East Side land mine

Part 1 in this series, “Kangaroo Court: Meet the City’s new extra-Constitutional crime-fighting tool,” appeared April 7. It explored Constitutional problems with the Dangerous Structure Determination Board — which is staffed entirely by City employees — especially in light of the City’s efforts to use the Dangerous Assessment Response Team and the DSDB as a way to address crime. Read it by clicking here, and listen to a conversation about the story on Texas Public Radio’s The Source, at tpr.org or click here to download the program.

We were a real neighborhood. We weren’t a generic neighborhood.”

The gentleman prefers that I don’t use his name or take his picture. We’re standing in the crisp April sunshine on a wheelchair ramp attached to his mother’s house, next to an empty lot in Denver Heights on San Antonio’s East Side. The lot’s raw dirt shows the regular claw marks of a City bulldozer, as if it were a raked Zen garden decorated with random colorful stones. In another bare yard up the street, fresh grass has grown up around the stumps of cedar foundation posts; still other lots look as if they’ve always been empty plots of clover and ragweed. Elsewhere, a no-dumping sign guards a fractured sidewalk and lonely driveway. The houses that remain show various stages of repair and entropy. A small, frail white woodframe is boarded up, but a mustard-colored bungalow is ready for its home-makeover feature. A Folk Victorian with a sagging roof line and tilted front porch is on the market, its official realtor sign a notable contrast to the frequent handwritten offers of houses for cash or rent-to-own, no credit check required.

“This is one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Antonio,” the neighbor says, populated at one time by prominent lawyers, doctors, police officers, and educators. Nowadays he and his friends get harassed when they hang out at the corner of Iowa and Pine, once a commercial hub for this side of town. “We hold near and dear to everything that was around us,” he says. His mother is one of two of the old residents remaining on the block. “The City is just taking over. ... After we’re gone, the neighborhood is gone.”

In the past year, the City’s Dangerous Structure Determination Board has voted to raze more than a half-dozen houses along this narrow four-block street. But if Cactus Street appears to bear the brunt of the DSDB’s recent attention, it’s merely representative of District 2, home to what’s left of San Antonio’s historical black neighborhoods. Between January 1, 2009 and January 25, 2010, more buildings in District 1 were brought before the DSDB than buildings in District 2, but the outcome was very different. The demolition rate for D1: 40 percent. For D2: 77 percent. And District 2 fared better than District 5, where almost twice as many buildings were brought before the DSDB as District 1, and where the board voted to demolish buildings 78 percent of the time. (A few districts had higher demo rates, but far fewer properties brought before the board.)

“What they’re doing is destroying the homes of a whole bunch of poor folks who don’t know enough to assert their rights,” says attorney Eddie Bravenec, who represents several clients with DSDB suits against the City. “The rich people in life get what they need because they have the power and pull to do it, in general. But it’s poor people without a voice who have their things taken.”

The City’s demolition pattern lends some credence to this argument: District 5, the DSDB’s most popular target, also had the most residents living under the poverty level as of the 2000 census. District 2 was roughly on par with D1 in several key factors, including residents living below the poverty level, but the latter’s many historic districts are increasingly populated with upper-middle-class individuals with the means to restore their grand old homes.

It’s no mystery why Districts 1, 2, and 5 would be represented in DSDB hearings more than their counterparts: They contain the city’s highest concentrations of older homes, some of them from San Antonio’s earliest communities. No house, no matter how lovingly cared for, lasts forever, and most if not all of these neighborhoods suffered through a long mid-20th-century decline, when subsequent generations and new arrivals tended to settle in the suburbs while the historic mansions and middle-class homes of King William, Tobin Hill, and Lavaca became cheap rent houses or refuges for aging owners on fixed incomes.

And there is also a ready answer, if you’re looking for one, to explain why fewer dilapidated houses in Tobin and Beacon Hill are torn down than in Denver Heights: The former already possess row upon row of restored Roman columns and elaborate Craftsman porches. They are communities on the move, as more than one person has put it. Their neighborhood associations are actively involved in City programs such as the Westside creekways restoration and the bicycle master plan. Their members show up at DSDB hearings when a property is on the agenda, or call their elected representatives to intervene in a DSDB decision.

