In response to derelict conditions at certain apartment complexes, the City of San Antonio is considering a new, proactive apartment inspection policy in an attempt to hold accountable negligent landlords who allow tenants to live in unsanitary, dangerous and otherwise illegal conditions.
This won’t be the first time the city has attempted to rein in unresponsive landlords and substandard housing. At least two previous efforts have failed. But Mayor Ron Nirenberg says this time will be different, thanks in part to the work that was done as part of those earlier attempts.
It’s still unclear how such a policy might be structured. A San Antonio Apartment Association official said a policy that penalized “outlier” property owners or managers would be welcome. But she warned against possible unintended consequences for “good” landlords — or tenants.
Last month, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) called for a crackdown on negligent landlords after helping tenants of the Seven Oaks apartment complex in Northwest San Antonio. Many units there have been without air conditioning for weeks or even months this summer; others lack hot water and have mold issues.
“On one hand, we know what to do: we have regulations, we have inspectors and we have a general idea of which properties are in violation,” Sandoval told the San Antonio Report this week.
But the city must prepared to step in for residents when landlords fail to provide suitable living conditions, she said. “We need to have a process that makes sure critical repairs are done expeditiously or people have safe places to stay while they wait.”
Sandoval spent more than $5,000 of her own campaign funds to temporarily house some Seven Oaks residents at a nearby hotel, she said.
In a memo sent to Nirenberg last week and widely circulated to other City Council members, City Manager Erik Walsh outlined three possible policy paths forward.
- The first option, funded through the annual budget, would launch a pilot team of four to six city staff positions dedicated to regular inspections of all apartments.
- The second, funded through fees levied against property owners on a so-called “bad actors” registry whose properties have a “higher than normal” number of code violations, would dedicate staff to inspect those high-risk properties more frequently.
- The third option would require all apartments in the city to be registered and regularly inspected. All owners would be charged a fee, regardless of violation count, to cover the cost.
City staff recommends option two, with a stakeholder group comprised of city staff, property owners/managers, fair housing advocates and tenant groups to help determine the policy specifics. Policy development is estimated to take six months to a year.
Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report that he supports some version of the second option, the “bad actors” list.
“Unfortunately, there are bad actors and there always will be,” he said. “We want to be careful to not villanize the entire industry because, in most cases, property managers and property owners are trying to provide safe shelter.”
Problems are more likely to occur in apartments where marginalized and low-income populations live, Nirenberg said, and “where management companies and investment companies have more regard for their margins than the residents living there.”
Previous failed attempts
After seeing abysmal conditions firsthand in 2014 at Windbury Apartment complex, which housed refugees, then-District 8 Councilman Nirenberg took steps to create a similar “bad actors” apartment inspection policy.
That effort “died a political death,” he said, after “tremendous pushback” from property owners.
A similar effort in 2017 from former Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), which called for more inspections of senior living facilities, fizzled out after the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020.
This time will be different, Nirenberg pledged.
“We made housing a policy priority in 2018 and voters have demonstrated that this is a priority since then at the polls,” he said, citing the city’s housing policy framework and voter-approved $150 million housing bond. “I believe there will be support to move beyond [the] status quo.”
On Tuesday, the mayor tasked the council’s Planning and Community Development
Committee to explore a “bad actor” registration program.
Nirenberg said it shouldn’t take six months to come up with a policy.
“We do need to have stakeholder input, we do need to have a [council] committee steward this. But given the history and the tread that’s already worn on these policies, I don’t expect it will take that long. I hope it doesn’t.”
Sandoval wants a quick turnaround, too, but isn’t convinced a new task force is needed.
“We have an existing task force with renters and landlords on it and I think that’s an appropriate venue to get feedback through,” she said, referencing the Housing Commission’s renter subgroup.
Escalating violations to lawsuits
Minimum building safety and maintenance standards are defined in San Antonio’s unified development code, and include everything from structural soundness to pest control.
Unlike other cities, such as Dallas, which require an inspection of multi-tenant properties at least once every three years, inspections in San Antonio are driven by complaints.
Once a landlord has been given notice of a violation, they have 10 days to address the problem, said Michael Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department.
“If there’s an extenuating circumstance … we have the opportunity [to] give you a couple more days and work with you,” he said. “But if you don’t fix it, then then we would issue a citation.”
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.
The fines levied against a sustained, non-compliant property owner or management company should be much more substantial, said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who has a troublesome apartment complex in his district: Wurzbach Manor Apartments, which also houses refugees and immigrant families.
“The reason they’re bad actors is because they’re cutting corners — they’re just trying to put more money in their pockets,” he said. “So if money is so important to them that they’re willing to imperil the health of their tenants, well, then that’s not a person I’m going to negotiate with.”
Beyond boosting fees, Sandoval said the city should look into other disincentives.
Cities can also file lawsuits against owners, as in the case of the Vista Del Rey apartment complex, which has become overrun with squatters and raw sewage. Earlier this month, the City of Leon Vally filed a lawsuit and temporary restraining order against the owner, Shippy Properties, after years of code compliance violations.
Shannon said San Antonio could sue recalcitrant landlords, but it can be tricky to hold owners accountable. Apartment complexes, especially older ones, are changing hands more frequently, as investors flock into the city’s apartment market. About 1 in 7 apartment units traded ownership in the city last year.
That means any new policy should both hold problematic property owners accountable and make sure residents are living in units that are up to code, Shannon said. “We have to ensure that whoever the owner is, whether it’s a new owner or not, brings it up to the minimum health and safety standards and keeps it there for a good amount of time” before they’re taken off a bad actor list.
That list should not just apply to owners, but to the properties themselves, Nirenberg said.
“If someone is going to buy an investment property that is in disrepair, and they’re expecting margins off of that investment, they better budget in the repairs necessary to make it livable to the standard we expect in San Antonio.”
Target only the outliers
Property owners are facing their own challenges, many due to the long tail of the pandemic, like supply chain issues and labor shortages, said Celine Williams, interim executive director of the San Antonio Apartment Association
Complexes are also facing deferred maintenance issues, because “people didn’t want us in their units” during the pandemic, she said. The additional wear and tear of tenants spending more time inside their units has also exacerbated the issue.
Whatever policy the city crafts shouldn’t penalize landlords who are legitimately trying to keep up with maintenance issues, it should only target the “outliers,” she said.
The association is not “adamantly against having a proactive inspection policy,” she said. “We want to be part of the process and what that would look like, so that we make sure that everybody that’s coming up with this policy, fully understands … what they’re proposing and all the unintended consequences.”
For example, adding inspection fees means landlords would likely pass those costs on to tenants in the form of increased rents — in a city already struggling with housing affordability, she said.
Williams, who served on the 2019 task force, said a city staff analysis revealed about five properties at the time with a very high number of code compliance violations.
Like Nirenberg and Sandoval, Williams said there’s no need to create a policy from scratch. “We’ve already kind of vetted this out,” but the data and discussion do need to be refreshed.
For now, there’s not enough information about each policy option yet for the Apartment Association to support one over the other, she added.
Regardless of how the new policy is structured, Sandoval said the fees should hit negligent landlords where it hurts.
“At the end of the day it’s about the bottom line for many of these companies, so unless you’re hitting them in the pocketbook I wouldn’t expect much to change.”