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Council sets new priorities for affordable housing efforts

Friday, March 26, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The City Council voted unanimously Thursday to refocus the city’s affordable housing efforts in a way that would prioritize the needs of the chronically homeless. As part of its resolution, the Council also moved to begin the process of constructing 350 permanent supportive housing units over the next four years.


However, the looming threat of a cut in federal funding could put a damper on the project.


Neighborhood Housing and Community Development (NHCD) Department Director Margaret Shaw told In Fact Daily that the move represented the firm policy decision that staff had sought from Council. “(They) gave (us) very clear direction to prioritize funding for our most vulnerable residents, treating them as really the first among equals,” she said.


Both Council Member Sheryl Cole and NHCD officials said that the city’s practice of matching affordable housing projects with the most appropriate source of funding would continue, no matter the focus of the housing effort. They also stressed that all such projects, whether or not they fall under the permanent supportive housing description prescribed by the Council, would continue to be funded by a mix of federal funds and the $13 million remaining in resources raised by a 2006 General Obligation bond election.


All in all, Cole seemed thrilled with the outcome. “I am delighted that this Council has made a commitment to this population,” she told In Fact Daily during a break in Thursday’s Council action. “(We) pretty much knocked the ball out of the park and said that we are willing, essentially, to put our money where our mouth is.”


“Ever since I came to Austin, there has been a sentiment that perhaps we care more about the environment than people,” she said. “(This) clearly sends a signal that we care about both.”


Cole sponsored the measure. Her co-sponsors were Council Members Randi Shade and Chris Riley.


According to the city’s Public Information Office, “Permanent supportive housing…provides supportive services that address the root causes of homelessness, including mental health disorders, addictions, and financial instability.” The comprehensive nature of the concept will require the involvement of multiple Austin city departments, including those of Public Housing and Health.


As city officials move forward with their redefined affordable housing agenda, they may have to contend with a cut in the amount of federal dollars that are directed their way. The bulk of that funding is distributed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As of Thursday afternoon, Shaw’s office had yet to receive estimates of how much money it could expect to receive.


NHCD officials typically receive those figures by this point in the year. Shaw termed the lack of those estimates as “unusual but not uncommon.” She told In Fact Daily that, though her department anticipates receiving estimated allocations from HUD in the next few weeks, they are currently using a more conservative estimate as their budget planning begins. This estimate assumes a 10 percent cut in federal dollars.


Shaw also noted that the Obama administration had announced federal departments that would be spared the budget axe, and that HUD was not on that list. “Given the state of the national deficit, I think it’s reasonable and appropriate for local housing officials to plan to receive less,” she said.


She added that a drop in HUD funding would have “significant impact” on any Austin affordable housing venture.

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