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Neighborhoods council wants changes to supportive housing policies

Monday, February 28, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Neighborhoods Council passed a resolution last week calling for a city moratorium on funding projects that pair permanent supportive housing with the city’s current Section 8 housing projects. Section 8 is the government program that sends federal rental assistance to private landlords to subsidize low-income residents.


Several east side neighborhood associations brought the resolution forward, concerned that the city’s current Section 8 housing projects are concentrated almost entirely in the east and southwest portions of the city. According to data provided by Tracy Witte of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, the highest concentration of Section 8 housing units per square mile is in the 78702 ZIP code, followed by 78721.


Of the 944 subsidized housing units east of Interstate 35, 844 are under contracts that will expire by December 2011. That could make them prime targets for permanent supportive housing, Witte said. The city has a goal to add 350 supportive housing units by 2014. This is often done by integrating 20 or so units into an existing city-subsidized project.


“What I’m talking about is not a ban on putting PSH housing in Section 8 altogether,” Witte said. “It’s putting a moratorium on them for now. It’s not clear to me exactly what our strategy is for PSH. I think it really behooves us to declare a moratorium until we have a handle on the issue.”


Rudy Williams of the Blackshear Neighborhood Association had reservations, however, and expressed his concern about assumptions being made by the neighborhoods council about the city’s strategy: that it would cluster PSH east of Interstate 35, that it would reinforce the city’s past “segregationist” policy to put certain populations east of Interstate 35, and that such clustering already occurs in Section 8 housing.


“We’re making an assumption that the city is going to cluster all the PSH. I don’t know if that assumption is correct or incorrect,” Williams said. “I don’t know if you have any information from the city, but we’re really making an accusation that they’re going to be putting all the PSH over on the East Side, to the detriment of not only those living there but also people in PSH. I think that is a large assumption, and I don’t think this resolution fits what we know.”


The council’s resolution mirrors concerns East Austin neighborhoods expressed about the Marshall Apartments, which will soon have 20 city-backed permanent supportive housing units incorporated into the overall project. Protesting residents said it was ridiculous to have recovering addicts only blocks away from what some consider to be the epicenter of the city’s drug dealing.


According to the resolution, Witte and her neighbors feel a growing urgency because of a potential move by the city to adopt a hotel/beverage tax to create additional funding for PSH projects.


The PSH resolution passed by a vote of 16-5, with seven neighborhoods abstaining.


The group also began to lay the groundwork to pass a resolution next month on the Austin Independent School District’s ongoing discussion to potentially close neighborhood schools. An early draft of the resolution, distributed at last week’s meeting, called for other cuts before closures, the consideration of academic achievement and other factors before closing a campus, and a promise by AISD to make the closure of any school temporary.


District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has asked local PTAs and school groups to come up with suggestions that could help keep AISD schools open.


Scott Swearingen of the Blackshear/Prospect Hills Neighborhood Association addressed the member neighborhoods of the ANC and presented several suggestions:


– Take a serious look at property tax appraisals by the Travis Central Appraisal District. Some have accused TCAD of under-appraising commercial properties, which means they don’t pay their fair share of taxes.


– Lobby the legislature for a more effective fund for schools across the state. “Robbing our school system to pay for schools in other districts is not a viable funding system for Texas or AISD,” according to the material Swearingen provided to the group.


– Consider out-of-the-box policies that might bring younger families to the city’s central core, such as tax breaks to incentivize central city home ownership or encouraging the school district to contract with the city to operate the central core schools that AISD considers underutilized.


“We’re looking for ideas we might usefully adopt as city policy to either draw people into neighborhoods so we get more families into our neighborhood schools or find some kind of funding mechanism that could help in some way to financially support the core city schools for the next five to 10 years, until the next wave of children up in the neighborhood,” Swearingen said.

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