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It has been about 10 months since Roberto Treviño took office as then-interim District 1 council member in San Antonio. On his first day on the job, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, he was notified that Guadalupe and Miguel Calzada’s Beacon Hill home would soon be demolished. It was deemed a safety hazard by the City. Neighbors and friends rallied to help the elderly couple with declining health keep the home they had lived in for 50 years by offering monetary support and professional services.
After hearing of Calzada’s economic hardships, Treviño called for a stay of execution of the 100-year-old Victorian home.
City Council, on Thursday, unanimously approved an ordinance proposed by Treviño that changes the way the City and its Building Standards Board (BSB), handles demolitions. His Council Consideration Request (CCR), was inspired by the Calzadas’ plight. Fundraising and repairs continue on Miguel’s home while he mourns the death of Guadalupe, who passed away last month.
“I’m sorry she couldn’t be here to see this, because she really loved that house,” Miguel said softly after the vote. “The Lord has blessed me with these people, people like Mr. Treviño and (Bob) Comeaux.”
Community activist and neighbor, Comeaux organized fundraising and cleanup events for Miguel. He also brought in architect and UTSA professor David Bogle, who initiated and followed through on a request that the building become a historic landmark, officially designated by the City this summer. Comeaux, Bogle, and a team of friends continue to help with repairs.
“It’s gotta be a miracle, this doesn’t happen to everybody,” Miguel said of the unexpected support. The new ordinance is aimed at making the process easier. “That’s what I’m glad about. It’s going to help other poor people.”
“This is about compassion,” Treviño said. Demolition of a home is considered to be the City’s last resort, the “death penalty,” that should be avoided as much as possible, especially when long-time residents, senior citizens, U.S. Military veterans, or people with serious physical/mental health issues reside in them.
This ordinance will protect historic properties and keep people in their homes by preventing unnecessary demolition of homes, Treviño said.
The new ordinance allows the director of Development Services, currently Roderick Sanchez, to grant extensions and protections for disadvantaged homeowners, including the protected classes listed above, who live in a house that is being considered for demolition. The general guideline is to give about nine extra months, depending on the severity of the situation.
“The most valuable thing we can give people is time,” Treviño said. “And it’s not costing us one nickel. … The thing that lit me on fire in this whole particular project was when Miguel Calzada said, ‘I was embarrassed in front of the (Building Standards) Board.’ It made me feel awful.”
The ordinance also changes the composition of the BSB to require that the Council-selected board members hail from specific backgrounds including architects, engineers, general contractors or property managers, social workers, health care professionals, retired persons (over the age of 64), and U.S. Military veterans.
The BSB will continue to have two, seven-member quasi-judicial panels that take turns meeting almost every Thursday morning to hear code enforcement cases, issue violations, and consider appeals.
The ordinance also provides a few more hoops to jump through in order to demolish an historic home. While non-historic structures only need to be reviewed by one panel of the BSB, but, among other requirements, buildings with an historic designation will need a demolition approval by the full board. Before even being heard by the board, though, the property needs to have two municipal court dispositions.
“The reality is that a lot of times by the time they get to the Buildings Standards Board process, (the buildings) end up getting demolished,” Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation, told the Rivard Report during an interview last month. “And when it comes to historic buildings that’s not what we want to happen. … If a property comes up that we think is eligible for designation then we can take it through that process.”
Building demolition can be initiated by the building owners, who typically cite an undue economic burden associated with renovation, or the City, which needs to prove the building unsafe and allow time (now even more time in some cases) for the property owner to get the building back up to code.
But a property owner can go through both the Historic and Design Review Commission process and the BSB, resulting in conflicting messages from the City. While the BSB has actual, legal authority, the HDRC can only make recommendations. Cases where property owners have tried to use a BSB or HDRC ruling against the other have sent a message to City staff across departments to better communicate about ongoing properties, Miller said.
This ordinance is not designed for flippers.
“Sometimes the owners aren’t as sympathetic (like Miguel),” Miller said. Some real estate buyers would rather have an empty lot to deal with than a historic home.
There is still a penalty for purposefully letting a property – historic or not – decay to the point of demolition. “What were trying to communicate through this demolition ordinance and the vacant building ordinance is that (demolition by neglect) is not really an option anymore,” she said.
If a property owner is found by the board or municipal court to have done so, an existing ordinance still prevents them from building on that property for five years – a major disincentive for anyone looking to turn a quick profit.
“The promise of time would only apply to an owner-occupied residence,” Miller said. “And when it’s an historic building, part of it isn’t even about the owner, it’s about the fact that it’s contributing to the historic fabric of the city.”
Districts 2 (Eastside) and 5 (Westside) have the highest number of building demolitions, according to data provided by the Development Services Department (DSD).
In 2014, there were 51 demolitions, four of which were historic, in District 2 and 37 in District 5, none of which were historic. For perspective, District 3 (southeast side) had 15 and District 1 (center/north city) had 14 total demolitions and the remaining districts had less than seven each.
Other provisions of the ordinance calls for DSD and OHP to, rather than impose fees and charge for demolition, work together to see if City dollars could be spent on emergency stabilization repairs.
“Let’s say that it would cost $10,000 to demolish a structure. Why not take that $10,000, maybe get a matching grant and put it into the foundation?” she said. “Then you’ve left an asset for the property owner versus a vacant lot.”
Meanwhile, work will continue at Miguel’s house.
“We’ve done the foundation repairs and now we’re working on the envelope repairs – it’s going to need a new roof and repairing some of the structurally deficient wood,” Bogle said, who has been working almost entirely pro-bono on the project. “It’s absolutely (achievable).”
The historic designation of the home has helped with fundraising, visibility and bring in more community members, Bogle said.
“It’s also just worth preserving,” he said. “It’s worth being around another 100 years.”
*Top image: Miguel Calzada (center) hugs Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) in City Council Chambers while his daughter, Anabel (left), looks on. Photo by Iris Dimmick.