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Council moves forward with rezoning for Cactus Rose site, but vows to protect residents

Friday, September 23, 2016 by Cate Malek

The decision whether to rezone the Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park in East Austin has put City Council in a tight position that it did its best to wiggle out of at its meeting Thursday.

Council voted to pass the rezoning on first reading but required the developer to continue to negotiate with Cactus Rose residents to help them relocate. The motion passed with nine Council members supporting it, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo opposed, and Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent.

The owner of the Cactus Rose property applied for a zoning change, which would allow developers to turn the site into a mixed-use area with condominiums, retail and restaurants. But the redevelopment would also force out around 50 families who say the mobile home park was not only one of the few options for affordable housing in Austin, but also home to a tight-knit community that has been living together for decades. The ensuing debate over what to do with the park has become an emblem of Austin’s increasing gentrification.

“This project would be better built somewhere else,” said Council Member Greg Casar. “Council should do what it can to help … but even if it’s wrong, it’s not illegal for this site to be developed.”

Council members spoke to their support of the residents of Cactus Rose but observed that denying the rezoning case wouldn’t provide them with any protection against losing their homes. Even if the site wasn’t rezoned for the requested multifamily housing, it could still be redeveloped into a retail area. Council members decided to go forward with the rezoning in hopes that it would give them more say in the current negotiations between developers and the Cactus Rose residents.

“This is a difficult situation, and it feels like we’re caught in a vise,” said Council Member Ora Houston.

More than 20 residents of Cactus Rose presented their case before Council, standing as a unified group. Because many of the residents speak mainly Spanish, translation of the meeting was provided. The residents are asking for a new site to move their mobile homes to. Also, because many of the mobile homes are so old they can’t be moved, the residents are asking for assistance with purchasing new mobile homes.

“This is a hard-working community,” said resident Saul Madero. “I guess it’s time to leave, but we want to leave together, like a community.”

Madero told the Austin Monitor that he has been living in Cactus Rose for 14 years. He said he and his family didn’t want to move because of their neighbors in the mobile home park. He said it was a place where the residents felt safe and knew each other so well they would pick each other’s kids up from the bus stop. He said he had to fight the redevelopment because he was going to lose everything.

“It’s the human response,” he told the Monitor. “You want to say something to survive.”

The property owner, Lenox Oaks, has been in negotiations with residents and has offered them relocation assistance of up to $5,000 for mobile home owners and $1,500 for renters. At the meeting, representatives said they would work with the city to look into a few possible sites for a new mobile home park. They, too, were happy with Council’s decision.

“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to talk to the residents more, so no one goes homeless,” Mac McElwrath, a representative of developer Oden Hughes, told the Monitor.

Madero and other residents also said they were happy with Council’s decision. Even though he originally thought Council members should deny the rezoning request, Madero believed they had demonstrated their support for the residents.

“They showed a human touch,” he said. He compared the offer of assistance to a life raft. “It’s something you can grab onto in the hurricane.”

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