City slams ‘Ousted’ report on its code enforcement practices as ‘fundamentally flawed’

EDITOR’S NOTE: A broadcast version of this story incorrectly stated the time period examined within the report and the name of the association to which one of the speakers belonged. The errors have been fixed in the story below.

San Antonio city staff are pushing back against a damning report that found the city’s code enforcement practices have been used to displace residents at a much higher rate than other cities.

“I believe this report was prepared with the intent to really incite controversy rather than help us,” Director of Development Services Michael Shannon told a city council committee on Monday, calling the report “fundamentally flawed.”

The report, “Ousted: The City of San Antonio’s Displacement of Residents through Code Enforcement Actions,” found 626 orders to vacate and orders to demolish occupied San Antonio homes between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin issued only 16 orders between them.

Other unflattering findings in the report included: orders being concentrated in low-income communities of color within the urban core, the city routinely failing to provide a due process hearing, and the city “rarely” providing relocation assistance.

However, Shannon says the report relies on inaccurate data and uses “unsound” methodology. He also says it lacks context about the city’s situation, such as the reasons for the notices to vacate, such as long-term nuisance properties related to the Dangerous Assessment Response Team.

Instead of 626 orders, Shannon presented data Monday showing 331 notices to vacate and 73 Building Standards Board demolition orders for occupied homes – a total of 404 orders.

The report’s lead author, Heather Way, is the co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin and says she has worked in the affordable housing field for 25 years and has been an academic for 15 years.

Way told KSAT that her team stands by their research. Their data, she said, came from the city through open records requests.

“I definitely think that there’s nit-picking going on here, and that really it is smoke and mirrors,” Way said of city staff’s rebuttal to her report. “It’s that they’re detracting, trying to detract from what the real issues are at hand here. And the reality is, even when you use the city’s newest, latest numbers, that the city still is forcing hundreds of vulnerable families out of their homes.”

While the full scope of the discrepancy in the numbers was unclear, at least one portion was due to the report’s inclusion of “hold harmless” agreements in which the owner agrees to let the city demolish their home.

Shannon did not include those numbers in his Monday presentation, saying they are different from a demolition order, but he told KSAT their exclusion still doesn’t make up the difference.

The city’s presentation also used fiscal years to organize its data, which run from October to September, rather than the calendar years used in the report. A city spokeswoman said the data they provided to Way and her team was also by fiscal year.

The city also listed a much lower number of emergency demolition orders for occupied homes — three, rather than the 44 estimated in the report.

In reference to relocation assistance, staff said the report only looked at one fund of money when there were actually several more that helped people going through the process.

“We have spent a lot of time, energy and resources, including financial assistance, helping people that have to deal with such a dangerous situation,” Shannon said.

Shannon says the city follows the law and provides due process, too. However, he did acknowledge that when there’s a home with immediate danger, the city will issue a notice to vacate, generally within 72 hours.

“It creates a dialogue,” he said. “And while we don’t have a process when I issue that in terms of a hearing before it, the process is there can be an appeal. And it’s also the time that we’re starting to work with the needs of that residents to try to identify the assistance.”

Way, however, said the orders don’t inform people of what their hearing rights are.

“How would you know if you got an order from the city saying you have to leave your home in 48 to 72 hours? You’re not an attorney. How do you know that you have a right to appeal — what that appeal right is? No one knows that,” Way said.

City attorney Andy Segovia told media members he was “especially troubled” by the report’s use of historic redlining maps laid over the locations of notices to vacate and demolitions.

“Because the not so subtle insinuation is that Mike’s people are over there with their clipboard saying, ‘The owner of that house — white. I’m going to ignore it. The owner of that house — Latino. I’m going to write a demolition order.’ Nothing can be further from the fact,” Segovia said.

Activists speaking at the meeting ahead of city staff’s presentation found the report rang true.

“Despite what might be said today about the data that was presented in the Ousted report — to refute the data — our lived experiences tell us that our neighborhood is under attack,” said Leticia Sanchez, co-chair of the Historic West Side Residents Association.

Staff said they want to commission a study through the University of Texas at San Antonio to examine the city’s code enforcement data, practices, and impact.

At least one council member, though, questioned whether that was necessary.

“You know, the fact that we’re having conversations about another study gives me pause,” said District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo. “I think we need to trust the community input and voice that has been coming forward for years, highlighting this as an issue.”

Way supports having more academic researchers look into the issue.

“The more attention that can be — to be given to this, the better. And just in general, the more attention that can be given to this issue will hopefully lead to the changes that are needed because, ultimately, that’s what this is about,” Way said.

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