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Council endorses new Chalmers Courts project

Friday, February 2, 2018 by Jo Clifton

With the Council chambers full of cheering supporters, City Council on Thursday unanimously endorsed an award of low-income housing tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs for a multifamily development at East Fourth and Chicon streets to be called Pathways at Chalmers Courts East Apartments. It will replace the current Chalmers Courts, which have stood in that spot since 1939.

The endorsement does not guarantee that the developer will receive low-income housing tax credits from the state agency, but it helps, and failing to have that endorsement probably means the developer would not get the credits.

There was no opposition to the project, but when the Chalmers Courts item first appeared on the agenda, it looked like Council would have to choose between two different low-income housing projects located within 2 miles of each other. After hearing about both projects, the Council housing committee unanimously endorsed the Chalmers project.

Developer Diana McIver of DMA Companies is hoping to build her project, Talavera Lofts, at East Fifth and Navasota streets. That project was on Thursday’s Council agenda also, but McIver made it easy for Council to endorse the Chalmers Courts project by withdrawing her own project.

She explained that under state law, the city may endorse just one application per year in a 2-mile area as the project that will “make the most contribution to the city’s revitalization efforts.” That law applies in counties with a population of at least 1 million.

McIver said that Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, sponsored a law to exempt Austin by moving that threshold for application of the law to 1.5 million in the county. Although the bill passed both houses with overwhelming support, McIver said, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed it.

“And I just do not think it is right that the governor has a say over what you do in the city of Austin. If you want to fund two very meritorious developments within 2 miles of each other, I believe you should have the right to do that. So, whereas you have this wonderful power of being able to give resolutions of support, your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to have two developments funded within 2 miles,” McIver said.

The audience applauded as she concluded by telling Council that she was withdrawing her development for consideration this year and would ask Council for its support of the same project next year.

Both projects are in Council Member Pio Renteria’s District 3. “It broke my heart,” he said, when the governor vetoed the bill. Renteria said his No. 1 goal “has always been to build as much affordable housing in my district as possible.”

Sylvia Blanco, executive vice president for the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, told Council that due to “the sheer age of the property, the 158 families at Chalmers Courts live in challenging conditions.” The revitalization effort, Blanco said, will more than double the number of families currently being served, from 158 to more than 400.

Because Chalmers Courts was built in 1939 it lacks basic modern amenities such as air conditioning, and the cinder block walls make expansion cost-prohibitive. In addition, she said, there is limited accessibility for mobility-impaired residents. “Electric and plumbing systems are inadequate and have frankly reached obsolescence.”

Through HACA’s three-phase plan, she said, the current residents of Chalmers Courts will not be displaced during the revitalization effort. Families will be relocated across the street in brand-new units so children can continue to attend their neighborhood schools. Blanco promised that the revitalized project would serve bigger families by providing more two-, three- and four-bedroom units. She said this would result in higher enrollments in neighborhood schools such as Zavala Elementary and Martin Middle School.

Council endorsed the project unanimously.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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