Homeowner’s American dream turned historic home headache

After buying the abandoned home next to his property, Henry Rocha applied for demolition, learned it could be historic

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a buyer’s worst nightmare -- you purchase a property, make plans for what you want to do with it and then the city comes in and stops you in your tracks.

That’s what’s happening to one man who bought an abandoned home and is now surprised to learn it could be designated a historic landmark.

Henry Rocha, an engineer at KSAT, says, “My American dream is to expand my property a little bit, and this was perfect because it was right next to us. But I believe the historic committee is blocking me.”

Rocha and his family have lived in the same bright yellow home on the South Side for 12 years. For seven or eight of those years, the small house next door has been vacant.

“Me and my family wanted to expand. We don’t have a big yard. So we started the process of buying this house,” Rocha said.

Buying the property wasn’t easy. The previous owner died in the 70s, and the heir didn’t have the deed to the home. After three years, a litigation attorney, and $39,000 in property cost and back taxes, 117 Burbank was finally Rocha’s in July.

He showed KSAT the home.

“This is the kitchen, I believe. I don’t see any kitchen sink, but I’m assuming this is a kitchen,” Rocha said of the old home.

It’s no Shangri-La. Rocha says there are cracks in the foundation, and the ceiling is coming down in parts. The home is in disarray, he said.

“This is not a livable house for anybody,” he said. “This, I believe this house should be condemned and knocked down.”

Rocha found a contractor to demolish the house to build a carport, a garden, and a swing set for his family. He then submitted the demolition permit to the city, and that’s when the headache began.

All demolition permits must be submitted to the Office of Historic Preservation before granting them. That’s what prompted the Historic and Design Review Commission to look into Rocha’s property.

“I got an email from the city, somebody who worked for the city. They wanted to do a site survey with the Historic Commission,” Rocha said.

Three commissioners came, surveyed the property, and gave Rocha the news he dreaded.

“They were looking at the wood siding, and they all agreed that this house is historic,” he said.

Rocha went before the Historic and Design Review Commission for a formal hearing on Nov. 17.

Based on three of 16 criteria, the commission said this house qualified as historic. It’s a vernacular shotgun house, prevalent in the early 20th century. It’s craftsman-influenced, and it’s one of three shotgun homes in a row.

The commissioners voted in favor of historic designation, all but two, including Al Arreola Jr.

“I think if a property owner wants to see their site or their property deemed historic, then they should be the ones that apply for that and not someone else on that property’s behalf,” said Arreola, District 4 HDRC.

Arreola argued that because Rocha is the legal property owner, he should not be forced to restore the home to its 1924 glory.

“My position is pretty strong on this -- is that if we really want to do something historic that’s beyond the historic district, then we should help compensate the property owner for that investment,” Arreola said.

That’s not the position of Shannon Miller, the director of the Office of Historic Preservation.

“We as a community are looking at challenges related to affordable housing and climate and, you know, lots of other issues,” Miller said. “And so reinvesting in our existing housing stock is so important both to addressing affordable housing needs.”

Over the last year or so, Miller says her office has identified over 700 shotgun homes. Not all will be designated historic, including the two right next door to Rocha’s.

Ideally, the HDRC hopes Rocha’s property would be refurbished and made into affordable housing that he would then manage.

Rocha got an estimate for how much fixing the property would be. It came out to nearly $51,000. He doesn’t have that money or the desire to do that.

“I feel like the little fish in the big ocean, and the city is the sharks because I can’t do what I want to do,” Rocha said.

This is still early in this process of possible historic designation. Now that the HDRC has recommended it, the case will go to a city council vote.

They’ll either vote to agree or disagree with the HDRC’s recommendation on historic status. At last check, no date has been set.

The Office of Historic Preservation says you can check with them if you’re considering buying a property and want to see if there’s any possible historic significance.

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Joe Arredondo is a photojournalist at KSAT 12.