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Council to commit to ‘transformational’ homelessness spending – if others do too

Tuesday, June 8, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council’s plan to spend a majority of the city’s share of American Rescue Plan Act money on homelessness is gaining traction, with a vote scheduled for Thursday to approve a spending framework for the $143.6 million in federal stimulus money. 

City staffers propose spending $84 million – that’s 58 percent – of the ARPA money on various homelessness services, though Council could modify that amount between now and Thursday. 

But there is one big caveat in regard to homelessness spending: county government and philanthropists must buy in too. 

It would take $515 million in the next two years to solve the problem, according to staffers, who based their estimate on a recent homelessness summit with local stakeholders. Even with the ARPA funds, the city alone could not provide anywhere near that amount, making the proposed “transformational” joint spending effort close to an all-or-nothing bet on solving homelessness.

If everyone buys in, Council believes that the city can effectively end homelessness by providing 3,000 homes in three years. If others don’t buy in, Council may decide to stick with the current homelessness budget and spend less of the ARPA funds on homelessness.

City staffers, based on previous Council direction, recommend spending the majority of the $143.6 million remaining from ARPA on homelessness. Graph by city of Austin. 

At Monday’s special called meeting, Mayor Steve Adler outlined the stakes: “If you look at other cities that have not addressed this in that great way, the challenge continues to grow … I don’t know what you do if you’re Los Angeles or Portland or San Francisco or Seattle, because the scale of their challenge is so much bigger than what we’re dealing with.”

Adler said because Austin’s problem is not yet so extreme, there’s still a chance to solve it. “If we don’t act,” Adler said, “I think the penalty that the city will pay for this six, eight years from now will be enormous.” 

If the city’s spending framework is approved, the next step will be to court Travis County and philanthropists. So far, none have revealed plans to commit lots of money to homelessness, perhaps waiting for the city to make the first move.

Council Member Alison Alter said the lack of buy-in so far is partly “because we don’t have the details out there. We haven’t figured out how to communicate.”

Staffers provided categories of proposed homelessness spending. Image by city of Austin. 

Alter and Council Member Leslie Pool said that they aren’t ready for a Thursday vote, preferring to gather more details, community input, and outside support during Council’s month-and-a-half summer break. If Council postpones the issue, it would be until July 29. 

Most Council members opposed postponing the vote. Council Member Ann Kitchen argued that contingency on the funds addresses Alter’s concern. “We will want to revisit how we allocate dollars if we don’t get those commitments, but we’re not spending those dollars now.”

The ARPA funds will be allocated over the course of this fiscal year and the next, pending Council approval. $44.8 million has already been spent on Covid-related public health services and a website portal where people can apply for various types of relief money.

Council members agreed that occasional check-ins with city staffers would provide assurance as to how the homelessness funds are being used and flexibility to change the way the funds are spent. Council will get other opportunities to weigh in, such as approval of contracts with homeless service providers or the purchase of new hotels for permanent supportive housing.

Council members also stressed the importance of good communication with constituents.

“We have not been able to sufficiently invest in these areas, but we have made investments,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “I know that’s really hard for our community to understand when they see that we have not yet housed each and every one of our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, but I just really think it’s important that we communicate clearly with our public about it.”

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