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Elysium Park angst: From City Hall to Israel

Tuesday, August 9, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last Thursday, many of those watching the City Council meeting were left befuddled by an exchange that took place late in the meeting over a proposed affordable housing project at 3300 Oak Creek Drive.

Both the developer and the neighborhood supported the indefinite postponement ultimately approved by City Council. Such agreement is a rarity for this project, which has drawn passionate opposition from some neighbors and a valid petition against the rezoning that would make the project possible. However, in just under 15 minutes, Elysium Park became the center of a debate on affordable housing in the city and cause to critique how tax credits are distributed in Texas.

Just prior to the Council meeting, the developers were informed that, despite support from the city, they had not received the anticipated funding, which was to be in the form of state tax credits. Instead, the competitive credits were awarded to three other projects, all located in Georgetown. With that funding off the table, those hoping to move forward with the project explained that they were forced to postpone in order to figure out a new plan.

This news didn’t sit well with Council Member Greg Casar, who took the occasion to note the neighborhood’s opposition and to ask his colleagues to affirm their support for the project despite the postponement before them.

Although Casar explained to a “perplexed” Council Member Ann Kitchen his intention to make clear that the postponement was not due to a lack of support for affordable housing, his attempt to call a symbolic vote of support failed. Instead, he managed to turn the heat up on state Rep. Celia Israel – who had not supported the project in her district – by calling out her lack of endorsement, despite not at first identifying her by name.

Casar spoke to the Austin Monitor on Monday night, and once again he made it clear that his issue was larger than one person’s support, or lack thereof.

“(Israel) and I disagree about the project. I support the project, and she did not sign a letter (of support),” said Casar. “But, to me, what was important was to draw support from the Council for presenting a unified voice in favor of a good project. I think the silence and discomfort on the dais spoke louder than anything else that was said, and just goes to show how organized opposition to affordable housing can slow down or kill worthy projects like this one.”

Since Thursday, Elysium Park has received a lot of attention on social media, and a lot of the heat has been directed toward Israel, who released a statement on Monday about why she had not submitted a letter of support. She also spoke with the Monitor to make her position clear.

“I felt like the conversation at Council on Thursday left the impression that I was not supportive of affordable housing. … Rather than engage a few people with opinions, I just decided to put out the facts,” she explained.

Israel said that she had visited the site and had spoken with both the developer and neighborhood groups. In the end, she opted not to support it due to a lack of transit and pedestrian access. “It’s not safe for pedestrians,” Israel said. “And there is no transit access.”

“I don’t think this should be treated as a decision that I made lightly. I have supported affordable housing. Just one mile away there was a rehab project, and six miles away there was another project, and the Branton Lane project I supported over opposition of neighbors in the Wells Branch area,” said Israel. “I just wanted to make sure that folks knew that I’m sensitive to the pain that’s out there for people that are trying to find affordable housing. Not every project is suitable.”

The tax-credit scoring criteria is complicated, with 25 separate categories that can earn a project points. Those categories range in importance as well – from 18 possible points awarded for “financial feasibility” to two points awarded for “proximity to local services.” Community support by state representatives can award a project as much as eight points, but, as Israel pointed out to the Monitor, state reps also have the opportunity to negatively impact projects by opposing projects and subtracting eight points.

“My political read on this legislation is that this is an additional tool that was given to legislators to fight affordable housing projects from coming into their districts,” said Israel. “Some of them will write a letter of opposition so they can say, ‘Hey, I kept those people from coming into our neighborhood.’ That’s wrong. I’m proud of my record.”

In the case of Elysium Park, Israel chose to remain neutral – neither adding to nor subtracting from the point total. However, of the four projects up for consideration in the region, only the top project received a letter of support from its state representative, with the bottom three projects all tying in point totals exactly eight points fewer than that top-scoring project. If Elysium Park had earned the extra eight points from a positive recommendation, it would have tied at the top and received funding. In the end, of 177 possible points, the project earned 149 points.

“I didn’t kill this particular project,” said Israel. “They could have gotten more points in other ways.”

It remains unclear whether the project is dead at all.

Casar said that, for him, the question is about “where City Council goes from here,” and he’s not counting on tax credits to do it. He told the Monitor that he was looking at the possibility of combining city and state funding to get the project going and move forward with the rezoning from industrial park to residential zoning.

“It is a high opportunity area,” said Casar, who noted that the project would be within the Murchison Middle School and Anderson High School districts, where median family incomes range from $100,000 to $125,000, according to the city demographer.

“It’s a great place for affordable housing. It’s a worthy project. And given what the Council has been talking about … in integrating the city and fair housing, it’s exactly the kind of work we should be doing,” said Casar. “It’s frustrating to see this project hit roadblocks because of organized opposition against affordable housing.”

And, according to Israel, her neutrality isn’t set in stone either.

“This item was postponed. So, the developer can make some changes and adjustments (and) work with the neighbors again,” said Israel. “I know that’s exhausting. But if they bring me a better plan, I’m happy to take another look at it.”

Photo by Nicholas Henderson made available through a Creative Commons license.

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