Nearly 500 Vacant Buildings ID’d in Pilot Program’s First 90 Days

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Vacant residential building located at 1120 East Crockett St in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Scott Ball.

This vacant residential building located at 1120 E. Crockett St. in Dignowity Hill is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

Three months after the City’s new Vacant Building Ordinance went into effect on Jan. 1, 380 property owners in the central business district and in various historic districts have received letters from the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) putting them on notice to register their buildings in the City’s Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Another 80 letters were set to go out in early April, bringing the total identified vacant structures to 460.

So far, 15 building owners have registered their properties (see map). Once the property is registered, owners must file a Trespass Affidavit that gives local authorities the means and the right to enter the property to deter crime, homeless use and make certain that unsafe conditions do not put neighbors or passersby at risk. They also must post prominent signage identifying themselves as the owner and how they can be contacted.

The annual vacant building registration fee is $250 for single-family residences and $750 for all other buildings. The City also will inspect all registered vacant buildings once a year and charge owners one cent per square foot with a $50 minimum charge.

Vacant building owners have 90 days after receiving the letter to submit their registration materials which includes a plan for bringing their building up to code. All issues do not need to be addressed within 90 days of notice.

“We want building owners to create a reasonable plan that we will then review and approve,” said John Stevens, vacant buildings program manager for OHP. “After the plan is approved, we intend to hold owners accountable to what they submitted and ensure that the work is completed.”

That work can include bringing the building up to code or offering the property for sale at fair market value. Owners can challenge the City’s determination by providing a signed affidavit that the building is occupied. That means buildings that are tagged with graffiti, or that have plywood over broken or missing windows, or fail to pass others standards of care must be fixed up or sold to someone who will fix up the structure. There are grants and loans available in some cases to help owners make repairs. Failure to register a vacant building is a Class C misdemeanor and owners are subject to $500 fines for each day they fail to register.

Vacant residential building located at 202 King William.  Photo by Scott Ball.

This vacant residential building located at 202 King William St. is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

While owners who are attempting to sell their buildings at fair market value will likely win waivers from immediately registering their building and paying the fees, said Shanon Miller, the director of the Office of Historic Preservation and the pilot program director. Owners who price their properties above market value will not be exempted and the onus will be on the property owner to demonstrate the asking price is fair market value.

Owners that have pulled permits and are already working to renovate the building for occupancy are able to receive fee waivers, as can the indigent, but they must still complete all of the registration materials and request a fee waiver that the OHP will then consider.

Vacant single family homes that meet the City’s standard of care are exempt.

Vacant commercial building located at 601 Dolorosa in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

This vacant commercial building located at 601 Dolorosa St. in downtown San Antonio is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We identify vacant buildings in various ways, including visual inspections, but basically, if there is no water service to a building it’s a pretty sure sign the building is vacant, so we’ve obtained a lot of information from SAWS,” Miller said. “It’s against the law in Texas to live in a house without water service.”

Miller said the total number of identified vacant buildings, now approaching 500, is “a bit lower than we anticipated at this point, but we are just getting started.”

Nearly 90 of the 460 vacant buildings located to date whose owners have been notified by letter are in the small, historic near-Eastside neighborhood of Dignowity Hill, representing more than 10% of the total structures. The neighborhood is one of the fastest-transforming areas in the urban core. It is home to Mayor Ivy Taylor and a real estate market enlivened by affordable, often-vacant historic homes. An infusion of young professionals are buying the homes and restoring them. Yet many vacant homes and vacant lots contribute to the neighborhood’s high crime rate.

The pilot program does not cover vacant lots.

Vacant commercial building located at 425 North Flores in downtown San Antonio.  Photo by Scott Ball.

This vacant commercial building located at 425 N. Flores St. in downtown San Antonio is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

Miller is overseeing the 18-month pilot program with a small staff that includes Stevens and Administrative Assistant Anitra Henning. Miller said she is seeking a second code certified compliance officer to help identify vacant structures. It’s a small staff with a huge challenge, and the department has made it possible for citizens to report vacant buildings in the pilot program area, including commercial and industrial structures, apartment buildings and residential structures.

“I’m excited to see where the program is in another 90 days. I feel that the ordinance is already having an impact by incentivizing some owners to get started on plans that have been put on the shelf for years,” Stevens said. “And I also expect to see a lot of work completed in the next ninety days as owners tackle the work in the rehabilitation plans. By then, many of these buildings will be moving in the right direction.”

Click here to report a vacant building.

The vacant building pilot program was created to address the large number of empty structures in the central business district and in historic districts in  the urban core. If the program is a success, it will be extended to other parts of the city. City Council passed the ordinance unanimously and every council member said they were eager to see the program brought to their districts to address everything from empty commercial strip centers to closed businesses and houses that become safety or health hazards, and contribute to declining property values and higher crime rates.

The City’s website has a very useful FAQS page if you want to learn more about the program or determine whether a structure you own must be registered, Eventually, the City’s database of registered vacant buildings could serve as a de facto real estate site for buyers and sellers.

“We’re already seeing signs that the ordinance is having the intended effect of motivating people to fix up properties or placing them on the market for sale,” Miller said.

