By: Lauren Lluveras
The Center for Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin is proud to spotlight important research on housing carried forward by our community and UT Austin faculty. UT Law Professor Heather Way is the co-director of UT Law’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic and a Housing Hub Advisory Board Member. Professor Way’s research and advocacy have illuminated issues of gentrification and displacement in Austin, Texas, and meaningful statewide reforms.
Most recently, researchers at the University of Texas School of Law, led by Professor Way, released a report in November of last year highlighting violations of due process running rampant in the city of San Antonio. In these cases, San Antonio residents are being displaced from their homes through the city’s development services department codes. All cities have offices dedicated to enforcing their property maintenance codes. Ordinarily, these programs ensure that our places are safe by identifying potentially hazardous conditions in homes and issues visible from outside the home, such as overgrown yards, non-working vehicles, unsecured vacant homes, and abandoned houses.
Where residents are supposed to receive notices that they need to repair issues in their home, they are also legally supposed to notify residents that the city has resources to assist them with repairs. The researchers at UT Law found that most residents who received notices from San Antonio never learned they could get assistance from the city to repair their homes. Other families were prohibited from receiving this assistance because they lacked a formal title to the property. The city is also legally required to provide relocation assistance whose homes cannot be repaired, but many families shared that they did not receive this financial assistance. The researchers found that between 2018 and 2020, just nine families out of two-hundred-and-eight who received notices to vacate also received financial assistance to relocate from the city.
Additionally, many residents who do not read English were never served these notices in their native language and did not receive help interpreting the notices. In some cases, notices to vacate (which give residents just a maximum of seventy-two hours to vacate the property at risk of incurring a Class C Misdemeanor for failing to vacate) were utilized to pressure residents to fix their homes. When residents did not repair their homes within the allotted window of time, not only could they be ticketed, but for each day that they failed to vacate, they also ran the risk of receiving a $2,000 fine per day past the notice to vacate. In some cases, the city disconnected families’ utilities to pressure them to leave their homes, even when those families were not behind on their utility payments.
These measures are meant to be a last resort only after a public hearing. The researchers at UT Law found that San Antonio regularly bypassed their hearing process. Over a five-year period between 2015 to 2020, San Antonio issued 337 orders for residents to vacate their homes and another 289 orders to demolish homes. Over the same period of time, the cities of Austin, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth issued just 16 notices to vacate and orders to demolish combined. Most troublingly, the researchers found that these orders within San Antonio targeted the areas of town that traditionally housed the city’s poorest and primarily Latino residents. For example, sixty-five percent of the families who received orders to vacate their homes between 2015-2020 lived in a neighborhood with a census tract with eighty percent or more Hispanic or Latino residents. Four out of the five census tracts that received the highest number of vacate and demolition orders are all located in San Antonio’s Near Westside, where the percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents is eighty-five percent or higher.
Through Professor Way’s research, San Antonio’s wrongly displaced residents have been able to receive legal help. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Attorney, Matt Garcia, is working with San Antonio families to fight the displacement process. He emphasized that “solutions are required by the [due process clause of the] US Constitution, and the city [of San Antonio] is breaking the law.” Additionally, Attorney Garcia stated that these processes often lead to homelessness. Some families who have received notices of demolition or orders to vacate their homes have been criminally prosecuted for sleeping in their cars. Attorney Garcia is calling for more humane treatment of San Antonio’s residents.