“You have to pay attention,” says Liz Victor, a member of the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association who has testified before the DSDB both in favor of and against the demolition of properties. Victor and fellow BHANA members have started attending the City’s Dangerous Assessment Response Team raids in their area, and the association has a committee of volunteers who take turns watching City commissions where Beacon Hill “is even whispered.” It conveys the all-important message that “they have an entire neighborhood that says we know what’s going on here, and here’s what we do and don’t support. … It makes all the difference.”

BHANA President Cosima Colvin adds that her organization works with the City’s code-compliance officers to address problem properties, which makes it easier when they do show up to speak on behalf of a house that’s been marked for the bulldozer. “They appreciate that we don’t always come out to fight them,” she said. But when they do show up to fight, they come prepared, starting with the checklist that is sent as part of the notice to property owners who are summoned before the board, including a feasibility plan and a demonstration of financial means. “You can’t just fight buildings being torn down,” she said. “You have to show you have a better choice.”

BHANA has had particular success working with the City to address substandard multi-family housing in Beacon Hill, including a single-occupancy-room rental on French Place for which they were characterized by the owner on local television as elitists. The charge still stings Victor and Colvin, who work hard to spread the message that Beacon Hill is an inclusive neighborhood. “We want everybody,” Victor says. “We just want you to be a good neighbor.”

Although Victor and Colvin are quick to point out the DSDB’s role in promoting safe neighborhoods, they have varying degrees of reservation about the process. Colvin says BHANA has learned to use code compliance as a last resort, after attempts to work with a property owner have been rebuffed or ignored. “Once it’s in the system, there’s a procedure,” she said. “It’s going to move along whether we want it to or not, so we’re careful about not introducing some properties to the system.” `See sidebar on 323 E. Myrtle, page 12.` In an email, Colvin summed up another mutual area of concern: “BHANA representatives have talked in front of various city boards and commissions and discussed with D1 council & COSA staff the need to provide more preventative options to the process. The current state of affairs leaves the city and the neighborhoods with only the choice of demolition by neglect, or demolition by the City.”

Often, by the time a property comes before the DSDB, Colvin says, it’s almost too late. “A lot of times what I see is a long-term neglect of a property … `on` kind of the last leg of the trip.” She brings up Malcolm Monroe, whom the Current wrote about in the first installment in this series, who is working with his cousin to save the 1930s home east of Dignowity Hill that belonged to his parents; it was condemned by the City last September and is now in litigation. “There were a whole lot of people who let him down before he got to the DSDB,” Colvin said, not least of all his neighborhood.

But if it’s true that Monroe’s community — or lack thereof — must bear responsibility for its many empty lots and dilapidated buildings, perhaps the City should take a lick, too. The full case files have been destroyed as part of COSA’s document-storage protocol, but according to the remaining notes, one or both of the Monroe brothers applied to COSA at least three times for assistance with their home, most recently in 2002, when Malcolm transferred the title to his brother for the application. Each time the process was terminated, in 1999 because of a “tax suit” and “no source of income.” Two subsequent denials are notated “infeasible.”

When I started working, one out of every five houses was vacant here — something so massive the City wouldn’t even take it on,” says Carlos Richardson, who’s served as president of the Denver Heights Neighborhood Association since 1997. “At that time, we wanted to try to save the neighborhood. My directive from the ladies was to try to return it to what it used to be.”

But revitalization efforts were thwarted in part by the City’s slow response to crime, and the Alamodome-dirt scandal, which raised additional fears about lead-paint contamination in old homes and the effect it could have on area children, who already were suffering from the highest levels of lead in their blood citywide.

“It’s hard to just pick and choose, because it’s all connected,” Richardson says of the factors that led to today’s dire state of affairs. “Tell the truth, no one had any hopes for the Denver Heights at the time. … `the City` was just unresponsive, period.” Many of the homes that had to be razed he chalks up to an influx of drug-dealing, but even after the 2006 murder of 18-year-old Michelle Carrasco, who allegedly was trading sex for drugs, “no one responded until the `2010` shooting on the day of the MLK march.

