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Commission OKs housing for homeless over neighbors’ objections

Monday, June 16, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Few argue with Austin’s need for affordable housing, but when it comes down to deciding where to put it, the problems begin. Planning Commission members agonized over just such a decision Tuesday night, but in the end voted to approve zoning to allow a low-income complex on Manor Road over the strenuous objection of area neighborhoods.


However, the Planning Commission’s recommendation could be for naught when it goes before City Council in late July. Residents from the Windsor Park and Pecan Springs neighborhoods have submitted a verified petition against the project.


The Community Partnership for the Homeless is proposing to build a 110-unit complex at 5908 Manor Rd. Director Frank Fernandez said he plans to offer housing to the formerly homeless who have successfully completed transition housing.


“Why are we doing this?” Fernandez asked. “There is a savagely acute need for this type of housing in Austin. We seek to provide supportive housing for those with less than $25,000 in income, mainly the formerly homeless who can demonstrate stability.”


Fernandez said his foundation plans to have staff on hand to work with a small percentage of the residents who may need more assistance than others. It will also have around-the-clock security using both staff and cameras, and a single point of entry to the complex.


However, all that was not enough to assuage the concerns of adjacent neighbors, many of whom expressed concern for the residents of such a project due to high crime in the neighborhood.


Paul Saldaña with the Northeast Austin Business Alliance said his group’s aim was to maintain the quality of life for Northeast Austin.


“There is overwhelming opposition to this from people living near where they plan this project,” he said.  “There is an abundant supply of housing for low income people in this neighborhood. It’s also in a high crime area, which is not a good place for such a vulnerable population to live.”


He said the planned complex was not what the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association had in mind for the area when it developed its neighborhood plan and future land use map. “It’s a significant intrusion on the neighborhood,” he said.


However, Saldaña and several others opposing were careful to note that they were not against affordable housing, nor specifically against this project, but felt strongly that this was the “wrong project in the wrong place.”


Rodney Ahart, president of the Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association, said there was ample building in the area that could serve the purpose.


“There is a 124-unit apartment complex that is in receivership right across Manor Road from where they want to build,” he said. “Why can’t they adapt that to their needs?”


However, Fernandez said he needs to build the 50,000 square foot, three-story complex to house single individuals in transition.


“The apartments have a mix of unit sizes and it would cost just as much to buy them and convert it,” he said. “Also, the complex is in receivership, and we don’t know what its true availability is.”


Commission Member Paula Hui moved to approve the zoning recommended by city staff on the project, which was for LR-MU-CO-.NP. That measure was defeated 2-7, with only Hui and Commissioner Saundra Kirk voting in favor.


Commissioner Mandy Dealy immediately moved to approve the applicant’s request, which was for MF-3 NP and LR-NP.


Seven of the nine commission members prefaced comments about their vote with how difficult a choice it was.


“I am absolutely torn over this choice,” Dealy said. “It would meet a serious community need, but it’s also clear where the neighborhood stands on this. I personally would not mind having this in my neighborhood – which is West Austin – and I believe there is a lot of misunderstanding about this project. But I want to say ‘Yes, we do support affordable housing.’ Public good always outweigh other considerations. It’s the right thing top do.”


The Commission voted 6-3 to recommend the project to City Council, with Hui, Kirk and Commissioner Clint Small voting against. The measure is scheduled to go to City Council on July 24.

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