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Controversial Marshall Apartments rehab approved despite opposition

Friday, December 10, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Those expecting a heated debate when the Austin Housing Finance Corporation took up the issue of financing the purchase of the Marshall Apartments on East 12th were not disappointed yesterday. Though the corporation (the Austin City Council) voted unanimously in favor of the plan, public sentiment was split and spoke to longstanding social, economic, and geographic divides in the city.


Under the plan, Summit Housing Partners, LLC, of Birmingham, Ala., will buy the complex, renovate it, and provide social services to its tenants. The city will loan Summit $2.5 million under the Rental Housing Development Assistance Program. Summit also requested an issue of $5 million in Private Activity Bonds through the Austin Housing Finance Corporation.


In partnership with Caritas of Austin, Summit will provide 20 units of permanent supportive housing (PSH) at the Marshall Apartments.


The city’s Permanent Supportive Housing Strategy, which was approved on March 25 by the Council, and which aims to establish 350 PSH units around the city by 2014, defines permanent supportive housing as “affordable housing linked to a range of support services that enable tenants, especially the homeless, to live independently.”


The PSH issue is the one that concerns many of the neighbors of the Marshall Apartments, including homeowners, business-owners, and neighborhood associations. For weeks, east side residents have been arguing that including PSH in the rehabilitation of the Marshall Apartments will bring down the quality of life in the neighborhood, endanger PSH tenants by placing them in a known high-crime/drug-infested area, and fly in the face of the Urban Renewal Plan.


During yesterday’s hearing, those issues were once again vocalized.


Tracy Witte, president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, explained why her group had voted unanimously against the inclusion of permanent supportive housing in the rehabilitation plan. “(This plan) further concentrates poverty in East Austin, thwarts the intent of urban renewal, skirts zoning laws, and places vulnerable people in areas of lower opportunity and higher risk,” she said.


“Nowhere in the controls or the text of the Urban Renewal Plan will you find a cry from the community for transitional housing, residential treatment, guidance counseling, or group homes.”


Scott Way also took issue with what he called the proposal’s lack of compliance with the Urban Renewal Plan, which, he said, “calls for new housing opportunities; it calls for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, dense development.”


According to city documents, since the Summit proposal is a rehabilitation project and not a construction project, it is in compliance with the Urban Renewal Plan despite the fact that Marshall is not a garden apartment, condominium, or townhouse.


Not everyone spoke out against the plan. Blackshear Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association President Rudolph Williams, for one, refuted the idea that everyone on the east side is looking to see the neighborhood gentrified. “We don’t want to turn (Marshall) into mixed-use with high-end housing,” he said. “We want to make sure that poor people have a place to stay. These people are part of our community and we accept them as part of our community.”


Even though the plan passed unanimously, Witte brought up an issue that won’t be resolved by the rehabilitation of any one building. “If the idea is truly to afford PSH clients the best Austin has to offer in order to break the cycle of poverty, stress, despair, and isolation, why aren’t we first spending millions to house people in high-opportunity areas with great schools, transportation, job opportunities, stability, and community amenities?” she asked.


In other words, why isn’t permanent supportive housing being forced on neighborhoods west of I-35 the way it is neighborhoods east of I-35?


Council Member Sheryl Cole addressed the issue by pointing out that just moments earlier she and her colleagues had approved funding to rehabilitate two other affordable housing projects, one west (by Green Doors) and one south (by Foundation Communities).


“We have every intention of placing this housing throughout the city of Austin,” Cole said.


Still, Council Member Laura Morrison told In Fact Daily that it’s still up in the air just how geographic dispersion can be assured as the city moves toward its 2014 PSH goal. “It’s going to be challenging because things may be more expensive (on the west side),” she said. “One of our values is getting our dollars to go as far as possible, but another is we need to have equitable dispersion around the city.”


She said there has been talk of giving west side projects scoring bonuses in the loan-application process but that nothing has been decided yet.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez echoed Morrison’s sentiment. “At least 350 permanent supportive housing units are needed by 2014. We are committed to trying to disperse them equally throughout the city, but the true goal is getting that 350 done because we know there are folks who really need the housing. So the assurances that we can give are simply our commitment that we will try to do everything we can.”

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