 

*Featured/top image: This vacant residential building located at 1120 E. Crockett St. in Dignowity Hill is registered through the Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Vacant Building Ordinance Could Be Game Changer

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9 thoughts on “Nearly 500 Vacant Buildings ID’d in Pilot Program’s First 90 Days

  1. I understand the need for this program and believe it is necessary for property owners of vacant -neglected properties to be held accountable. However, like many programs run by bureaucratic government it could be run better and should be run better. I moved out of San Antonio for work and placed my home in Monticello Park for sale in May of last year. It was on the market for 7 months. I kept all utility services on and my folks made sure the house was looked after including lawn services. In Nov. Or Dec 2014 I received a letter from the city identifying my home as a vacant property and requiring me to provide information on the status of my home for this program. I read thru all that was required for the property owner to do to “prove” the house was not sitting vacant and neglected and the fees required with the program. I was outraged. It’s puts an un-needed burden on good property owners like myself just trying to sell their home. I don’t understand how the city government can’t use some common sense and their current city departments/organizations to identify these homes. They already have code enforcement and should be able to get info from bexar county tax assessors to identify truly neglected -vacant properties. (Not to mention they could have pulled up the active real estate listing that included tons of pictures of the inside and outside of the home showing the condition it was in.) Luckily for me my house was already under contract and I didn’t have to deal with it. I feel sorry for other property owners who were put thru this process unnecessarily. I’m attaching a pic of my house at it sat when this letter from the city was received.

  2. That’s our great little house as the cover photo! https://crockettstreethouse.wordpress.com/
    At first I was shocked that I got the City’s notice since I have permits pulled but I made a couple of phones calls to the City to ask questions and then filled out the City’s Vacant Building registration form. The process was pretty straightforward so I sincerely hope that this joint effort lead by Office of Historic Preservation and including Development Services (code enforcement) and Center City Development will encourage more property owners to be good neighbors and to bring these historic structures back into circulation.
    Our 1886 house, like most of the remaining historic structures in this area have so many connections to interesting events and people.
    The 2 most recent owners of this house over the past 30 years, including ourselves, have done major repair and renovation work in efforts to save it. At one time the house was at great risk of being demolished but wiser heads prevailed. The majority of the work we’ve done since we bought it in 2013 has been structural and that’s been the best decision we’ve made. The rest of the work is cosmetic. The bonus of this house, as in all small houses, is that the small size allows us to do much of the cosmetic and finish work ourselves: by the time we’ve mastered whatever skill we need, that part of the job is done.

  3. Bob, thanks for an excellent post and for highlighting the vacant properties ordnance. Vacant properties in my neighborhood of Dignowity not only are contributing factors to crime but also contribute to visual blight that can be seen in parts of the neighborhood. Your count of over 90 vacant properties is close to my count of 92 vacant properties within a 6 street area in Dignowity that I recently did. There is no question that the neighborhood’s transformation has accelerated over the last couple of years but at same time we have a great number of absentee property owners with little or no desire to maintain their properties. I’m hopeful that the ordinance will be administered effectively and will motivate vacant property owners to either clean up their properties or sell to more responsible individuals.

    • Juan

      The City’s count in Dignowity Hill might be low, which is why the program team is inviting citizens to report vacant buildings, including residential and neighborhood buildings. The story contains the link for reporting vacant buildings. Program Direct John Stevens advised us today that our article already has led to a number of such citizen reportings and the City hopes to receive more. The Rivard Report will publish the complete database in the near future so people can check the vacant buildings identified by the City against what they see in their own neighborhoods. –RR

  4. Who is determining the fair market value of properties in this process? FMV of properties in a dynamic market where fast paced development has, and continues, to drive up property values creates difficulties in valuing properties in the downtown area. Is the city retaining neutral third party appraisers to appraise properties? Failure to do so will raise serious due process concerns about de facto imminent domain takings and will almost certainly result in intractable litigation.

    • John

      My understanding of the process, based on conversations with Shanon Miller, Director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation, is that the onus is on property owners to demonstrate their asking price is supported by comparable market offerings, recent sales, etc. The owner of a Dignowity Hill residential property, for example, cannot claim a vacant house is worth $200 a sq. ft. if other DH sales have been in the $60-80 a sq. ft. range. A downtown building owner can’t ask $5 million for an off-River Walk parking lot valued at a few hundred thousand dollars that might be worth 25% of the asking price. Your point, however, is well taken. The process of resolving disputes or challenges will have to be transparent and undertaken in a manner that both the property owner and the taxpayer conclude the City is acting in a fair and consistent manner. I’ve been accused more than once of being an optimist in my views of the calibr of City staff, but I know Miller and have met her team, and believe their intentions are to do all they can do to help the property owners meet the new standards at the same time they realize the best outcome for their property –RR

  5. Great post, but I was wondering if there is a public list of the currently registered and/or properties identified as needing to be registered. A quick search on the OHP and city websites did not yield a list of those 450+ properties in an easily accessible list. Has the RR staff been able to find, and/or receive a copy of those current properties?

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