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New NHCD director sees affordable housing as vital to Austin’s growth

Monday, March 21, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

It used to be a chicken in every pot, but to Betsy Spencer it’s a roof over everyone’s head.

 

Late last year, City Manager Marc Ott announced the appointment of Spencer to be the new director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office.

 

Spencer, who had been the office’s acting director since June, took over the job during a period of change in the city’s approach to affordable housing, a period that brings with it both increased scrutiny and increased opportunity for Spencer and her department.

 

Call it the “Permanent Supportive Housing Era.” Last March, Council passed a resolution directing staff to come up with a strategy to create 350 permanent supportive housing (PSH) units around the city over the next four years. PSH is defined in that resolution as “affordable housing linked to a range of support services that enable tenants, especially the homeless, to live independently.”

 

As the acting director of the NHCD, one of the two departments responsible for the city’s PSH strategy, Spencer was at the center of the controversy that erupted in November over the inclusion of PSH units in the revitalization of the Marshall Apartments on East 12th Street. Several neighborhood associations in the area protested the inclusion of PSH on the property, exposing rifts in the community over the issue of homelessness and affordable housing.

 

It’s an issue Spencer is intimately familiar with. Before joining the NHCD in December 2009 as assistant director, she was the chief operations officer for the San Antonio Alternative Housing Corp., a nonprofit housing developer. Before that, she worked as a neighborhood renewal manager/housing resources coordinator, program manager, and caseworker.

 

“When you have a project when you’re potentially going to house the homeless, it tends to elicit a very emotional response,” Spencer told In Fact Daily.

 

Spencer believes that the PSH issue will be one of the most pressing for the city and her office in 2011. “We heard during the Marshall Apartments process that people want to be informed, they want to be involved, and they want to be a part of the process, so we need to continue to involve people at every level that we can,” she said. “We need to create as much of a collective, community spirit behind these projects as possible if we want to get to that 350-unit goal.”

 

Another issue that arose out of the Marshall Arms debate is the relationship between the city and the Urban Renewal Agency. Since the dissolution of the tri-party agreement between the city, the agency, and the Austin Revitalization Agency in September, the power and mandate of the Urban Renewal Agency have been called into question, culminating in foes of the Marshall Apartments calling the agency “toothless” during the debate over that property’s revitalization.

 

Spencer said that re-establishing the relationship between the city and the Urban Renewal Agency will be job one this year. “We’re going to be drafting a permanent bi-party agreement memorandum in the next couple months,” she said. “That will be out first charge in 2011 so we can clearly define the roles of the city and the agency.”

 

Doing so will enable the NCHD to determine the best way to improve the 11th and 12th street corridors, as per the Urban Renewal Plan, focusing particularly on 12th Street, which has not seen the kind of redevelopment 11th Street has. Since the city does not own as much property on 12th as it does on 11th, Spencer said one of the challenges for 2011 will be determining the best redevelopment approach. The first step, she said, will be conducting a market study of city-owned properties.

 

“We’re going to do a market study to determine what the best use is for what we have on 12th Street because plans that were done in the past may or may not be appropriate for the current climate,” she said. “Then we have to figure out how we encourage development. Is it doing it ourselves? Is it soliciting an RFP for another developer to do it? Is it providing incentives for existing landowners to develop their properties?”

 

With all the development set to continue this year — whether it’s on 11th and 12th streets, in the East Riverside Corridor, or in the Plaza Saltillo neighborhood — Spencer said the most important thing for her and the NHCD will be the preservation of affordable housing and a dedication to smart, sustainable growth.

 

“A tremendous amount of existing affordable housing is in the East Riverside Corridor, so if it were to be demolished or go market, we would have a lot of families who would no longer have an affordable place to live,” Spencer said.

 

For Spencer, preserving affordable housing is imperative if Austin is going to grow in a smart and humane way. Housing, she believes, is connected to every part of the human experience.

 

“Education, housing, jobs: They all factor into how we’re growing,” Spencer said. “Though housing is our biggest charge, we have to look at education and at job creation and at mobility. They all go hand in hand.

 

“For me, it all begins and ends with housing. That’s why homelessness is such an important issue. Having worked in a shelter, I saw that if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, if you don’t know if you have a roof over you head, it’s very hard to plan for your future. So housing plays a role in many other social factors.”

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