“It put the neighborhood in general in a very bad situation,” Richardson said. After the Carrasco murder, he testified before the DSDB, which voted to demolish the apartment building where she was killed.

Richardson was friends with the late artist Reverend Seymour Perkins, whose Eastside house and studio the City razed last December after a two-year legal battle. Officials accused Perkins, who died in February 2009 at the age of 79, of harboring drug dealers and prostitutes; Perkins maintained that he offered a safe haven for women, who, along with the neighborhood’s deep and complicated history, provided inspiration for his work. “Removing prostitution is a superficial issue,” Richardson said. “I told them, if you run them away from this location, they will be like shotgun pellets throughout the neighborhood.”

The root of the problem, he says, is that Perkins was being taken advantage of by drug dealers, and “since Reverend Perkins was the owner, he bore the brunt of the criticism. But we didn’t want his place demolished.” Instead, Richardson suggests, the City should be dealing with the underlying organized-crime element behind the drug trade.

There is great housing stock. Some of them just need minor repairs, some major,” said Mario Salas, District 2 councilman from 1997-2001 and a member of an Eastside tax-reinvestment zone. “They do have a problem with drugs in the area, with prostitution in the area. ... When I was a councilman, one of the things I did was try to get the board to `demolish buildings` at a greater rate ... It was almost the opposite of what it is now.” He says that factors such as where the City placed early public-housing developments — “dumping grounds, along segregated lines” — played a role in the area’s decline, but its neglect and crime are the product of complex demographic shifts “beyond the reach of leaders — often greater than what many cities can do without a major concentrated effort. And the city has generally taken a band-aid approach.” A generation died, he says, and the kids sold or rented out the houses, often without adequately screening tenants. He agrees that tearing down structures doesn’t address the underlying issues. “Then, of course, you have the problem of it going to another neighborhood, but that’s the nature of the problem.” And, he adds, “For a while, it was the only weapon a councilman had to get rid of slumlords.”

By all indications, it is still the primary weapon. Although many of the homes that come before the DSDB are occupied by their owners, it’s common for properties to be either in probate or held by an estate, or to be owned by an out-of-state landlord who has rented the property to unpopular tenants or left it vacant and untended. In some cases the latter are children or grandchildren of the original owners who’ve moved on, but Richardson says the area has also fallen prey to long-distance companies who are interested only in a quick buck. “The unscrupulous were the first to invest,” he says.

BHANA’s Colvin is in real estate, and she knows the type of investor Richardson is talking about, which she characterizes as “no better than a gang.” In addition to her association’s “good neighbor” program, BHANA has instituted what it calls a “responsible landlord” initiative. When residents complain about a multi-family residence, BHANA sends the owner a letter, which includes code-compliance resources, “because it’s always preferable if we can get them to work with us.” Before the French Place apartment raid, they invited the landlord to a meeting, but the owners weren’t interested in maintaining the property, she said. “They were interested in renting 27 rooms on a weekly or monthly basis … and milking the cow as long as they could.”

Colvin says these landlords often know how to milk the DSDB, too. The role of BHANA representatives at the board’s hearings is in part to be an institutional memory, reminding the board that they’ve seen a particular landlord before and heard him make similar promises. In the case of a building at 1024 Blanco that ultimately caught fire, the structure had been vacant for a decade, she said, but the owners showed up with counsel at the DSDB hearing, pleading in part that it had been in the family for 30 years. “Yeah,” said Colvin, “but it’s been neglected for 29.”

But along with the absentee landlords and unrepentant criminals, a significant number of impoverished homeowners get caught up in the DSDB’s impassive machinery, most troublingly through the multi-agency Dangerous Assessment Response Team, which has institutionalized the use of police records to target structures with a record of heavy police calls or incidents. The DSDB can lower the boom on a structure for a variety of reasons, from foundation troubles to hole-filled roofs. They tend to do so unanimously, and as the Current reported April 7, in an increasing number of cases last year because a San Antonio Police officer testified that the building had become a source of criminal activity, most often drug use and prostitution — allegations the City doesn’t have to substantiate. The Current is awaiting a complete accounting of DART actions from the City, but based on last year’s DSDB minutes, police officers testified more often in cases in districts 2 and 5 than in other districts, and as reported previously, the DSDB voted to demolish structures in 90 percent of those cases, compared to 60 percent the rest of the time.

