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Council approves District 6 hotel purchase for homeless

Friday, February 5, 2021 by Jo Clifton

After hearing from scores of citizens, both in favor of and opposed to the purchase, City Council voted 10-1 Thursday to buy a hotel in far Northwest Austin for conversion to permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The city will purchase Candlewood Suites at 10811 Pecan Park Blvd. for $9.5 million.

District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents the area, voted no. Kelly first made a motion to postpone considering the purchase to Aug. 31, but none of her colleagues provided her with the second. Kelly was successful in getting the item postponed from Council’s previous agenda.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, who represents the area, sent a letter to Mayor Steve Adler Thursday supporting a request from the Williamson County Commissioners Court, which had requested a six-month delay in the purchase “to allow time for the appropriate impact studies to be conducted.”

Schwertner also wrote that he had drafted several pieces of legislation, including “a bill that would require advance notice and approval by county commissioners court before the city is permitted to develop new housing projects to serve those experiencing homelessness. Among other requirements, the legislation would require coordination between cities and counties to ensure that appropriate resources such as healthcare, public transportation, mental health services, security, and job training programs are available for the individuals being served.” Those resources are part of the regimen for permanent supportive housing.

According to a memo from the city’s homeless strategy officer, Dianna Grey, and the real estate services officer, Alex Gale, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have expressed interest in providing case management services for tenants and operation of the property in cooperation with a subcontracted third-party management company. The memo says the services would include 24-hour front desk coverage as well as transportation services.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison made the motion to approve the purchase, noting that many of those who urged Council not to buy the hotel did so because they said it was not appropriate to house homeless people near their neighborhood. She said, “I don’t see any reason why this area can’t be an appropriate place.” Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, pointed out that each of the residents would receive services and that most of them would have disabilities. District 1, she said, “is home to a myriad of facilities” for the homeless, and Council recently voted to purchase such housing in District 7.

“Austin is a big city now,” she concluded. “We’ve got big problems” that “need big solutions. We can’t play with the old playbook.”

Mayor Steve Adler did his best to assuage the fears of nearby residents, also acknowledging the letters from Schwertner and Williamson County commissioners. He said the hotel would be converted into an apartment complex that would be like other apartment complexes. He thanked Kelly for allowing him to appear on a Zoom call with her and some of her constituents to talk about the project. Adler noted that real estate purchases are different from other projects because of the confidentiality of real estate negotiations.

After noting that several speakers had said that the city’s hotel purchases would not put a dent in Austin’s housing problem, Council Member Paige Ellis said, “many dents need to be made. Every single roof that can be provided to a person helps that individual off the street. The time to act is now. ”

The city is paying for the property from the proceeds of the 2018 general obligation bonds. The Candlewood Suites will not likely be ready for occupancy until the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, which starts in July. The expenses for operations and services are estimated at between $500,000 and $600,000.

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