In July, San Antonio’s Building Standards Board, Development Services Department, and the City Attorney’s Office won a battle to maintain the status quo on the San Antonio Property Maintenance Code. The property maintenance code governs residential and commercial buildings and structures, establishing minimum building standards aimed at ensuring the public health and safety of city residents. Unfortunately, many San Antonio residents have felt that code enforcement has too much discretion in determining what meets their standards of “general welfare.”  

After the University of Texas at Austin published its “Ousted” report in November 2021 exposing that code violations disproportionately affect low-income communities of color in San Antonio, it was clear that there’s much room for improvement in the code. The report went into depth on how the city has routinely bypassed the hearing process, thus violating citizens’ due process. The report also explained how code enforcement efforts were focused primarily on the East and West sides, which are the historic communities of color in San Antonio. 

The Development Services Department is required to review the property maintenance code every three years, after each International Property Maintenance Code update. From March through July, the Building Standards Board was joined by four additional community members as non-voting appointed members. Together, they reviewed the changes brought by the most recent code update, along with recommendations from the city and proposals submitted by community members for consideration.

Although 63 out of 87 amendments presented to the Building Standards Board were proposed by the community, the board approved only 11% of those proposals. Over 96% of city proposals were approved. Of the internal amendments approved many were changes aimed at adopting new sections written in the International Property Maintenance Code. Many external amendments submitted by community members were aimed at codifying language that would provide translation services to Spanish speakers, ensure residents understand their rights to appeal, and provide more oversight on how decisions are made by code officials.

Throughout the code revision process, appointed community members often made the argument that more needed to be done to reach Spanish-speaking residents. Unfortunately, the City Attorney’s office and Building Standards Board members displayed resistance to codifying language that would include translation services in the notices of violation.

Personal testimonies given to justify certain measures, such as including a secondary opinion to the code officials for older structures, were cut short in earlier meetings because they were “not relevant” to the conversation.

Despite countless arguments, the Building Standards Board, Development Services Department, and City Attorney’s Office worked in tandem to uphold institutional framework as means to limit change that could’ve helped curb the number of violations in communities of color.

The San Antonio Property Maintenance Code will continue to move in front of the Building Standards Board on Sept. 8 at 1901 S. Alamo St. If approved, it will make its way over to the Planning and Community Development Committee, then to the full City Council for approval. 

There is an undeniable truth in San Antonio: low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by code violations. These are the same neighborhoods that have had to endure racial discrimination, urban segregation brought by redlining practices, and overall disinvestment. It is time to lift the veil of business-as-usual and make space for change.

Uel Trejo-Rivera is a housing advocate and active in community discussions relating to housing and the environment.