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Council plans hotel purchases for housing homeless, floats camping sites

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

At Monday’s work session, City Council members discussed purchasing two hotels in North Austin to secure more than 150 permanent supportive housing units for the homeless. 

Mayor Steve Adler urged Council to act to remedy what he called an “emergency situation,” perhaps using previously rejected measures like setting up designated campsites.

In a press release, Council Member Greg Casar celebrated the proposed hotel purchases. “This is how we pull hundreds of people off the streets and into housing,” he said. “Only homes can solve homelessness.” 

Council Member Alison Alter also hailed the hotel-buying strategy as a proven way to house homeless people for relatively little money compared to building new housing. 

City Council will likely vote on the purchases on Wednesday. The two hotels, at 10811 Pecan Park Blvd. and 13311 Burnet Road, will cost $9.5 million and $6.7 million, respectively. The properties will add to the city’s five other converted hotels, moving the city closer to its goal number of supportive housing units provided to homeless residents. 

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, the newly elected District 6 representative, asked to postpone the vote by a week in order to allow more time for nearby residents to comment and for Council to address residents’ concerns. Casar said he wanted to vote on the items on Wednesday. 

Kelly also brought up concerns about the lack of public transit near one of the hotels, which is located in her district. Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said that while Capital Metro bus and rail stops may be too far for residents, it may be possible to move a bus stop closer to the hotel. She noted that ProLodge facilities often have dedicated transportation services. Kelly was also concerned about the busy streets residents would have to cross to access goods and services. 

After Council members finished asking questions about the hotel proposal, Adler moved the discussion toward the state of homelessness more generally and what the city’s path to solving it might look like.

“Going back to where we were in the past is not the right solution,” Adler said. “Because all that does is hide people experiencing homelessness.” He continued: “But we need to do something with greater urgency on the immediacy of the challenge that the community faces.”

Alter concurred: “I think we are at a different point in time, and I think it’s important that we reassess.”

Adler told the Austin American-Statesman last week that the current policy of allowing homeless people to camp in public places isn’t working. The announcement came on the heels of Save Austin Now’s announcement that it has collected enough signatures to force a May ballot measure on homeless camping. 

Alter said she wanted to explore stopgap solutions like setting up designated camping locations. “I agree completely that the goal is to get people to housing,” she said, “but where people and how people are camping right now does not seem particularly humane. We have to ask the question about whether we can get to that other place quick enough, or if we need to put some temporary steps in place along the way.”

Alter asked Grey whether the designated camping approach is feasible. “From my perspective,” Grey said, “nothing is off the table at present so long as we are holding to our values about respecting the rights of these neighbors and that our intent is to provide housing.”

Adler pushed Grey to help come up with a well-defined plan. “We need to have an implementation schedule that tells us over time how long it’s going to take to get this done and what has to happen and benchmarks along the way so that people can measure progress,” he said. 

Grey said she and other staff would look at many options and “come back with the pros and cons of those with an eye toward identifying more concrete strategy.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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