For more than 50 years, Beacon Hill residents Miguel and Guadalupe Calzada have lived in their 100-year-old Victorian Home on West French Place. But 10 years ago, tragedy struck. Miguel managed to survive a major heart attack strong enough to be described as a “widow maker.” In the meantime, Guadalupe has developed a liver ailment and is on the waiting list for a transplant.
The Calzadas are people of modest means, even more so since health problems have laid them low. With little resources at hand, their once-beautiful house has deteriorated and is on the brink of being uninhabitable.
One day, as the story goes, a family friend house-sitting for them was on the front porch when he was approached by an anonymous gentleman. The person offered to purchase the house. The house-sitter told him it was not for sale. At that point, the person became irate. He threatened to call the city and have them come out and tear the house down.
Beacon Hill is becoming a hotbed for house flippers and developers. In fact, two new homes are being built next door to the Calzada residence, where a four-plex once stood.
Not long after this threat was made, the nightmare began for the Calzadas. City Code Compliance officers began showing up. They went through the property with a fine-tooth comb and documented a litany of violations.
Soon after that, a “Notice to Vacate/Utility Disconnect” order was issued by the City. Miguel responded by attempting to fix up the electrical issues, but it was too little, too late. The City was apparently intent upon tearing down the house and sending him the bill for the demolition.
Wanting to save his beloved home, Miguel tried to get a home-equity loan. But because he doesn’t currently live there, his application was declined. He found himself in a quandary, with no realistic choices.
Miguel then appeared before the Building Standards Board. As a humble homeowner who runs a salvage business for a living, standing in front of a dais filled with people he perceived to be unsympathetic to his plight was intimidating to say the least, he said.
He attempted to negotiate a compromise. He wanted to tear down the house himself so that he could sell the salvaged materials. Old woods such as longleaf pine are only available through salvage, and as such have considerable value. He even initiated the process by starting to tear down the back wall of the home.
It was at this point that Miguel met community activist Bob Comeaux.
“This house could be saved,” Comeaux remarked. “His wife should be allowed to return to her home.”
Comeaux, who renovated his nearby Victorian house, noted that his home was in worse shape than Miguel’s when he started.
This was the beginning of the Save Miguel’s Home initiative.
The first step in the process was to get a delay in the demolition order. Comeaux contacted then-Councilmember Diego Bernal, as well as Attorney Michael White. Bernal was instrumental in helping move the process along, despite being in his final days in office. White served as pro-bono counsel for Miguel, appearing before a judge to plead his case.
The judge approved a paltry three-week delay, a period that included the Thanksgiving holiday. On Dec. 15, a plan – as well as proof of financial means to undertake the project – must be submitted to the city. After that, there is only a 90-day timeframe in which to do the work so that the house is no longer dangerous according to City code standards. Anyone who has undertaken a remodeling project knows these are extremely short timeframes.
Comeaux reached out to his neighbor, architect and UTSA professor David Bogle, who immediately offered his services. They worked together to build a team of volunteers who could get the job done. Patrick Sparks, P.E. was recruited to provide engineering support. Laura Calderon of Haven for Hope is providing painters and landscapers through its Ambassadors program. Community activists such as former District 1 Councilmember Maria Berriozábal are on board to provide support in any way possible.
Part of the reason the City seeks to demolish the home is that it is ostensibly structurally unsafe. However, Sparks contends the opposite: “Despite its distressed appearance, the house structure is not, on the whole, fundamentally unsafe. In fact, except for specific and limited deficiencies, the structural frame of house is quite robust. All deficiencies are eminently repairable, and there is no need to consider demolition of this house.”
Regardless of all this outpouring of support, the project will be a major undertaking. For example, the home has a hole in the roof where a fireplace used to exist. Electrical work is needed. There is some water damage, and the foundation needs repairs. All of the walls need sheetrock – the walls originally were cheesecloth wallpaper over lath boards.
It also doesn’t currently have a working bathroom. Bogle is designing a contemporary addition to the back of the home for a bathroom.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is money. Construction tradespeople are coming forward to volunteer their labor, but the cost of materials needs to be covered. San Antonio Housing Trust has set up an account, and donations are not only welcome, but critical to the project’s success. Donations of construction materials – paint, sheetrock, electrical wire, and so on – would also be appreciated.
The major disconnect is undoubtedly the contentious process the City uses in situations like this. The forms and paperwork are intimidating. The costs of required professional services are prohibitive to the average person.
Fortunately, there are people in our community who care enough to volunteer their time and effort – but neighbors and friends cannot literally help out every single person in need.
The plight of the Calzadas highlights the need for a more holistic solution to situations like this. At this point, there are so many questions that beg to be answered:
- Why does the city insist upon using a process that is both bureaucratic and intimidating to the average person?
- Why is there little or no assistance to help people understand what needs to be done?
- If there are financial aid programs available, why aren’t they better publicized?
- Why aren’t Code Compliance officers provided with the necessary tools to provide information rather than mere intimidation? Something as simple as a pamphlet outlining next steps written in plain English (and Spanish) would be a great, low-cost start. Officers may prefer to balance the difficult job of enforcement by being empowered to offer a little guidance.
Comeaux sums up the situation best by saying, “How can we help the Miguels of the world, as opposed to tearing down their houses?”
This Saturday, Dec. 13, there will be a work party to prepare the home for renovations. The home and lot need to be cleared out. If the weather doesn’t hold, a rain date has been set for Dec. 20. All are invited to participate. Gloves and work boots are recommended. Participants are asked to park at the former Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church parking lot at 1101 W. Woodlawn Avenue.
If you can help out, please contact Comeaux at 210-326-2655, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A van is being sought to shuttle volunteers this Saturday from the church parking lot to the worksite, approximately three blocks away. As previously mentioned, financial or material donations are also needed.
*Featured/top image: The Calzada home is listed on a 1911 Sanborn map of San Antonio. Photo courtesy David Bogle.