“How can they talk about drugs here, drugs there, when they’re the ones who were turning a deaf ear and pulling down their shades?” asks the nameless neighbor on Cactus Street. Besides, he adds, “This is not the hottest part of town.” Like Richardson, and even Colvin, he wonders if more than benign neglect might be at work on the near East Side.

“We are being consumed by downtown,” Richardson says, a pattern he traces all the way back to HemisFair. Along with the proposed Commerce Street arts-and-entertainment corridor and its potential tourists and City services comes speculators and a new scrutiny of area homes. “We’ll lose two blocks, from Montana to Commerce Street. They’ll start harassing old folks” to put in new windows or slap on a fresh coat of paint. The City’s new inner-city development initiative, approved by Council in early February, may add to that anxiety. It proposes creating a land bank, which would acquire and sell or redevelop vacant lots, perhaps in partnership with nonprofits. While one City official says that they want affordable housing to be one component, it’s still under development. Because many of the East Side’s empty lots have demolition liens of thousands of dollars against them, there may be an incentive to sell or relinquish the land, whether it’s to the City or some other entity.

Leland Saito, Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and author of The Politics of Exclusion: The Failure of Race-Neutral Policies in Urban America, has focused on the ways race affects public policy issues such as economic development and historic preservation. He hasn’t studied San Antonio, but suggested that in its results, if not its methods, the DSDB’s razing of the East Side was reminiscent of the urban-renewal movement that followed passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1949. As with HemisFair, which dislocated a thriving and diverse ethnic community, “entire areas were declared blighted,” said Saito. “A majority housed working-class minorities.” Those communities were primarily replaced by middle- to high-income housing. The city governments tended to use the urban-renewal powers of eminent domain “to selectively move out minority residents,” Saito said, “but primarily in areas that could attract affluent residents.” If the City is in fact clearing out and improving the neighborhood, the big question is for whom? “The current residents or residents who, in their own opinion, would enhance the neighborhood?”

Bravenec is also suspicious of the City’s motives. “What the City has found is a way to take our homes away from us, without having to go through the jury system, or without paying us,” he says. He disagrees with the goal of HemisFair Park, but suggests that at least the government went through the public condemnation process, which required them to pay something for properties. “What the City is doing to the East Side is the same thing, but they’re not paying people for it.”

Attorney William Kuykendall grew up on Cactus, where his mother used to live and his grandmother passed away. He represents his mother, who owns property on Cactus Street, and also is invested in several properties himself. The City took down one of his mother’s houses as an emergency demolition after it caught on fire, although, he says, it was salvageable and she lived next door at the time. He has filed suit against two of the DSDB’s recent orders, because his mother didn’t receive notice of the hearing until after it had passed.

“In the political process, if your interests are not represented by money, or political movers and shakers, or a vote, you have no standing,” he says. Because the DSDB is a quasi-judicial body appointed from City staff by the City Manager, “votes don’t count.”

And the money and political movers? Kuykendall brings up the row of graceful faux-antique lamps lining Commerce Street’s redone sidewalks. “They didn’t put that there for the disparaged folks who live there,” he said. Those people need schools, not pretty streetlamps. “They put them there for the people who are going to live there in 15 years.

“This is how it’s done. This is condemnation 101.” The City cites and demolishes, then “investors come in, buy it cheap, and redevelop the area.”

The untended issues that fed the East Side’s precarious present may be complex, as Richardson and Salas remind us, but on the ground on Cactus Street, our increasingly agitated resident has it boiled down to a simple formula: “When you have nothing, you get nothing.”

Part 3, May 26: Taj Matthews’s plans for revitalization, starting with Cactus Street, best practices, and what’s on the City’s drawing board.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.