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Austin buys one hotel to convert into housing for homeless – and puts off purchasing another.

Thursday, January 28, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

After hours of debate, the Austin City Council OK’d one purchase of a hotel to ultimately house Austinites experiencing homelessness, while delaying the purchase of another until next week.

The two hotels – one in North Austin’s District 7 and another in the more northwesterly District 6 – would collectively cost the city $16.2 million and could house at least 148 people.

Council OK’d the $6.75 million purchase of the 65-room hotel in District 7, but punted on buying the other 83-room hotel at the request of District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly. The Council member cited community concerns about safety and the speed with which Council moved to buy the property in its first meeting of the year.

She pointed to her constituent feedback as proof that the purchase wasn’t properly vetted with the community. Kelly, who successfully ran on a platform to roll back the city’s current homeless ordinances that largely allow public camping and resting, argued the city shouldn’t apply its hotel strategy to this neighborhood.

“I think this is indicative of how we somehow as a city have taken a broad-brush approach to the issue,” she said. “These are very different locations.”

Kelly asked for a week to pursue more feedback, and the majority of Council agreed, with Council members Vanessa Fuentes, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar and Kathie Tovo voting against the motion.

The tack of buying up hotel and motel properties to transition into housing for homeless Austinites isn’t new.

It’s a strategy the city first embraced in November 2019 when it bought the Rodeway Inn off Oltorf Street and Interstate 35, and then the Country Inn and Suites in District 4, which it purchased in May of last year. Ultimately, the city plans on converting the hotels into housing for people transitioning out of homelessness, while also providing services to help those in need.

The city has also leased properties during Covid-19 to safely house Austinites who live outdoors or may be susceptible to the coronavirus.

Ahead of the vote, public testimony resoundingly supported both purchases. Of the 93 people who signed up to speak, 86 supported both purchases, five opposed and two were neutral, according to the city.

Shortly after the vote, Tovo said she hoped ahead of next week there would be a good-faith effort to address some of the resistance to the plan in District 6, and cautioned Austinites not to equate those transitioning out of homelessness with potential criminality, which experts argue is a misconception.

“I think that, too, is one of the really important things that the community will learn in these hotel and motel strategies,” she said. “These are individuals that are experiencing homelessness … the connection to crime is just not there.”

The purchase will be back up on the Council’s agenda next week, along Council Member Ann Kitchen’s proposal to discourage encampments in four targeted areas of Austin.

Dubbed the HEAL initiative, Kitchen’s plan would adopt a phased approach to discourage encampments along roadways. It would also set aside $3 million in city money to house those already living at encampments that have proliferated since the city decided to scale back laws on camping and resting in public in 2019.

Kitchen’s resolution singles out four swaths of land across the city with camps that pose “risks to public health and safety.”

The proposal would aim to house folks living in those encampments. Then, the resolution says, the city could potentially rewrite its camping ordinance to ban camping in those places – if City Manager Spencer Cronk thinks it’s necessary.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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