Save Miguel’s Home: The Human Face of Gentrification

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The Calzada home on West French Place is listed on a 1911 Sanborn map of San Antonio. Photo taken in December 2014 by David Bogle.

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.

A new home is under construction on the adjacent property. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

A new home under construction on the property adjacent to the Calzada home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

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.

Miguel Calzada surveys the interior of his home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

Miguel Calzada surveys the interior of his home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

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.

Miguel Calzada in the back yard of his home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

Miguel Calzada in the back yard of his home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

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.”

Victorian craftsmanship is evident in this detail view. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

Victorian craftsmanship is evident in this detailed view. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

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?”

Front room of the Calzada home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

Front room of the Calzada home. Photo courtesy David Bogle.

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 bobtheunionguy@aol.com. 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. 

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21 thoughts on “Save Miguel’s Home: The Human Face of Gentrification

  1. This is a great article of what’s going on in our city’s urban areas. There are so many people who do do not understand how to work with the city who are not offering enough customer assistance especially to people like Miguel! I am thankful for all those who stepped up to help Miguel and wish there was more people willing to assist other neighbors like him. I will try to volunteer after work Saturday, not sure how as I am not a craftsman.

    To the author, Miguel is blessed to have you write about his story. Thank You.

  2. The intimidation by Code Compliance in our inner city neighborhoods should be a much bigger story. I have seen and experienced the intimidation of Code Compliance, who simply react to anonymous complaints that are typically based on petty feuds between neighbors. Code Compliance officers refuse or are unable to provide actual code language, information on how to comply, and when asked for more information they simply threatened to take me to court over non-issues. Most citizens don’t have the patience or understanding to go directly to Martin Ruiz in Code administration, City Council, and the Mayor to end the persistent harassment that Code Compliance forces on these inner-city neighborhoods.

    • I’m a member of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association and every meeting we get our code compliance officers to come out and tell us what they can do to help us. They are wonderful! They walk us through the various processes and programs, inform us about the (free) tool loan program and provide contact numbers and written material. They work hard. Sure, there are some that may not be as helpful, but it’s a hard job.
      I encourage everybody to join their neighborhood association!!

  3. This is a great article, highlighting important policy issues, but is the label “gentrification” accurate? Aside from the implication that a house-flipper initiated the code compliance complaint against the home owners, are the issues the home owners are facing really caused by a rapid increase in property values in their neighborhood? If so, then there is merit to the gentrification label. If not, then the label of gentrification could send policy makers in search of the wrong solutions.

    As other commenters have noted, code enforcement leads to the demolition of a lot of properties in low income neighborhoods. Alternatively, neglectful and absent property owners lead to a lot of properties in those same neighborhoods that are detrimental to the neighborhoods. There is a valid need for Code Compliance. It’s really not fair to point the finger at them. This is a policy issue, not a personnel issue.

    My take-away from this article is that the homeowners actually benefited from the forces that appear to be increasing property values in that neighborhood. Individuals with more money and influence are assisting them. If their home were sitting in a neighborhood without that kind of financial and social capital, they would very likely be on the path to demolishing their home, rather than saving it.

    My point is not to ignore the pressures that rapidly increasing property values have on a neighborhood, but to focus on the real problems leading to property demolition.

    Judging from this article, the real problem was that the home owners simply did not have the means for a very long time to properly maintain their home. The consequence was the slow degradation of that property until it became an overwhelming burden for them to restore it by themselves. Add to that a city process that more likely leads to demolition than saving the home, and the consequences that follow demolition weren’t going to be any better quality of life for the home owners.

    Seems to me the policy issue is not gentrification, but how to keep people in their homes when they do not have the means to maintain that property on their own, regardless of the social and economic capital of the neighbors in their community. My hunch is the problem is bigger in non-gentrifying low-income communities than gentrifying communities. Treating this as a gentrification problem may benefit low-income residents in Beacon Hill or Dignowity Hill, but will do nothing to help so many other low-income residents in other areas of the city’s center, and eventually what we know today as the suburban areas.

  4. Hi all,

    I’m not much for commenting on the internet but I am really interested in this post.

    I’m a longtime inner-city guy and have lived in Beacon Hill off-and on. I’m currently living just up the road from Mike’s house with my family. I’ve always known him as Mike, not Miguel since that’s what he goes by. I own the property right across the street from him. My family bought it from the Archdiocese about 15 years ago after it had long-since been decommissioned as a school for children with disabilities. The property consisted of three bungalows that were in almost as bad of shape as Mike’s place and the sprawling Giles house that seemed beyond repair at the time. One of those bungalows (corner of Ashby and Blanco) was a thrift shop that helped support operations. My great Aunt Irene used to volunteer there. She lived on Aganier by the tracks and said that it didn’t bother her. She said “you get used to it”. I think she just lost her hearing 🙂 At any rate, when we closed on the property, It was full of squatters. roaches, trash, beer bottles, hypodermic needles, and excrement. Seriously. What a project! I spent countless hours over there cleaning, sanitizing, and stabilizing the structures and with the rest of my family, slowly bringing them back to life.

    While I was doing this, I got to meet the neighbors. Mike was one of them. The “displaced people” in the “four plex” next to him were transient residents of an unsanctioned halfway house . It was divided into at least 10 but probably more “units” They were desperate conditions. The building was a fire trap as history verifies. Many others in surrounding blocks were and still are similarly disposed. I was verbally assaulted on numerous occasions, had thousands of dollars worth of tools and materials stolen, and had to have squatters forcibly evicted more than once. In some cases, it was just people passed out on the property. Drunks burned down my palm tree with bottle rockets! Bear in mind that this is back in the day when the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association did alley cleanup drives specifically to pick up broken beer bottles and hypodermic needles so kids could play safely in alleys. Not so many years ago, actually.

    Mike is a great guy…loads of fun to talk to. Since he never had a job that I could see, he was always around to chat as he leaned on the fence while I was scraping paint or hauling trash or digging holes or whatever. We used to talk about how far down the neighborhood had gone. His house is awesome. I asked him once why he didn’t fix it up. He said, “I’ll get around to it sometime”.

    Can you guys come help out across the street too while you’re working on Mike’s place? Been waiting for the cavalry for a long long time.

    • hi jim! i enjoyed your response and realistic picture of the situation. hope the calvary arrives soon at your door…….more likely they will be at “Mike’s”! have a good year, paula

    • Josh, if you get yourself to the church referenced, I imagine you could find the house, as they mention it’s within 3 blocks. Or try calling or texting Bob Comeaux, referenced toward end of article, for details. (Though this late in the day, it probably makes more sense to contact him about future opportunities to help.)

      • Or, here – slightly disguised for privacy purposes (page moderators, feel free to delete). It’s on the 1100 block of a street in 78201 that rhymes with bench and describes someone from a country in the EU.

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