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Affordable housing proposals advance after outcry over gentrification, institutional racism

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 by Daniel Salazar

Charges of institutional racism and bias in housing policy engulfed a pair of votes at the Austin Housing Finance Corporation Board of Directors meeting Thursday.

The board, which is made up of all of the members of the Austin City Council, considered requests to authorize negotiating and executing agreements with development teams on two affordable housing projects in Austin’s District 3. But roughly two dozen residents urged Council to enter into agreements with Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, a local community nonprofit developer, on the projects instead.

Ultimately, Council voted to enter negotiations for a GNDC-affiliated proposal on one project, but decided to stick with the staff recommendation on the other.

The properties in question were a 6-acre tract at 900 Gardner Road and a 5.15-acre tract at 1127 Tillery St. – two of three vacant AHFC-owned sites proposed for development in a memo last October.

City staffers gathered public input on development objectives for the sites this spring, and issued requests for proposals in June. They wanted to minimize the amount of city subsidy for the projects and maximize the number of affordable, deeply affordable and multi-bedroom units, Community Development Administrator Mandy De Mayo said.

The highest-scoring proposal for the Gardner project was submitted by DMA Development Company and Big Medium for 219 multifamily units and 26,000 square feet of art and office space, according to a city memo this month. For the Tillery project, a proposal by MRE Capital and Imagine Art for 64 multifamily units and 8,000 square feet of art space topped the scoring matrix.

Both recommended proposals offered more total units than their closest competitors, but 100 percent of the units were planned as rental units. “We felt like these top-scoring applicants met the development criteria, the objectives that we had laid out there before the community,” De Mayo said.

For the Gardner project, a proposal by developer Vecino Group and partner Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation for 134 units, including 26 ownership units, finished second in the scoring matrix.

A GNDC-affiliated proposal also finished third in the scoring matrix for the Tillery project.

During public comment, a flurry of speakers urged Council to enter negotiations with development teams that included GNDC, highlighting their existing relationships with the community.

“They have all the trust from the neighborhood in the world,” said Govalle Neighborhood Association’s Jessica Eley.

Many of the speakers highlighted the gentrification and displacement already occurring in this part of the city due to rising costs of living.

“We need to ensure that our families can afford to live in East Austin,” said Eric Ramos, a Martin Middle School teacher. “I don’t want to continue to lose the families that I serve at my school.”

Carmen Llanes Pulido, with Undoing Racism Austin, said the scoring matrix did not place needed value on homeownership and historic relationships within the community.

“We have to be intentional when we address systemic racism and doing the right thing,” she said. “We can’t just look at the number of units. Don’t make us all renters. You have an opportunity to give some land back. Please do it today.”

Speakers in favor of GNDC labeled other potential developers as “white-owned” or “white-led” outsiders that were trying to capitalize off the east side’s growth with “hip” projects that don’t necessarily serve the local area.

Eventually, those types of comments prompted pushback from Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison on the virtual dais.

“It is not necessary to villainize other organizations because you prefer one over the other,” she said. “They still do good work in our community, on the east side by the way.”

Council Member Pio Renteria, whose district includes the two projects, motioned to enter negotiations with the Vecino-GNDC development team for the 900 Gardner project.

“I’m really excited about homeownership because we do have a lot of apartments being built in the Govalle area,” he said.

“They’re going to provide a mix of ownership and rental,” he added. “They have proposed to provide more multi-bedroom units. They have a lot of experience implementing preference policies.”

On the Tillery project, he motioned for the city to stick with the staff-recommended development team of MRE Capital and Imagine Art.

Council voted in favor of Renteria’s motions, although Jimmy Flannigan abstained on the Gardner project vote and Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo abstained on the Tillery project vote.

De Mayo said an exclusive negotiation period with the two shortlisted development teams should take two months.

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