A demolition worker sprays a recently destroyed house with water. Photo by Scott Ball.
The City of San Antonio disagrees with a report from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law that says the city has issued a high number of orders to vacate and demolish homes compared to other large Texas cities. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

City of San Antonio officials shot back Monday at a report that criticized the city’s code compliance and demolition policies and showed it demolished homes at a much higher rate than other major Texas cities.

“There are some fundamental flaws in that report,” City Manager Erik Walsh told reporters. “The health, safety and well-being … of San Antonio residents — that is our priority, and that report attacked that.”

Released by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law last month, the report found that the cities of Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth issued no more than 16 orders to vacate or demolish occupied, single-family homes combined between 2015 and 2020. San Antonio issued 626 — nearly 40 times more — during that same period.

The report and subsequent media coverage prompted city officials to conduct its own review of demolitions. They presented the city’s rebuttal to reporters ahead of a meeting of City Council’s Planning and Development Committee, where a similar presentation was delivered.

Michael Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department, said a preliminary review of data by San Antonio city staff found a much lower number: 331 orders to vacate and 73 orders to demolish for a total of 404 orders. 

City Attorney Andy Segovia said the report does not compare “apples to apples” because other cities have different legal structures for code enforcement. For instance, the cities of Dallas and Austin don’t have the legal authority to issue demolition orders, he said.

In response to the UT law school’s report, the city plans to commission what it called its own “true academic study,” hiring researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Segovia said.

The intent of demolition orders is to prevent unsafe living conditions for residents. The report showed that orders are disproportionally issued in poorer and older neighborhoods, where homes are more likely to fall into disrepair. Texas state law allows cities to demolish structures if they are likely to endanger people or property.

Heather Way, the UT report’s lead author and co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the university, said she stands by her findings.

“It’s just smoke and mirrors to detract from what the real issues are, and that is the City of San Antonio is still an outlier when it comes to issuing these orders to vacate and demolition,” said Way, who noted she has worked in academia for 16 years. “It’s a common thing to attack the messenger when you’re in that defensive posture. … It’s just sort of silly to say this isn’t an academic report.”

Way said the city omitted hundreds of demolition orders from its own analysis presented to reporters and a City Council committee.

“There wasn’t any sort of sophisticated methodology involved [in the UT report], because we just requested the data and then we reported the data,” she said.

The UT report, titled “Ousted: the City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions,” also said San Antonio violates state laws by often circumventing a hearing process for residents and rarely providing relocation assistance for residents who are displaced.

Those allegations also are false, Segovia said. “We comply fully with the city ordinances and state law.”

Many cases are resolved before reaching the point of needing a hearing, and other emergency demolitions are issued because there is a significant risk to resident safety, Shannon said. The report cited only the city’s use of one fund, its Risk Mitigation Fund, to assist residents who have to move, but the city draws on a number of different funds to help residents rehabilitate a home, pay bills or relocate.

“It takes about a year to 18 months to go through [the] process, sometimes longer, because demolition is [the] last resort,” Shannon said. During that time, code enforcement works with other departments, including housing and human services, to connect residents to resources.

Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez said the city has an obligation to prevent people from living in dangerous structures.

“If we fail to issue those notices to vacate, bad things could happen,” Sanchez said. “Then you’d be writing a different story: ‘City, you had knowledge that this home was dangerous and you allowed these people to continue to stay in that home.'”

During the committee meeting, Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said that instead of calling for another study, the city should save its time and money by listening to community members who have been advocating for better policy.

“I’m disappointed that this presentation was more an attack on the [report] and less about how we can work together to come up with solutions to ensure that we mitigate the displacement of folks,” Castillo said. “Whether it’s one or 400 families who are being issued notices to vacate and are being displaced, that’s one too many.”

Other committee members said they would welcome an additional study.

Many code enforcement and demolition cases in District 3 are initiated by residents who report dangerous living conditions or criminal activity in neighboring homes, Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) said.

Code enforcement officers need more resources to keep up with demand, Viagran said, “and I would like the proof to show my council colleagues, but I need that data.”

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