Blighted Buildings
11:39 am
Wed June 25, 2014

Vacant Building Pilot Program Is Becoming Reality For Property Owners

Owners of vacant buildings in San Antonio could be in for a reality check with a new city pilot program aimed at revitalizing pockets of town.

But San Antonio city leaders have said they hope to help owners bring properties into compliance, not bombard them with fees and other costs that bring properties up to code.

The vacant and underutilized buildings policy is a pilot program that District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal has said is aggressive in trying to eradicate empty structures around town. But the pilot program will be extremely focused for the first 18 months.

Included in the three areas, starting Jan. 1, 2015, are the central business district, districts that have a historic landmark designation, and areas within a half mile of active U.S. military bases.

Along McCullough, just north of downtown but outside of the three target areas for the pilot program, drivers may see vacant buildings in the midst of road construction debris.

"If we could get it sold, I think that we contribute to what the city's trying to do."

Two, two-story houses on E. Courtland are boarded up with "No Trespassing" painted in big, black letters on the homes. Robert Gundling and his wife own the lot and the houses. If the program expands to include other areas, Gundling could be under the gun to get his property registered with the city, which is one of the requirements in the pilot program, and get the houses fixed up.

Part of the problem for Gundling, and the reason he's stuck with a lot and two deteriorating houses, is because he said the housing crisis several years back. His wife had nearly two dozen properties, he said, that they refurbished and sold. But the two houses on E. Courtland, just off McCullough, were left unsold when the bottom fell out of the housing market and values plummeted. Many neighbors believe the houses won't sell because Gundling has the price of the lot too high. And, neighbors believe he allowed the homes to deteriorate to the point where they were unattractive for potential buyers.

"If we could get it sold, I think that we contribute to what the city's trying to do," Gundling said optimistically.

Gundling doesn't live in the neighborhood, but Gary Grieco, just next door, does. He owns a multi-family property and is caught in the middle of Gundling's lot to the east, and another vacant property directly to his west.

"You're always hopeful that somebody might come along and see it as an opportunity, so to speak, but it just hasn't happened yet."

"This used to actually be a halfway house," Grieco said. "I think they lost their license or didn't renew their license. And believe it or not, I never had any trouble with them. When you say halfway house, I think the natural reaction is: Ooh. When they left I had more problems with graffiti and things going on at that point because there's nobody there anymore."

He has been patient with the three or so homeowners over the nearly 30 years the houses have been in this shape. That's not to say he hasn't called the police or code enforcement when people squat here, or trash and weeds get out of hand.

"It's not the funnest thing to look at everyday," Greico said. "You know, you're always hopeful that somebody might come along and see it as an opportunity, so to speak, but it just hasn't happened yet."

Grieco said he would like to see apartments or stores be built here. But Gundling said the cost to repair or demolish is outrageous.

In December, the city will begin the process of notifying owners of vacant buildings that the ordinance will take effect in January. The properties must be vacant for 30 days for them to qualify for the program. Owners will then have 90 days to register them with the city, which comes with a fee that is determined on what kind of structure it is.

For example, the city identified a home located on N. Pine St. in a historic district. Its annual registration fee would be $250. An annual inspection fee of $50 is included, and the total cost to bring the structure into compliance under the ordinance is $22,000.

"I think you're never going to be able to fix up and encourage people to move downtown if you don't do something about it."

But Center City Director Lori Houston said the city wants to help property owners get their buildings in shape without breaking their bank. She said the city is offering fee waivers, as well as a volunteer program for people to come help with the work, and tax rebates to offset those costs.

Houston said the city will offer a lot of flexibility to the property owners, while also standing firm that the buildings are not precluded from existing code compliance issues. During the time between now and January, city staff hope to offer the public education opportunities so that people are aware of what's happening and how they will be involved in the process.

While Gundling may not have to hop into action right away, he said he wants to get his properties in better condition.

"I think you're never going to be able to fix up and encourage people to move downtown if you don't do something about it," he said.

Gundling said he hopes to sell the property, or get a little help with the cleanup until that happens.