Immigrating to Dignowity Hill: Empty Lots, Fixer-Uppers, and The Perfect Fit

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Cotton Estes and Mike Long's recently purchased, under construction home in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

About two years ago I wrote my first piece for The Rivard Report. It was about our experience making a home in Dignowity Hill, where my husband and I have lived since 2010.

Click here to read "Where I Live: Dignowity Hill."

If I could write the piece over again, I wouldn’t use the term “urban pioneers,” because it implies that there wasn’t anything here.  On the contrary, what drew us to the neighborhood was how much was already here. Good location, good houses, great neighbors.

Bekah and Lewis McNeel's kitchen before renovation. Author photo.

Bekah and Lewis McNeel's kitchen before renovation. Author photo.

We weren’t pioneers, as much as we were immigrants.  We were wide-eyed young professionals who knew we’d stumbled upon a gem of a neighborhood culturally far from our suburban upbringing. The good bones of long-vacant houses sat waiting to be returned to their former glory. The neighbors were welcoming and attentive. We could afford to make a home here.

Four years later, we find ourselves comfortably settled in the neighborhood, a new baby under our roof, and it is we with our neighbors who are watching the a growing wave of new immigrants arriving to Dignowity Hill.

Architects, restaurateurs, civil servants, teachers, artists, and a host of other professionals are flocking to the Eastside in such overwhelming numbers that supply is having a hard time keeping up with demand. While there are a few fully-rehabilitated houses, many need substantial work to meet city code.

The home of Lewis and Bekah McNeel (and newcomer Moira McNeel) in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The home of Lewis and Bekah McNeel (and newcomer Moira McNeel) in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A few years ago, the houses in need of total renovation could be snatched for as low as $30,000. While those days seem to be over, there are still plenty in the $60-$80k range. The houses that have been beautifully renovated are another story, many going for $150,000 and beyond. Some properties are selling the day they come on the market.

Realtor and Dignowity Hill resident Sylvie Shurgot has had experience selling houses all along the renovation spectrum. Shurgot said there’s no shortage of demand on either end.

Bekah and Lewis McNeel's kitchen after renovation. Author photo.

Bekah and Lewis McNeel's kitchen after renovation. Author photo.

“There are two types of buyers: those who want a completely restored house and those who want a house in need of a lot of work. Most busy professionals don't have the time and knowledge to completely rehab a house, so they go for the finished product." Shurgot said. "They're pretty particular about what they want. This type of buyer wants a house you could see in a magazine;. Quality work is very important, craftsmanship, as much original detail as possible (built-ins, windows, the wood floors and metal roof). They want the house to retain its character.”

Craftsmanship is key. The houses in Dignowity Hill have the tall ceilings, trim, and wood floors that would be hard to find and prohibitively expensive for young adults just starting to build wealth.

Seema Kairam, a designer at Lake|Flato Architects, where my husband also works, bought her house fully renovated, knowing that she wouldn’t have the time or resources to pour into a major renovation. The previous owners had restored the home meticulously, highlighting its historical features set among modern fixtures and finishes.

“The housing stock in this neighborhood is amazing. That’s the sort of thing I never thought I would be able to afford,” said Kairam.

Kairam rents out a room in her new home.

“The (renovated) house should have at least two bedrooms; two bathrooms is preferable but I haven't had any trouble selling a 2:1. What sells the house isn't so much the number of bedrooms/bathrooms or the square footage. It's really all about the way it looks and feels, and the quality of the work,” said Shurgot.

The other type of buyer is the one who wants a house that needs everything. These buyers relish the opportunity to be intimately involved with the details of their home.

On this end of the renovation spectrum, Cotton Estes and Mike Long recently bought a home in Dignowity Hill. They have their work cut out for them. Fortunately Estes is also a designer on staff at Lake|Flato and Long is a builder. They appreciated the craftsmanship that has supported the homes for more than a century, and want to honor that.

“I want to give my house another 100 years … regardless of what happens with the market. Whether it goes up or down, this house is going to be there,” said Long.

At the time of purchase the structure was uninhabitable due to extensive fire damage. That hasn't stopped Estes and Long from getting to know the families immediately surrounding them and making a home in the neighborhood while they rehabilitate the house.

The housing stock may be great, but the primary draw is as simple as the old real estate adage: location, location, location.

Ryan Bigley is renovating his Dignowity Hill home while he lives in an apartment above the garage. Location was the driving force in his decision to purchase the fixer-upper. A bike tour introduced him to the area in 2010, and he immediately began scouting for the right property. He was in love with the area even before he found his house, which has arguably the best view of downtown in the city.

“We are near downtown, close to Southtown, and you can get to anywhere that is fun … on a bike,” said Bigley.

Will Maney and Michael Weil are building their house on an empty lot in the neighborhood, which they chose for similar reasons. Weil wanted a yard. Maney wanted to be downtown.

After taking stock of all the neighborhoods that met their requirements, Dignowity Hill was by far the most affordable. A lot behind the Pearl costs six times what they paid for their quarter-acre. The neighborhood, the victim of blight over the years, has dozens of empty lots, on busy corners, along alleyways, all of which could one day support new, affordable housing located minutes from the center city.

