Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) wants the San Antonio City Council to more aggressively protect renters by cracking down on negligent landlords.
She made a commitment to work toward that goal on Friday while speaking to a group of renters gathered in the parking lot of a motel.
The renters normally live at the Seven Oaks apartment complex in Northwest San Antonio, but many units there have been without air conditioning for weeks and even months in the midst of a scorching summer with more 100-degree days than not. Friday marked the tenth day they’ve been living in the nearby Motel 6, in rooms paid for by the city, the county and Sandoval’s campaign funds.
City inspectors at the complex, who visited it Friday to check up on violations they found earlier this month, also found units without hot water, as well as pipe leaks, such as one seen spilling out over the over the open sidewalk. Last month the San Antonio Report toured a unit with unchecked mold and swollen ceilings. Tenants at the complex recently formed a tenants union, and have sought to get the attention of the mayor.
“I can’t promise I’ll fix everything, but I promise you we’re going to try,” Sandoval told the tenants. When the council reconvenes in August, she said she would make a serious push to explore ways to protect renters across the city. “I wish we had gotten involved sooner. Nobody deserves to live in these conditions.”
She said the problem extends beyond Seven Oaks, as her district office gets calls from other complexes as well. The San Antonio Report earlier this year covered conditions at apartments owned by the city’s fastest-growing landlord, whose tenants also recently formed a tenants union.
Sandoval suggested that the current way the city does inspections and ensures habitable living conditions isn’t enough to prevent similar episodes from happening. “Clearly relying on the good will of the property management or company doesn’t always work,” she told the Report.
Unlike other Texas cities like Dallas, San Antonio has no system of proactive inspections for large apartment complexes like Seven Oaks. Instead, inspectors respond to 311 complaints on a unit-by-unit basis. Occasionally — maybe twice a year, inspectors said — they’ll do a complex-wide inspection if enough 311 calls come in from different units.
Discovered violations don’t mean instant penalties. Landlords are given around two weeks to address problems. If a re-inspection later discovers the problems haven’t been fixed, the landlord is referred to a municipal court for citations, each of which carries a maximum penalty of $300.
Violations at Seven Oaks discovered so far could add up to a total of $6,600 when decided by a municipal court sessions later this year.
Inspectors came out to the complex in early June and looked at about a quarter of occupied units in the 254-unit complex. More were found to be in violation of city codes than not.
Michael Shannon, San Antonio’s development services director, toured the complex for the re-inspection of units. He said the complex has been slow to act, failed to repair many of the out-of-compliance units, and made inadequate repairs to others.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said.
The 254-unit complex was bought for $27.3 million in December by Achieve Investment Group, whose owner, in a YouTube video, called it a “deep value add” and said that he wanted to “change up the demographic.” The company has embarked on a publicly stated plan to upscale the property and push rents up.
City 311 data shows that the number of calls reporting maintenance issues has spiked sharply since the new owners took over, more than doubling in the last six months over the entirety of calls made in 2021 and 2020 combined.
Sandoval said the company put profits over people, and that the “passive income” model its owner espouses is at odds with the purpose of providing livable homes. “When you look at the company’s website, and the book its owner has written…. it’s deplorable,” she said.
Achieve is one of many out-of-town investor groups that have rushed to capitalize on the growing renter class in the city. Roughly 1 in 7 apartment units traded ownership last year, as the rate at which investor groups buy and sell properties speeds up.
Since 2019, Achieve has purchased a number of complexes in town, including Rio Springs, the Valencia and Morgan Manor.
The complex’s owners did not respond to requests for comment sent Friday afternoon.
Achieve said on its website, intended for prospective investors, that it is aiming for annual returns of 22.1% on the Seven Oaks property.
That’s more than double the average return for apartment complexes in recent decades, as reported by CBRE. Other groups such as the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries have arrived at a similar industry average for returns around 10%.
Higher rents are supported by renovations, the Achieve website states.
So far, tenants report higher rents but few repairs. Peair Richardson, president of the Seven Oaks Tenant Union, said his unit has been without hot water for three months and no air conditioner for three weeks. He put in his first maintenance request in three months ago, but he said no maintenance personnel have visited his unit.
He said he has seen crews repaint the exterior walls of some buildings in the complex, as well as install new wood details in the stairwells.
Many residents who use Section 8 housing vouchers say they are being pushed out of their homes before the natural end of their leases.
Debra Watts, one of the tenants staying at the Motel 6, said Achieve has been charging her an extra $100 every month because they do not have a lease with her under the new owner’s name, only her lease with the previous owner. But she said they also are not making any moves to create an updated lease. She said representatives she’s spoken with have indicated that they no longer want to accept Section 8 housing vouchers.
Sandoval’s office said the households staying at the motel will remain there until their units are habitable again. While at least a couple have been able to return, more have since arrived at the motel, bringing the total number of households to 19.
Her office is also helping to facilitate relocation assistance through Neighborhood Housing Services, while the San Antonio Housing Authority is working with residents who use Section 8 vouchers.
Sandoval praised the union for bringing the complex’s conditions to public attention. She said she anticipated more tenants unions like it would form in the city, given “the housing situation we have right now.”