Tenants organize to demand repairs from fastest growing landlord in town

Tenants are settling into an apartment complex plagued by conditions they say are unsafe and which authorities say are fraught with code violations, including the lack of a valid certificate of occupancy.

The newly formed Vista Del Rey Tenants’ Union presented a petition Saturday morning with more than 150 signatures to the management of the Vista Del Rey apartment complex, a 453-unit property in Leon Valley owned by Shippy Properties.

The petition described a litany of failures to provide basic living conditions, such as frequent and prolonged water outages, lack of hot water, broken air conditioning equipment and inadequate security measures. She demanded from the management of reparations as well as more communication and transparency.

The more than a dozen tenants gathered outside the office, where staff locked the door, increased slightly in number over the course of an hour as they spoke to the media, led a chant and gave speeches.

“We are here to remind management and David Shippy that we will not be prisoners in our own home and refuse to be your ATM machine,” Denise Garcia said through a microphone, reading the petition aloud. . “More than breaking the law, we want a respite from the stress, shame and frustrations of all the major maintenance issues that have taken their toll on us and our families,” she said.

The San Antonio Report reported on the resort in January and found that resort owner David Shippy had written a book describing his apartments as ‘cash machines’ and his working-class tenants as a ‘captive audience. “.

The book, written as a witty and practical guide to getting rich, contains advice for potential homeowners on how to cut maintenance costs, such as “shop around and find the lowest prices for big-ticket items like appliances, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures”. , and paint.

Last year, Shippy Properties was the fastest-growing landlord in San Antonio, where the majority of the Austin-based company’s billion-plus assets are located.

It’s one of many out-of-town investor groups that have rushed to capitalize on a growing class of tenants in the city. About 1 in 7 apartments changed owners last year.

Among the tenants gathered on Saturday was Nadarah Hawkins, who along with her 4-year-old daughter have been without hot water for more than two months, she said. Her toilet also recently clogged and started spitting sewage into her apartment. She said she had trouble getting someone from management to come and even called the Austin office of Shippy Properties. Flooding continued for 11 days before being repaired, she said.

Vista Del Rey tenant Nadarah Hawkins says she and her 4-year-old daughter, Lotius, have been without hot water for more than two months Credit: Waylon Cunningham/San Antonio report

She previously worked from home for a call center but had to leave because the state of her units had such an impact on her mental health. “I really liked the work, but I couldn’t even function,” she said.

Hawkins said she tried to move to a better apartment complex last year, but that complex wanted to verify its rental history before she could sign a lease. She said Shippy Properties wouldn’t respond to phone calls or emails asking for this verification, so ultimately the new resort declined it, taking with them a $135 non-refundable application fee.

She said the new lease she had to sign with Shippy raised her rent from $849 to $1,000 a month.

Tenant after tenant, the chaos in the management of the property – frequent staff turnover, scattered documentation, overworked cleaners – has left deep wounds in their lives and those of their children.

Tristen Settles, a welder who works long hours, said his two young children were scalded in the bathtub by boiling water suddenly spurting out after weeks without hot water. They should also stay in the only room that has working air conditioning.

Lakie Martin said he couldn’t receive mail because his mailbox, like so many others in the complex, was down.

Abigail Ceniceroz said her rent reimbursement checks from the city were cashed by someone, but the resort says she still owes the money the checks were supposed to cover. Shippy is now claiming $6,000.

Angelica Scott said a visit this week from Child Protective Services will determine if issues in the apartment – such as mold, air conditioning and a cockroach infestation – have been resolved enough to return her children to her. . “If the apartment doesn’t fix by then, my kids aren’t coming home,” she said.

Many tenants report being charged unjustified fees: pet fees when they don’t have pets; pest control when not receiving pest control; washing machine rental fees they don’t have.

Emails to Shippy Properties and local management staff seeking comment went unanswered on Saturday.

The Vista Del Rey Tenants’ Union petition has been building for months, organizers said, as they went door to door collecting signatures. The process was spearheaded initially by the San Antonio Tenants’ Union, a housing rights group, but snowballed when tenants took over the process.

John Showecker, a resident of Vista Del Rey Apartments, speaks about living conditions at the complex during a protest on Saturday.
John Showecker, a resident of Vista Del Rey Apartments, speaks about living conditions at the complex during a protest on Saturday. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

John Showecker, a member of the Vista Del Rey tenants’ union, said he would pursue “non-violent and democratic” means to improve conditions at the complex, such as a public pressure campaign.

Texas law protects organizing tenant groups from retaliation by a landlord. But the leverage these groups can wield is limited, as Texas severely limits tenant rights when rent is withheld — a primary tool for similar groups in states like California.

But many tenants could already be doing this themselves, suggests a recent property management email sent to tenants.

The email, sent on May 18, urged residents to sign up for rent assistance from the city because the rent money it could provide would help pay for repairs to the property. “When almost half of the community does not pay, it [affects] entire property, so let’s get the help we need to keep our property running.”

In another sign of growing tenant organizing, several spoke at a Leon Valley town council meeting in early May. The complex and its many code violations have become an issue within the council.

Weeks earlier, in March, Leon Valley Deputy Fire Chief Eric Burnside briefed council on what he described as worsening compliance issues at the deteriorating complex, whose ownership has changed from hands three times since 2019 alone. “It’s always someone new,” he says.

The resort does not currently have a valid certificate of occupancy, he said, and until shortly before the meeting, its management under Shippy Properties had not responded to the city and calls from the Leon Valley Fire Department to compliance. He said management had recently assured them that they were working on the issues.

Code inspectors and the Leon Valley Fire Department had cited a number of issues. Boiler rooms, which provide hot water, had been deemed unsafe and a fire hazard. Fire extinguishers were missing in several buildings. Garbage had piled up on the balconies and at least one fire sprinkler system was out of compliance.

In January and February alone, the city reported 21 emergency calls, including three assaults, two shooting victims, two fatalities on arrival and two fires in Vista Del Rey.

Shippy Properties operations manager Roberto Bernal told the March meeting that staff members at the property were working on the issues and that more than $1 million had been spent to improve security at the resort. , including outdoor lighting, fencing, fire extinguishers and more. . He added that the security services were also strengthened.

Burnside said city staff will work with property managers to resolve the complex’s issues.

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