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Despite protests, Council gives OK for Marshall Apartments project

Tuesday, January 18, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Eastside residents did not miss a chance to give City Council another round of protests Thursday over the purchase of the 100-unit Marshall Apartments on East 12th Street for one of the city’s first permanent supportive housing projects.

Opponents failed to dissuade the Council, acting as the Austin Houston Finance Corp., from loaning $2.5 million to Summit Housing Partners under its Rental Housing Development Assistance Program. Last week’s hearing was to issue up to $6 million in Private Activity Bonds to purchase and rehabilitate the property.

Summit Housing Partners, in partnership with Caritas of Austin, will provide 20 units of permanent supportive housing on the East 12th Street property.

Several residents and neighborhood leaders spoke in opposition to the project, with the exception of Lori Renteria, who chose not to speak. Most of the speakers, like Scott Way, attempted to uses facts to persuade.

“You’re about to embark on a project that all the studies and facts say is a bad project,” Way said. “You haven’t even begun the process of determining best practices for PSH. You haven’t even begun the process for creating criteria to best judge individual projects. You haven’t even put in place the means by which we can ensure that PSH is equitably distributed throughout the city. Staff hasn’t completed their use determination for this project nor have they responded to Urban Renewal Plan amendments submitted to them months ago.”

Others, like long-time property owner Richard Ferris, were more blunt. Ferris built an apartment building in the corridor 40 years ago but said he gave up renting it due to drug and crime problems in the neighborhood.

“And now after all this, all these years, 12th Street is being hit by what the city says is a good thing. Wow. In all these years there’s no infrastructure to make this a vibrant corridor. And now PSH, permanent supportive housing, is coming in. What else can you do to 12th Street? Urban renewal, neighborhood housing, ARA? It’s very obvious that East 12th Street is the dumping ground for federal funds.”

Others argued that Summit was the wrong operator for permanent supportive housing in the city, showing news clips of mold problems at a Summit-owned project in Palm Beach County, Fla. Tracy Witte, president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, reiterated her concerns over the Summit project.

“This is the second time in one year (you’ve given money) for a company that has no experience with supportive housing, is putting up no money of its own, is creating zero new affordable units for this city and whose property values, post-renovations, is $4 million less than the total project cost,” Witte said. “We put $8 million in and have zero new units.”

The project is in clear conflict with the Neighborhood Combining Conservation Plan, or NCCD, Witte told Council again. To date, more than 145 individuals from Central Austin have signed letters of opposition to the project, Witte said, including the Central East Austin Planning Team, the Organization of Central East Neighborhoods, Swede Hill and Robertson Hill neighborhood associations and the 12th Street Business Owners.

“You have a request from Austin Neighborhoods Council’s executive committee that you postpone any further funding for this project until the city completes its dialogue about best practices for PSH,” Witte continued. “None of this is posted as backup on the agenda today.”

Council closed the hearing, without comment and without a vote, after about an hour of testimony and a 20-minute video of local land and home owners by a videographer who also claimed to have captured a drug deal across the street as he interviewed Way about his opinion.

And while local residents protested that 95 percent of affordable housing projects had been placed on the eastside, Council members in earlier interviews with the In Fact Daily said they were committed to dispersing the proposed 350 permanent supportive housing units across the city.

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