan Street appear to be preparing to renovate or demolish the structure – work vans were parked nearby. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The owners of this home off of Nolan Street appear to be preparing to renovate or demolish the structure – work vans were parked nearby. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

As is the case in our neighborhood, the same is true for many historic areas in San Antonio. Absentee landlords stand to lose nothing and gain everything by letting their properties decay. What incentive can there be for an absentee landlord who would be taxed for spending money to make improvements on their rental properties, thereby increasing the taxable value of the property in the first place?

Unless a physical structure is deemed unsafe, code compliance will not force any property owner into a compliance of codes. But what constitutes “unsafe” if code compliance can’t even get inside the property? Although compliance notifications can be doled out for unattended shrubbery, such kindle is not considered “unsafe” – even after it helps bring down historic properties with majestic potential.

All that to say, absentee landlords have no incentive whatsoever to increase their property values since they stand to pay in taxes for every improvement they make. In essence, they have every economic incentive to keep their properties in squalor rather than to improve the communities in which they are nominally a part of. Meanwhile, their tenets keep paying a rent they can afford in a property that will never increase in value, while the neighbors who care about their communities continue to see vacant houses and lots ransacked by fire, vandalism, and prostitution.

But shouldn’t we give those renters an opportunity to own their own properties, with their own skin in the game, so that revitalization can occur both individually and communally? Shouldn’t San Antonio’s historic neighborhood residents have the option to own their own piece of the city – helping restore each home to its historic glory–instead of living under an absentee landlord?

Two very similar buildings reside on either side of the San Antonio River downtown. One is entirely vacant. The other, the Exchange Building, is an apartment complex and home to two restaurants. Photos by Iris Dimmick.
Perhaps a similar policy for commercial buildings? Two very similar buildings reside on either side of the San Antonio River downtown. On the left: entirely vacant. On the right: the Exchange Building, an apartment complex and home to two restaurants. Photos by Iris Dimmick.

If absentee landlords do not stand to gain from increasing their own property values from fear of paying higher taxes, who stands to gain from increasing property values if not new urban homesteaders? And how are inner city schools to improve on their struggling budgets if their school districts are composed of low value properties? But if neglected urban neighborhoods were infused with a new population of homeowners who cared about the crime, quality of life, and businesses within their own neighborhoods, I have a feeling we could expect to see the exact same trends as Baltimore’s urban center.

So here’s a proposal for the Alamo city that takes guts, but rewards those who stand to help us truly see a transformation in urban renewal:

1. If a historic property is vacant with back taxes, or if the “owners” of a historic, inner-city property have failed to pay taxes for more than 3 years, the city should confiscate the property for dereliction of payment and place the property in a new trust for inner city revitalization.

2. The city should then offer Texas Vets, firefighters, teachers, medics, police, and city employees “first dibs” on purchasing the historic homes in that trust for $1–with the caveat that they must:
a) commit to go to Homeownership Counseling sessions before buying the home;
b) commit to live in the home they purchase for at least 5 years;
c) commit to bringing the home up to code in 1 year; and
d) commit to revitalizing the home to historic standards by the time they resell that property

3. Offer the general public access to the $1 historic property market, as long as they commit to the exact same inclusions.

4. Finally, the city should then offer small, locally owned businesses the opportunity to purchase seized historic store fronts for $100, as long as they commit to similar standards.

Such a process would not only create opportunities for private organizations to synergize with public, private, and grassroots entities in an effort to revitalize our city, but it would also allow for San Antonio neighborhoods to be once again possessed by good neighbors with skin in the game.

Tyler Tully is a writer and blogger based out of San Antonio, Texas. A graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University with a BA in Religious Studies and Theology, Tully is currently pursuing an M.Div. from the Chicago Theological Seminary. He is active in promoting the Irish culture in San Antonio and was named as one of the Irish Echo Magazine’s ”40 Under 40” in 2013. You can also follow Tully’s theological blog, The Jesus Event.

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Tyler Tully

Tyler Tully is an American writer, activist, and theologue based out of San Antonio, Texas whose work has been featured in local and national news sources including Real Clear Religion and Al Jazeera America....