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Disabled advocates raise concerns over plans for affordable housing

Monday, April 5, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Advocates for the disabled remain concerned that the construction of 350 affordable housing units through the city’s bond program could result in institution-like conditions for a portion of that community. Their apprehension comes despite a February report that aimed to address two of their major concerns.


Prepared by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), that document offers a series of recommendations that outline how Austin could proceed with its version of permanent supportive housing.


At a Wednesday meeting of the committee charged with the oversight of the 2006 bond election, three representatives of the disabled community expressed their misgivings. The requirement that social services be attached to residence in any of the 350 units was chief among them.


“Services that the individual needs shouldn’t be tied to their housing,” said Bryson Smith of ADAPT of Texas. “This could lead to a form of indenturedness where they were afraid to change their services for fear of losing their (housing) or vice versa.

“In the case of someone who would benefit from the services for a short term—say for counseling or vocational training—once they’ve benefited from that program and were no longer in need of it, would they be forced to move?” he asked. “That would be more of an institutional setting than actual housing.”


The 2006 bond election included $55 million worth of funding for affordable housing solutions. On March 25, City Council voted on a resolution that called for Austin to focus the $13 million remaining on the needs of the poorest segment of the city’s residents. They also instructed officials to begin the process of constructing the 350 units of supportive housing (see In Fact Daily, March 26).


Smith’s concern has been echoed across a series of meetings and hearings in the past month. Though many activists have indicated that city staff had been receptive to their concerns, fear seems to persist.


Dennis Borel, executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, told In Fact Daily that the Council’s plan is “a wonderful concept,” but that he was concerned about “unintended consequences.”


“(It’s) very important to separate services from housing,” he said.


Jean Langendorf, vice president of Community and Housing Services for Easter Seals of Central Texas, had other concerns. Though she called Austin’s affordable housing initiative a “tremendous effort,” she worried that the 350 units might be built in such a way that it concentrated disabled populations in a central location.


“Is it really going to be that big apartment over there that’s just for those folks?” she asked.


The report says that it doesn’t have to be. Among the options it suggests would be appropriate for permanent supportive housing is something CSH calls “Scattered-Site Housing.” Using this model, the city could “secure units in a variety of dispersed housing settings, including houses, within a duplex or small complex, or units within larger apartment buildings.”


CSH further notes that “such units are integrated into community settings and sponsors typically avoid a concentration of more than a few such units in any one site.”


The report also says that “high-quality supportive housing should always include…a flexible array of comprehensive services” and the use of a “lease or similar form of occupancy agreement…(in which there are) not limits on a person’s length of tenancy as long as they abide by the conditions of the lease or agreement.”


As for Austin-specific suggestions, CSH said that the city and Travis County should create:


§       30 units for families with children (including 10 for young adults transitioning from foster care with children);

§       10 units for unaccompanied youth; and

§       310 units for single adults, including:

o      225 for chronically homeless with substantial criminal justice involvement, including tenants referred from sources including but not limited to: Travis County Jail (targeting homeless, mentally ill individuals), City of Austin Downtown Community Court (targeting indentified frequent users), Project Recovery, and Travis County’s mental health dockets;

o      75 units for chronically homeless, frequent users of shelter who may or may not be criminal justice involved; and

o      10 units for young adults transitioning from foster care.


The organization further recommended “targeting at least 300 units to tenants with identified mental health and/or substance abuse treatment needs, including at least 150 units to those with co-occurring disorders.”


If adopted by the city, service opt-in/opt-out and lease provisions could assuage some concerns of activists for the disabled.


Officials with the city have said that there are no firm decisions about the social service aspect of the potential program.

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