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Neighbors bristle at proposed east side apartment revitalization

Thursday, November 18, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

A proposed plan to revitalize a dilapidated apartment complex on the eastside brought the concern, and eventually ire, of several home and business owners in the area at Monday’s meeting of the Urban Renewal Board.

The property in question is the Marshall  Apartments, a 40-year-old complex on East 12th Street. According to the city, 100 percent of the residents of the complex are living at or below 30 percent of Median Family Income.


This would appear to make the property a perfect fit for the city’s Permanent Supportive Housing Strategy. Passed on March 25 by the City Council, that resolution directs the city manager to “give priority to the funding of permanent supportive housing, and to develop a comprehensive strategy for the construction and operation of 350 permanent supportive housing units” through FY2014. Under the financing model proposed, the city can invest $9 million through FY2014 to leverage an additional $34 million in federal, state, and local funds.


The program defines “permanent supportive housing” as “affordable housing linked to a range of support services that enable tenants, especially the homeless, to live independently …” and targets households earning under 30 percent of Area Median Income.


Under the proposed plan, Summit Housing Partners and Caritas of Austin have offered to buy the complex, renovate it, and provide social services to its tenants. They would be eligible for city assistance for the purchase if they convert 20 of the property’s 100 units into permanent supportive housing.


“It’s a very standard rental housing development application,” Betsy Spencer, interim director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, told the Urban Renewal Board. “The fact that 20 units will be dedicated for folks who have been homeless, there may already be folks there who meet that definition. One hundred percent already there are in the Housing Assistance Program. With this setup, there will be support services for those people that aren’t there now” in the apartments.


Spencer said that the $2.5 million worth of renovations proposed by Summit and Caritas would include a learning center for all residents, increased amenities within each unit, improved playgrounds, social services for residents, and facelifts on the inside and outside of the property, including landscaping.


“It’s a good investment for 12th Street,” she said.


But most of the 25 or so residents who came to the meeting didn’t agree. Many spoke about the high crime rates in the area, including drug use, prostitution, vagrancy, and public drunkenness, and said that they were promised mixed-use and owner-occupied development under the terms of the 1999 Urban Renewal Plan, not permanent supportive housing.


Richard Ferris, a property owner on 12th Street for 50 years, accused the city of “using 12th street as a dumping ground for federal funds, and that’s shameful.


“Now we’re going to spend millions to establish permanent supportive housing, which will perpetuate rather than dispel the neighborhood’s reputation for drugs, crimes, vagrancy, prostitution, and alcohol abuse,” he said. “PSH will discourage rather than encourage private-sector participation in investment.”


Other neighbors argued that though they support the revitalization of the Marshall, they believe placing permanent supportive housing residents – many of whom have histories of substance abuse  — near the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, a notorious open-air drug market, would end up hurting rather than helping those attempting to get over their addictions.


One resident called the corner a “candy store” for addicted people.


Stan Strickland, president of the Robinson Hill Neighborhood Association, said, “This is an admirable undertaking, and we’re willing to do our part in east Austin. Right now the time for PSH in this area is not right. This is not your typical not-in-my-backyard neighborhood argument. This is not a pristine neighborhood. We aren’t free of crime. We’ve got some real problems, and we’re trying to grapple with them and heal ourselves. This seems like a backward step that the neighborhood isn’t ready for.”


Strickland agreed with several of his neighbors that the proximity of the Marshall complex to12th and Chicon could be terrible for both the neighborhood and those who might move into permanent supportive housing. “If there’s a real genuine desire to help the recipients of PSH you have to look at the area you’re putting them in. They’re going to be a block away from anything they want.”


Currently city staff is scheduled to present the Summit/Caritas application to the Austin Housing and Finance Corporation on Dec. 9. Recognizing, however, how much controversy the proposed plan might cause in the neighborhood, the Urban Renewal Board voted to call a special meeting before then so they could have a chance to hear from representatives of Summit, Caritas, and the Marshall  (none of whom were in attendance at Monday’s meeting) and solicit letters of opposition or support from neighbors.


“Our job is to make sure this proposal is consistent with the Urban Renewal Plan,” said Board Member Mike Clark-Madison. “We’re not here to do something the community doesn’t want. We need to do due diligence.”


The board and city staff are currently settling on a date for that special called meeting.

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