Will Maney and Michael Weil pose for a photo in their empty lot in Dignowity Hill. Courtesy photo.

Will Maney and Michael Weil pose for a photo in their empty lot in Dignowity Hill. Courtesy photo.

The newcomers are not blind to the fact that their presence makes some uneasy. The threat of rising home prices and taxes has many fearing the specter of gentrification. At the moment, Shurgot’s data shows that displacement isn’t an issue.

“Houses come on the market as people's circumstances change: relocating because of a job, children selling the house of parents who passed away, once in a while a bank selling a house they foreclosed on. Those are the typical ways houses pop up on the market in Dignowity Hill. Note that I haven't seen or heard of anyone having to leave because gentrification forced them to,” Shurgot said.

Most residents acknowledge that if the waves of middle class newbies keep coming, that the neighborhood could go the way of Southtown, with high-end restaurants and high home prices.  Fortunately, for the moment, changes seem to be welcome.

“We’re buying houses that are vacant with absentee landlords," Kairam said. "Right now I feel like I’m a net positive, but I worry about the future.”

Students Together Achieving Revitalization (STAR) project. The project's aim is to introduce the students to historic preservation and aid in the on going revitalization of Dignowity Hill.

UTSA's Students Together Achieving Revitalization (STAR) project. The project's aim is to introduce the students to historic preservation and aid in the on going revitalization of Dignowity Hill. Photo by Juan Garcia.

Vacant properties are a rising concern, not only in Dignowity Hill, but across the city center. On June 4, a measure could go before City Council to create an advisory committee to address vacant structures. In addition to reaching out to the owners of vacant properties, the committee will create incentives for sale and redevelopment.

One such proposal is the forgiveness of liens and back taxes. The pilot program will also create maintenance requirements for the owners of vacant properties, to be strictly enforced.

(Read more: Pilot Program Takes Aim At Downtown’s Vacant Buildings)

From the COSA Vacant and Underutilized Building Policy and Next Step presentation.

From the COSA Vacant and Underutilized Building Policy and Next Step presentation.

As much as the newcomers have invested in their homes, none of them want to see the neighborhood price out its current residents. They want to take an active role in mitigating the side effects of rising home values, and preserving the culture that attracted them in the first place.

“It doesn’t just happen blindly,” said Kairam.

She looks forward to getting involved. Maney and Weil have already taken the plunge. Once they had the plans for their new home, they brought them to a neighborhood association meeting to get feedback from the neighbors. Maney now serves on the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association (DHNA) board. Bigley is also a regular at neighborhood meetings and events.

“Overall there was a lot of support. People were excited,” said Maney.

Their experience is common. Residents of Dignowity Hill have believed in the neighborhood’s potential for a long time. Many remember a time when it was vibrant, diverse, and highly sought after. They hope that the young blood will have a renaissance effect. They are more wary of the businesspeople washed ashore with the wave of new neighbors.

Dignowity Hill has caught the attention of developers and investors, leading to high density developments like Cherry Street Modern, and constant rumors of the next industrial space to be converted, house to be flipped, or the next empty lot to be sold. With the Alamo Beer Brewery breaking ground, much of the anticipated development on Austin Street seems to be imminent.

View of future Alamo Beer brewery from Hays Street Bridge. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

View of future Alamo Beer brewery from Hays Street Bridge. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

The DHNA has formed an architectural review committee to speak on behalf of residents when developers want to work within the bounds of the historic district. The committee brings old and new residents together to influence the future of the neighborhood.

When we moved to Dignowity Hill in 2010 we were immediately smitten with the sense of community among the residents. We still are.

What was once a stalwart band of homeowners fighting an uphill battle to bring amenities and services to the area is now a growing team of neighbors working to maintain stability as the neighborhood booms.

*Featured/top image: Cotton Estes and Mike Long's recently purchased, under construction home in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Reflections of a Dignowity Hill Community Leader

Young Marriage / Old House: A Dignowity Hill Backyard Feast

Where I Live: Dignowity Hill

The G-card: Defining Gentrification in Dignowity Hill

San Antonio in Motion: Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby Brings Families, Neighborhood Together

9 thoughts on “Immigrating to Dignowity Hill: Empty Lots, Fixer-Uppers, and The Perfect Fit

    • Such an uplifting story! I love the original character of all the houses. We purchased an abandoned property almost five years ago in the Five Points area. Progress has been slow but we’ve made it liveable. I’m hoping to see changes and improvements migrate to our area too.

  1. Great story! Was just having a conversation about Dignowity last night with Christina Bigley…

  2. I should think the rising values and tax appraisals wouldnt be too much of an issue with over-65 homeowners since taxes are frozen at that age.
    That’s great….they aren’t forced out.

  3. Denver Heights in San Antonio is becoming a modern urban latest best location to buy your home. only 4 blocks from the Alamodome and riverwalk. right now is the time to buy as San Antonio is growing if you want the best historic homes is at 78203

  4. I live six blocks from Sydney Lanier High School and pray that what is happening in Dignowity Hill will make its way to the Avenida Guadalupe and Prospect Hill areas. Keeping fingers crossed.

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