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Council backs ordinance to expand, improve Rebekah Baines Johnson Center

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 by Jack Craver

What would LBJ do? That was the question invoked repeatedly by both supporters and opponents of a code amendment aimed at facilitating the rehabilitation of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, the retirement community at 21 Waller St. created by federally insured mortgages during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and named after the former president’s mother.

The code amendment approved unanimously by City Council shortly after 2 a.m. on Friday increased the amount of impervious cover that will be allowed on the 18-acre parcel where the RBJ Center is located. The increased allowance will enable the Austin Geriatric Center, the nonprofit that manages the RBJ Center, to sell roughly 5 acres of the parcel to a private entity. The sale of the land will finance a new residential building for seniors as well as improvements to the existing one.

AGC has partnered with Southwest Strategies Group, Momark Development and DMA Development Co. LLC to redevelop the land.

“We have no money,” explained Clarke Heidrick, a former chair and current member of the board of directors of AGC. “Our land is our asset.”

Improvements to the 44-year-old building are desperately needed for the sake of its residents, he argued.

“Lyndon B. Johnson would have never wanted people to live in a building that is substandard,” he said.

Project backers say the current building is woefully inadequate for addressing the needs of its primarily elderly population, a large portion of which is disabled. Farah Rivera, an RBJ resident, said that many of her neighbors who rely on walkers or wheelchairs can’t access the showers, which are not equipped for those with mobility issues.

“You have to be wiped down,” she explained. “This is an indignity.”

The final code change, authored by Council Member Pio Renteria, essentially carves out an exemption for the RBJ land from the impervious cover limit imposed by the Festival Beach Waterfront Overlay Subdistrict, in which it is located.

Specifically, it raises the allowed impervious cover from 40 percent to 70 percent for properties that, among other things, are greater than 15 acres, are adjacent to at least 1.5 acres of parkland and provide at least 450 affordable housing units.

“I do believe that that universe is a rather small one,” Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department told Council.

While the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Association, which represents RBJ, supports the plan, Phil Thomas, the zoning committee chair of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association, a nearby neighborhood group, worried that the proposed deal was a betrayal of President Johnson’s legacy. The original deed, he noted, prohibited any part of the property from being sold off during the life of the 30-year lien. The lien has long since been paid off, but the intent of the deed, he said, was to keep the property intact.

“LBJ was never intending to have this center broken up,” Thomas said.

In addition to concerns about the increased impervious cover and development that he said would be too dense for the surrounding community, Thomas cast doubt on AGC’s claim that the land sale is a financial necessity for the project to go forward. The project principals, he said, had not “opened their books” to prove it.

Finally, Thomas echoed concerns previously voiced by Renteria about how the new development would impact the availability of housing for the poorest residents — those whose income is at or below 30 percent of the area median family income.

AGC had previously said that while the development would allow it to substantially increase its affordable housing stock, the percentage reserved for that category of tenant would be much lower than before.

Of the 450 affordable units required by the code change (in the event of an increase in impervious cover), 310 will be reserved for those at or below 60 percent MFI, while only 40 will be reserved for those at or below 30 percent MFI. The current building has 80 units for those in the 30 percent category.

However, 100 units will be reserved for those with incomes up to 50 percent MFI.

Ashley Richardson, an aide to Renteria, explained to the Austin Monitor that federal law requires that housing subsidized by Section 8 vouchers be available to those with incomes up to 50 percent MFI. AGC, she said, which depends heavily on Section 8 vouchers, has been “technically out of compliance” by restricting much of its housing to those with even lower incomes.

Even with the expanded income eligibility, explained Richardson, many of the units will end up being occupied by those in the lowest income category. Renteria’s office is providing city staff a memo, she added, to make clear to current and future staff that the intent of the ordinance is to provide housing to the city’s poorest senior citizens.

The half hour of testimony from citizens prompted no debate from Council, save for one comment from Council Member Greg Casar, who suggested the land sale was an unfortunate byproduct of a negligent federal government.

“LBJ and others would have wanted us to keep the dirt and for Congress to continue funding programs that were so critical to building our public housing,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re living in a world where that’s not the case, and these are the measures we have to take.”

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