Three months after the City’s new Vacant Building Ordinance went into effect on Jan. 1, 380 property owners in the central business district and in various historic districts have received letters from the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) putting them on notice to register their buildings in the City’s Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Another 80 letters were set to go out in early April, bringing the total identified vacant structures to 460.

So far, 15 building owners have registered their properties (see map). Once the property is registered, owners must file a Trespass Affidavit that gives local authorities the means and the right to enter the property to deter crime, homeless use and make certain that unsafe conditions do not put neighbors or passersby at risk. They also must post prominent signage identifying themselves as the owner and how they can be contacted.

The annual vacant building registration fee is $250 for single-family residences and $750 for all other buildings. The City also will inspect all registered vacant buildings once a year and charge owners one cent per square foot with a $50 minimum charge.

Vacant building owners have 90 days after receiving the letter to submit their registration materials which includes a plan for bringing their building up to code. All issues do not need to be addressed within 90 days of notice.

“We want building owners to create a reasonable plan that we will then review and approve,” said John Stevens, vacant buildings program manager for OHP. “After the plan is approved, we intend to hold owners accountable to what they submitted and ensure that the work is completed.”

That work can include bringing the building up to code or offering the property for sale at fair market value. Owners can challenge the City’s determination by providing a signed affidavit that the building is occupied. That means buildings that are tagged with graffiti, or that have plywood over broken or missing windows, or fail to pass others standards of care must be fixed up or sold to someone who will fix up the structure. There are grants and loans available in some cases to help owners make repairs. Failure to register a vacant building is a Class C misdemeanor and owners are subject to $500 fines for each day they fail to register.

Vacant residential building located at 202 King William.  Photo by Scott Ball.
This vacant residential building located at 202 King William St. is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

While owners who are attempting to sell their buildings at fair market value will likely win waivers from immediately registering their building and paying the fees, said Shanon Miller, the director of the Office of Historic Preservation and the pilot program director. Owners who price their properties above market value will not be exempted and the onus will be on the property owner to demonstrate the asking price is fair market value.

Owners that have pulled permits and are already working to renovate the building for occupancy are able to receive fee waivers, as can the indigent, but they must still complete all of the registration materials and request a fee waiver that the OHP will then consider.

Vacant single family homes that meet the City’s standard of care are exempt.

Vacant commercial building located at 601 Dolorosa in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
This vacant commercial building located at 601 Dolorosa St. in downtown San Antonio is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We identify vacant buildings in various ways, including visual inspections, but basically, if there is no water service to a building it’s a pretty sure sign the building is vacant, so we’ve obtained a lot of information from SAWS,” Miller said. “It’s against the law in Texas to live in a house without water service.”

Miller said the total number of identified vacant buildings, now approaching 500, is “a bit lower than we anticipated at this point, but we are just getting started.”

Nearly 90 of the 460 vacant buildings located to date whose owners have been notified by letter are in the small, historic near-Eastside neighborhood of Dignowity Hill, representing more than 10% of the total structures. The neighborhood is one of the fastest-transforming areas in the urban core. It is home to Mayor Ivy Taylor and a real estate market enlivened by affordable, often-vacant historic homes. An infusion of young professionals are buying the homes and restoring them. Yet many vacant homes and vacant lots contribute to the neighborhood’s high crime rate.

The pilot program does not cover vacant lots.

Vacant commercial building located at 425 North Flores in downtown San Antonio.  Photo by Scott Ball.
This vacant commercial building located at 425 N. Flores St. in downtown San Antonio is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

Miller is overseeing the 18-month pilot program with a small staff that includes Stevens and Administrative Assistant Anitra Henning. Miller said she is seeking a second code certified compliance officer to help identify vacant structures. It’s a small staff with a huge challenge, and the department has made it possible for citizens to report vacant buildings in the pilot program area, including commercial and industrial structures, apartment buildings and residential structures.

“I’m excited to see where the program is in another 90 days. I feel that the ordinance is already having an impact by incentivizing some owners to get started on plans that have been put on the shelf for years,” Stevens said. “And I also expect to see a lot of work completed in the next ninety days as owners tackle the work in the rehabilitation plans. By then, many of these buildings will be moving in the right direction.”

Click here to report a vacant building.

The vacant building pilot program was created to address the large number of empty structures in the central business district and in historic districts in  the urban core. If the program is a success, it will be extended to other parts of the city. City Council passed the ordinance unanimously and every council member said they were eager to see the program brought to their districts to address everything from empty commercial strip centers to closed businesses and houses that become safety or health hazards, and contribute to declining property values and higher crime rates.

The City’s website has a very useful FAQS page if you want to learn more about the program or determine whether a structure you own must be registered, Eventually, the City’s database of registered vacant buildings could serve as a de facto real estate site for buyers and sellers.

“We’re already seeing signs that the ordinance is having the intended effect of motivating people to fix up properties or placing them on the market for sale,” Miller said.

*Featured/top image: This vacant residential building located at 1120 E. Crockett St. in Dignowity Hill is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program.  Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Exploring San Antonio’s ‘Exploding Urban Core’

San Antonio, Under Construction: We’re Not Slowing Down

Vacant Building Ordinance Could Be Game Changer

USAA Plants its Flag in Downtown San Antonio

Weston Urban Delivers Tower Proposal to City

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.