A San Antonio City Council committee on Thursday greenlit two initiatives aimed at keeping renters safely housed.

In the coming weeks, the full council will vote on the Proactive Apartment Inspections Program, which will levy additional fees and inspections on so-called “bad actor” landlords who allow unsafe living conditions on their properties.

This spring, council will consider a Tenants’ Rights Resolution and awareness campaign to better inform renters of existing local, state and federal laws related to tenant protections.

“[For] several years, we’ve heard of horrible living conditions, even before a lot of us were on the council,” said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who chairs the Planning and Community Development Committee. “It’s only until now that we actually have a policy to review.”

The inspection program proposal is the result of recommendations from a task force convened last year in response to derelict conditions at certain apartment complexes. The group has met a dozen times since October and is comprised of renters, affordable housing advocates as well as property owners and management companies.

“Not everybody loves every single little detail of it,” said Michael Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department (DSD). “The goal is really to incentivize good property maintenance.”

Properties of five or more units that receive three “eligible” citations — typically issued 10 days after the city gives notice of a city code violation — within six months must register to be placed on the city’s bad actor list. Only citations related to health, safety and habitability would be considered eligible.

Registration will come with a fee, Shannon said. “This is going to cost those bad actors some money.”

How much money remains unclear, he said.

Shannon estimates that four full-time staff members and equipment required for the program will cost about $388,000 in the first year and $300,000 in the years following. Two code compliance officers who were hired last year to focus on apartment inspections would be part of the new team.

Now that the council committee has given the go-ahead, Shannon said his team will crunch the numbers to determine what the program should charge bad actors.

“While we want to make it enough to pay for the program, we also understand affordable housing is critical and we don’t want to create a program” in which owners simply pass the costs on to tenants by raising rents. “So it’s a balance there.”

Currently landlords are typically referred to municipal court for citations, which carry a maximum penalty of $300. The city also has the option of pursuing criminal misdemeanor charges, which carry up to $500 fines. Fines can be doubled for repeat offenses.

That system would remain the same under the proposed new program. The additional “bad actor” fee is meant to further deter landlords from ignoring citations.

Citations for many of the more than 100 code sections in the local property maintenance code wouldn’t put an owner at risk for the bad actor list.

Citations for tall grass or weeds, for instance, would not qualify, he said. “If the grass is a little too high … that’s not as important as some of the key issues: sewer breaks, water leaks, [HVAC] unit condition, structural issues, etc.”

Property management will have to fix all violations and receive less than three citations over a six-month period to “graduate” out of the program, Shannon said. Those properties will then be subject to a four-year probationary period. If they reenter the program, they will be required to remain in it for a full year minimum.

Punishing bad landlords

Sylvia Flores began living in Seven Oaks Apartments in 2019 and immediately started having problems with air conditioning. She repeatedly asked management to fix the issue before filing formal complaints beginning in March 2022, but the issue wasn’t addressed until November — only after tenants organized and demanded more attention from code enforcement and elected officials. Other Seven Oaks tenants have cited mold, leaky pipes, swollen ceilings and retaliatory rent increases.

“These landlords need to be held accountable for failing to provide basic living conditions,” Flores told the committee.

Shannon estimated that roughly 20 properties have been cited so often for health and safety violations that they would have to register for the program if it was enacted immediately. But those property owners still have some time to fix the issues on their properties because the program will not be retroactive.

The rolling six-month timer for eligible citations will start after the council votes on the program, Shannon said, and the policy will apply to a property regardless of whether a property is sold.

Concerns about the program were raised by members of progressive groups Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and Texas Housers, an affordable housing policy and advocacy nonprofit. They centered around the amount of time that it takes — potentially more than 20 days if the landlord appeals a citation — to hold a landlord accountable.

“What are we, the residents, [supposed to] do while we wait?” asked Cecilia Galvan, a Seven Oaks resident.

Landlords are entitled to an appeals process, Shannon said, but the burden will be on them to prove that a citation is not warranted.

“No one got everything they wanted … but agreements were reached,” said Crystal Moya, regional vice president of NRP Group, a housing developer and property manager, who spoke on behalf of the San Antonio Apartment Association. “We believe that if adopted, this is a good policy.”

Uel Trejo-Rivera, a community equity analyst at Texas Housers, said some of the task force’s meetings were contentious, but she believes the new program is a good step towards accountability.

“The general consensus is that we want to punish bad landlords,” Trejo-Rivera told the San Antonio Report after the meeting. “There were things that we felt like should have gone further, but I think [DSD staff] was really great at seeing both sides.”

Tenants’ Rights Resolution

About 625,000 renters live in San Antonio and rental units make up about 46% of the city’s housing stock, according to a 2022 Texas Housers report. Almost half of renters here are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income toward housing.

If approved by council, the proposed Tenants’ Rights Resolution would serve as part of a citywide awareness campaign to educate renters on their rights when faced with eviction or poor living conditions, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said.

The resolution will outline local laws, those in the state constitution and federal laws that aim to protect tenants, including the right to demand home maintenance that impacts health and safety, advance notice requirements, the right to file suit against landlords who don’t make repairs and to be free of retaliation after a complaint is made or if residents choose to organize.

Pamela Cano-Desso, a member of the Tenants Union of San Antonio, protests with residents the living conditions at Vista Del Rey Apartments on Saturday.
Pamela Cano-Desso, a member of the Tenants Union of San Antonio, stands with other residents to protest the living conditions at Vista Del Rey Apartments in 2022. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Enforcement of those laws is often outside the city’s authority, but it can do a better job educating residents and connecting them to resources, Houston said. The city will develop material in English and Spanish that “clearly identifies who’s responsible and who to call.”

As part of the awareness campaign, the city will update the material landlords are required to provide tenants when they serve notices to vacate.

Texas Housers, TOP, My City is My Home and the Coalition for Tenant Justice have been advocating for a similar resolution, a so-called Tenant Bill of Rights, for more than a year. Trejo-Rivera said the resolution as proposed lacks “language regarding equity.”

The coalition’s preferred version would include establishing an oversight body that holds landlords accountable for their actions.

“[We’re] trying to craft this to truly reflect what we’ve heard in community meetings, and what we’ve heard with our stakeholders,” Trejo-Rivera said.

While she has concerns over the language of the city’s version of the resolution, she and other advocates lobbied the committee to expedite its approval process. “Why wait?” she asked.

Council is slated to vote on the resolution in May or early June, Houston said, because that time is needed to fully vet the proposed language with stakeholders, including the San Antonio Housing Commission, and collect community input. Public feedback meetings are slated for April.

Councilman John Courage (D10) said he, too, would like to see a quicker timeline, “but good laws take time.”

Avatar photo

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org