Residents of Oak Hollow Mobile Park can’t remember when their homes started smelling like sewage.
“I’ve lived there four years, and then my sisters lived there for at least 15 years before that. It’s always smelled like this, I just never knew where it came from,” said a tenant in his mid-30s, who shares his home with his young daughters on the weekends. “I mostly keep them indoors now.” He asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from his landlord. He says he's already heard about people receiving threats.
A few weeks ago, the city discovered raw sewage leaking from decrepit septic tanks directly into the mobile park’s soil. One leak was directly underneath a tenant’s house, forcing them to avoid the room above it for months because of the smell. Twelve homes were so foul that the city’s health department was legally bound to tell the tenants, mostly families, to move out and into hotel rooms on the city’s dime–at least until the landlord fixes the problem.
But the landlord has no intention of fixing his sewage-sodden property. Instead, he appears to be using the city’s emergency action as an excuse to kick the tenants of all 64 units off his Northwest Side property. Some of those tenants, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, say threats from the landlord kept them quiet for years. And now that they've spoken up, they feel they're being punished with eviction.
On Monday, the residents received a letter from the landlord stating, “The City of San Antonio has condemned the Mobile Home Park and will be giving out notices to vacate."
The city has done no such thing.
“We have families that feel as if they are being uprooted by the city,” said Ron Nirenberg, whose District 8 includes the Oak Hollow property. “Really, this is about a mobile home millionaire that has let property go into decay to the point that government has to force compliance.”
City officials say they have been unable to reach the landlord, Joe Mangione, for answers. His office voicemail machine is turned off. On Tuesday, the city attorney's office sent Mangione a cease and desist letter, essentially telling him to stop lying to his tenants.
The property, located in a section of San Antonio prime for re-development, would likely be an easy—and lucrative—sell. Mangione told the councilman he'd planned on selling it anyway.
This was not the answer city officials were expecting.
When the city first decided that 12 of Oak Hollow's homes were too contaminated with sewage to live in, staffers told the tenants that they had a week to move out. Still, they stressed to people that the move to a nearby hotel was only temporary, that it wasn't an eviction, and that the problem would soon be fixed – because in most cases, according to city staff, that's what happens.
But that's not what Mangione had in mind.
“The property owner is using this opportunity to further his ultimate goal to sell the property,” said Maria Cesar, communications director for Nirenberg's office.
Mangione isn’t new to this line of negotiation. He’s been to court several times over real estate deals that went sour, and several of his local properties have been foreclosed on for not filing taxes. Since the 80s, Mangione has held a management role in at least 13 different businesses in the area—most of them now-defunct land management companies. One of them, ironically, was a waste management company.
Oak Hollow staff, when finally reached by phone, told the Current that Mangione wouldn't return our calls until he gets a lawyer.
According to legal experts, Mangione isn't the first landlord to use city intervention as an easy out.
“This used to be really common in the 60s, especially with apartment buildings. But it still happens all over the country,” said Victoria Mather, a professor at St. Mary’s School of Law with a background in landlord and tenant law. “When it becomes too expensive for a landlord to fix a problem like this, they sell.”
A new septic tank could cost upwards of $4,000. Oak Hollow needs at least three. Even if he can't afford to replace the tanks, shouldn’t Mangione at least be reprimanded for ignoring their leaks for years?
According to Mather, the only way the tenants could legally fight back is if Mangione broke a rental contract that promised maintenance upkeep or specific eviction rules. Aside from that, they have no other protections.
"You can’t force a landlord to stay in business," she said.
But Nirenberg isn’t ready to let Mangione off the hook. The councilman has been working with city attorneys to find a way to hold him legally accountable.
“It should disturb every taxpayer in San Antonio that this guy could get away with this, and leave it to the city to come in and clean up,” he told the Current.
Last Thursday, Nirenberg held an evening meeting with around 40 Oak Hollow residents at Murray E. Boone Elementary, just down the road from the property. It had been just a few days since 12 families found a note on their door telling them they had a week to move out and that their children's health was in danger.
Rumors were already flying that the city was going to evict all 64 tenants, that their children were going to be pulled out of school, that they were being punished for blowing the whistle on the sewage leak. They expected the city to penalize their landlord, not burden them with an unexpected, costly move.
On top of that, few residents could read the English-only pamphlet explaining the situation the city stuck on their door—the majority of the park’s inhabitants are Latino, and only understand Spanish.
As Nirenberg addressed the audience, speaking slow enough for a staffer to translate his words to the audience through headphones, he made a promise to the residents.
“We are not taking your home away from you and we are not going to take our eyes off this situation,” he said.
One resident told the Current his neighbor was threatened by Mangione when she told him she was going to the meeting. If she went, he allegedly told her, he would report her to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Several tenants claimed this is a common threat at Oak Hollow, which could explain why it took so long for the sewage leak to get the city's attention. If you're an undocumented immigrant, dealing with a lawn full of sewage is better than being sent to a detention center.
Most of the people living in the 12 contaminated homes have moved to a nearby hotel, and the city has paid to store tenants’ personal property in a storage unit for one month. At the time of the Thursday meeting, Melody Woosley, the city’s Director of Human Services, said she was prepared to move other residents into temporary hotel housing if they found sewage leaks near their home.
But since the property is privately owned, her department has little public funding to help tenants find new, permanent housing—especially now that Mangione's given all residents 60 days to move.
“Right now, we are doing everything we can to triage the situation,” said Cesar. “But we know it’s a problem that isn’t going to be fixed right away. It will have a have long-term effect on these families.”
*Correction 3:40pm: When Nirenberg told us "we," he meant city staff who toured the property after his office had learned about the problem. Nirenberg's office also tells us that despite repeated phone calls, Mangione never got back to the councilman.
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