Tenants are getting organized at an apartment complex rife with conditions they call dangerous and that authorities say is fraught with code violations, including a lack of a valid occupancy certificate.

The newly formed Vista Del Rey Tenants Union presented a petition Saturday morning with more than 150 signatures to management at the Vista Del Rey apartment complex, a 453-unit property in Leon Valley owned by Shippy Properties.

The petition described a litany of failures to provide basic living standards, such as frequent and prolonged water outages, a lack of hot water, broken air conditioning equipment and inadequate security measures.  It demanded from management repairs as well as more communication and transparency.

The more than dozen tenants gathered in front of the office, where personnel locked the door, grew slightly in number over the course of an hour, as they spoke to media, led a chant and made speeches.

“We are here to remind management and David Shippy that we will not be prisoners in our own home and refuse to be your cash machine,” Denise Garcia said through a microphone, reading the petition aloud. “More than the violation of the law, we are wanting a reprieve from the stress, shame and frustrations from all the major maintenance issues that have taken a toll on us and our families,” she said.  

The San Antonio Report reported on the complex in January and revealed that the complex’s landlord, David Shippy, had written a book describing his apartments as “cash machines” and its working-class tenants as a “captive audience.”

The book, written as a spiritual and practical guide to getting rich, contains advice to prospective landlords on how to lower maintenance costs, such as to “shop around and find the lowest prices for big-ticket items like appliances, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, and paint.”

Shippy Properties last year was the fastest-growing landlord in San Antonio, where a majority of the Austin-based company’s more than $1 billion worth of assets are located.

It’s one of many out-of-town investor groups that have rushed to capitalize on a growing renter class in the city. Roughly 1 in 7 apartment units traded ownership last year.

Among the tenants gathered on Saturday was Nadarah Hawkins, who along with her 4-year-old daughter has been without hot water for more than two months, she said. Her toilet also recently became clogged and began spewing sewage into her apartment. She said she had difficulty getting anyone from management to come and even called Shippy Properties’ Austin office. The flooding continued for 11 days before it was fixed, she said.

Nadarah Hawkins, a tenant at Vista De Rey, says she and her four-year-old daughter, Lotius, have been without hot water for more than two months
Nadarah Hawkins, a tenant at Vista Del Rey, says she and her 4-year-old daughter, Lotius, have been without hot water for more than two months Credit: Waylon Cunningham / San Antonio Report

She used to have a job working from home for a call center but had to leave because her units’ condition took such a toll on her mental health. “I really liked the job, but I couldn’t even function,” she said.

Hawkins said she tried to move to a better apartment complex last year, but that complex wanted to verify her rental history before she could sign a lease. She said Shippy Properties would not respond to phone calls or emails requesting this verification, so eventually the new complex denied her, taking with them a nonrefundable $135 application fee.

She said the new lease she had to sign with Shippy raised her rent from $849 to $1000 a month.

Tenant after tenant described chaos in the property’s management — frequent staff turnover, scattered documentation, overworked maintenance workers — that had left deep wounds in their lives and their children’s lives.

Tristen Settles, a welder who works long hours, said his two young children have been burned in the bathtub by scalding water gushing out suddenly after weeks without any hot water. They also have to stay in the one room that has functioning air conditioning.

Lakie Martin said he can’t get mail because his mailbox, like so many at the complex, is broken.

Abigail Ceniceroz said her rent relief checks from the city were cashed by someone, but the complex says she still owes the money the checks were supposed to cover. Shippy is now demanding $6,000.

Angelica Scott said a visit this week from Child Protective Services will determine whether problems in the apartment — like mold, air conditioning and a roach infestation — have been resolved enough to give her back her children. “If the apartment doesn’t fix it by then, my kids don’t come home,” she said.

Many of the tenants say they’re charged wrongful fees: pet fees when they don’t have pets; pest control when they don’t get pest control; rental fees for laundry machines they don’t have.

Emails to Shippy Properties and local management staff seeking comment went unanswered Saturday.

The Vista Del Rey Tenants Union’s petition has been building for months, organizers said, as they went door-to-door to collect signatures. The process was led initially by the Tenants Union of San Antonio, a housing rights group, but snowballed as tenants took over the process.

John Showecker, a resident at Vista Del Rey Apartments, speaks about the living conditions at the complex during a protest on Saturday.
John Showecker, a resident at Vista Del Rey Apartments, speaks about the living conditions at the complex during a protest on Saturday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

John Showecker, a member of the Vista Del Rey Tenants Union, said it would pursue “nonviolent, democratic” means to improve conditions at the complex, such as a public pressure campaign.

Texas law protects groups of renters who are organizing from retaliation by a landlord. But the leverage these groups can wield is limited, as Texas severely limits renters rights when rent is withheld — a primary tool for similar groups in states like California.

But many tenants might be doing that on their own already, suggests a recent email from property management sent to tenants.

The email, sent May 18, urged residents to sign up for rent relief from the city because the rent money it could provide would help pay for repairs at the property. “When almost half of the community isn’t paying, it [affects] the entire property so lets get the help we need to keep our property running.”

In another sign of the tenants’ growing organization, several spoke at a meeting of the Leon Valley City Council in early May. The complex and its numerous code violations have become an issue at the council.

Weeks earlier, in March, Leon Valley Assistant Fire Chief Eric Burnside briefed the council on what he described as worsening compliance issues at the deteriorating complex, whose ownership has traded hands three times since 2019 alone. “It’s always someone new,” he said.

The complex does not currently have a valid certificate of occupancy, he said, and until shortly before the meeting, its management under Shippy Properties had been unresponsive to the city and to the Leon Valley Fire Department’s cries for compliance. He said management had recently assured them it was working on the issues.

Leon Valley’s code inspectors and fire department had cited a number of issues. Boiler rooms, which provide hot water, had been deemed unsafe and a fire hazard. Extinguishers were missing from several buildings. Garbage had built up on balconies, and at least one fire sprinkler system had fallen out of compliance.

In January and February alone, the city reported 21 emergency calls, including three assaults, two shooting victims, two death-on-arrivals, and two fires at Vista Del Rey.

Shippy Properties’ director of operations, Roberto Bernal, said at the March meeting that property staff members were working through the issues and that more than $1 million had been spent on safety improvements at the complex, including exterior lighting, fencing, fire extinguishers and more. He said security services were being beefed up as well.

Burnside said city staff would be working with the property managers to address problems at the complex.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.