The City of San Antonio far surpasses other large Texas cities in issuing orders to vacate and demolish homes, disproportionately impacting low-income people of color and concentrating code enforcement efforts in the near East and West sides, according to a recent report.

While community leaders said the report confirms what they have known for years, the city challenged the report’s key conclusions.

Released by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, the study found that the cities of Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth issued no more than 16 orders combined between 2015 and 2020. San Antonio issued 626 — nearly 40 times more — during that same period.

The report was the result of a research project initially intended to be a statewide look at code enforcement practices that lead to residents being displaced, said lead author Heather Way, co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the university. “San Antonio was such an outlier that I decided to really just focus my time on honing in on what was happening [there]. … It was definitely shocking to see the difference.”

The intent of demolition orders is to prevent unsafe living conditions for residents. Poorer neighborhoods contain homes that are more likely to fall into disrepair because the owners can’t afford to fix them or landlords can’t earn enough rent to make fixing them up worthwhile; other landlords may decline to make the investment. Texas state law allows cities to demolish structures if they are likely to endanger people or property.

“We certainly have some areas of town that have older housing stock and that’s always a challenge,” said Michael Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department. “It’s just harder to maintain buildings — especially homes when they’re 60, 70, 80 years old — compared to a newer subdivision or a newer home.”

A “lack of empathy” for vulnerable families “permeated throughout the research” into the city’s policies, Way said. However, the report did not indicate the outcome of the orders to vacate or demolish homes.

The report, titled “Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions,” states that the city routinely bypassed a hearing process that provides residents due process in being notified of and challenging demolition orders and also failed to provide assistance to residents whose homes were slated to be razed.

Shannon said that is “completely untrue.”

“All code enforcement actions, no matter what it is, have due process in terms of the right to appeal, whether it’s a notice of violation, a notice to vacate or a citation,” Shannon said. “Making a statement that we don’t follow the law — I think that’s inaccurate, and that’s a big, broad statement that we just disagree with.”

Not all code enforcement orders require a hearing and not all orders result in demolition, he said. “Some things do get fixed … then they don’t have to move out.”

The city is actively reviewing the report and will produce its own policy analysis next week, Shannon said. “While I may not agree with some of the key findings in the report, I think it’s a good conversation to have [to] see where we can improve.”

The report identified 337 orders to vacate single-family homes that were issued without a hearing before the quasi-judicial Building Standards Board, which rules on building code violations and appeals. The board can order repairs or demolition at the owner’s expense.

Shannon acknowledged that the report highlights a challenging issue that the city faces: balancing the need to protect residents from dangerous living conditions with the need to keep homes safe and residents housed.

“Demolition is a last resort … even our code says that,” he said. “The report seems to make out that we don’t care about our residents and their safety and their well-being. And that, of course, is completely inaccurate. … We put a lot of thought and energy [into] helping people get out of dangerous situations.”

A lack of assistance?

According to the UT law school’s report, only eight of the 209 residents who received a vacate order from the city from 2018 through 2020 received financial assistance from the city’s rental assistance program. Providing assistance to these residents is required by state law, Way noted.

Code enforcement officers provide residents with information — typically a flyer — about resources such as rental, home repair and relocation assistance when they are issued a notice to vacate, Shannon said.

Between 2016 and 2022, the city’s home rehab programs are expected to assist 2,332 families with home repairs and reconstruction, a city spokeswoman said. The intent behind such programs is to help low-income residents maintain their property and thus avoid the eye of code enforcement officials.

Since 2016, the city has increased funding for its owner-occupied home repair program from $2 million to $10.4 million. Funding for the city’s minor repair program also also increased significantly, from $250,000 in 2018 to $4.75 million in 2022. The Under 1 Roof program, which pays for roof repairs or replacement with energy-efficient materials, increased to $5.25 million this fiscal year.

“There is a lot of need out there and a lot of challenges,” Shannon said. “I think the city’s trying to find those resources and add to those resources,” including developing a $1 million program to find alternatives to demolition.

The city needs to do a better job of making sure residents whose homes face demolition are connected to those resources, said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), whose district includes the near West Side.

It was Castillo who pushed for the pilot demolition diversion program in the city’s recent budget process. She also wanted to increase funding for home repair programs, which she said are still “grossly underfunded.” Her request to add two new code enforcement case managers, tasked with helping residents navigate the process of appealing an order and applying for benefits, was unsuccessful.

“Proactive enforcement to me would be a more holistic approach where residents are being connected to wraparound services … and letting the community know” there are resources for helping them maintain their property.

Development Services staff is working with other departments, including Neighborhood and Housing Services, to develop the demolition diversion program and will likely present a proposal to a City Council committee early next year, Shannon said.

The city’s demolition process was overhauled in 2015 to allow the director of Development Services to grant extensions for disadvantaged homeowners, add more protections for historic homes, and diversify the backgrounds of the Building Standards Board members.

East and West side clusters

The UT report identified two major geographic clusters where most of the orders to vacate and demolish homes were issued: the near East and West sides of downtown. These areas contain some of San Antonio’s oldest and lowest-income neighborhoods and high populations of people of color, and face the pressures of gentrification, such as rising property taxes.

“If you look at where the city’s incentivizing redevelopment … they’re right next to some neighborhoods where you see the highest volume of these orders,” Way said, stopping short of defining these incentives as causing increased demolition orders.

This map shows the "cluster" of orders to vacate and demolish in San Antonio's near West Side in relation to development incentive areas.
This map shows orders to vacate and demolish in San Antonio’s near West Side in relation to development incentive areas. Credit: Courtesy / Texas Housers and University of Texas at Austin

The report noted that “most code enforcement cases are the result of proactive code enforcement work performed by code enforcement officers,” but Way said she did not specifically analyze how the orders were initiated. Orders could be prompted by a Development Services team that conducts sweeps along main corridors and inner-city reinvestment areas, an anonymous complaint, a request from a City Council member, or in anticipation of a special event in the area, according to the report.

Castillo thinks it’s likely a combination of elements — targeted sweeps, neighborhood complaints, and real estate developers seeking to capitalize on developments such as UTSA’s campus expansion — that are driving the disproportionate demolition orders in the West Side.

She hopes the demolition diversion pilot can help keep people in their homes despite these pressures.

“We have an opportunity as a city to reduce the tools that folks have in these predatory practices,” Castillo said.

The report provides seven recommendations for the city to improve its process, including clarifying that demolition should occur only as a last resort “when the residents are in imminent danger of serious bodily injury,” expanding access to home repair programs, offering relocation assistance and counseling to all who receive a code-related order to vacate or demolish, and eliminating code enforcement sweeps in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latino and Black residents.

“The report confirms everything we’ve been telling the city,” said Leticia Sanchez, co-chair of the Historic Westside Residents Association.

An informational flyer isn’t enough to help a resident challenge a demolition order or access the resources they need, Sanchez said.

“Code compliance officers, many of them, serve more as a policing kind of entity versus ‘we’re helping the neighborhood,'” she said.

A more holistic, case-management approach, as Castillo suggested, is needed, Sanchez said, “because [the association] can only do so much.”

For years, the Historic Westside Residents Association has been attempting to help fill the gap by helping residents apply for assistance or appeal demolition cases, she said.

“It’s not our role to do what the city should be doing,” she said, “but we are trying to protect our residents.”

Iris Dimmick

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