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Displacement fears block recommendation of Montopolis project

Monday, February 1, 2016 by Jack Craver

Concerns about family displacement and housing affordability prevented the Planning Commission from recommending approval of a proposed apartment complex in the Montopolis neighborhood Tuesday.

In two different votes, the commission failed to garner the seven votes necessary to endorse the recommendation by city staff for the proposed 23-acre mixed-use development on Bastrop Highway and Ponca Street, which would include 356 residential units and 20,500 square feet of commercial space. The case will therefore move to City Council without a recommendation.

A number of commissioners were conflicted about the issue, saying that they wanted to see the project realized but were worried about the effect of the development on the Cactus Rose mobile home park, whose residents would be forced to leave if the project goes forward.

Saul Madero, a Cactus Rose resident, spoke through a Spanish interpreter about the impact the project would have on the more than 50 families who would be forced to leave. He said that he has looked and cannot find alternative housing that costs anywhere near as little as the $700 (including utilities) that he pays monthly for his current abode.

Others in the park pay as little as $400 a month, said Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, who argued that the proposed development was another example of gentrification displacing low-income people throughout East Austin.

“We’re low-income,” said Madero. “The only fortune we have is our home, our family and the No. 4 bus, which is what we use to buy our groceries at the HEB on Seventh Street … as well as the school buses that leave our kids close to our homes.”

David Hartman, an attorney for developer Oden Hughes, emphasized that the company was working with residents to help them find new homes and has volunteered to offer them a certain amount of money to help them relocate.

“Our goal on our side is to make each individual whole,” he said.

But some members of the panel were uncomfortable basing a recommendation on a developer’s promises.

The first motion to recommend the project, devised by Commissioner Fayez Kazi, sought to preserve at least part of the mobile home community by requiring the extension of Ponca Street through the property and reserving a portion of the parcel south of the street for mobile homes.

Joining Kazi in support of the motion were commissioners Michael Wilson and Chito Vela. Voting against were commissioners Stephen Oliver, Nuria Zaragoza, Jeffrey Thompson, James Shieh and Angela Pineyro de Hoyos. Commissioner Tom Nuckols abstained.

The next motion, proposed by Shieh (and later amended by Kazi), added a condition that at least 30 of the new units be priced affordably for low- or moderate-income families. This time, only Zaragoza and Pineyro de Hoyos voted against, and Nuckols again abstained. But the six votes in favor still fell short of the necessary seven to make a recommendation.

Zaragoza, who had earlier noted the high costs that the Cactus Rose residents would have to incur to move their homes, argued that it was the duty of the applicant to come back with a better proposal, rather than for those on the commission to try to engineer one during the hearing. She also pointed out that most of the apartments in the proposed development did not appear geared toward families, in spite of it being located next door to Allison Elementary School.

“I think it makes us realize, is this truly what we want next to a school, and a school that is projected to be under-enrolled five years from now?” she asked.

Nuckols, who said he was reluctant to endorse any proposal that would result in the loss of low-cost housing, echoed the sentiment.

“I think the discussion we’ve been having – and the convoluted nature of the motions – indicates we don’t have good tools in the code to deal with the situation we’re dealing with,” he said.

Vela said that while he sympathized with the plight of those who might be relocated, the city was in a housing crisis and desperately needed to add housing stock for all income levels.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that if this development were to move forward, it’s a net gain of 300 housing units,” he said. “We may be preserving the affordable housing for these families, but we’re doing that on the backs of all the other families.”

Photo by Mokkie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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