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Vela seeks new solutions for housing the homeless

Wednesday, March 30, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Chito Vela has proposed that the city request the cash equivalent of on-site affordable housing upon approval of the Statesman planned unit development on Lady Bird Lake. Under his proposal, the money would go toward temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

“Getting our neighbors off the street today would do far more good than a relatively small number of affordable units sometime in the future when the project is finally built,” Vela wrote in a City Council Message Board post this week.

As Vela worked with the Homeless Services Division to close the encampment in the St. Johns neighborhood where 30 people were living, he was struck by how few resources the city has to immediately shelter homeless people.

“The HEAL initiative is overstretched and capable of providing housing for only a fraction of the people who need it,” he said. “We simply don’t have enough immediate, temporary housing available to help everyone experiencing homelessness – even when a camp has been prioritized due to an approaching sweep.”

HEAL, or the Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link, is a city initiative that aims to move people out of encampments and into housing.

He added, “While I am excited that the city of Austin and Travis County have jointly committed over $215 million to build enough housing for about 3,000 people, those units are being contracted or constructed right now and will not be available for months or years. Long-term help is on the way, but we need immediate, short-term solutions.”

When the Planning Commission approved the Statesman PUD, staff projected that the site at 305 S. Congress Ave. would include 1,378 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of offices, a 275-room hotel, and 150,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. The goal was to have 4 percent of the residential units available to those seeking affordable housing.

At this point, Vela said the developer is operating on the assumption that 54 of the units would be in the affordable category. He and attorney Richard Suttle, who represents developer Endeavor Real Estate Group, have been discussing the possibility of substituting a payment of around $20 million in lieu of the affordable housing.

The development is in Council Member Kathie Tovo’s District 9, and she did not agree with Vela’s proposal. Tovo responded to Vela’s post on the message board, saying that “density bonus programs are one of our only tools under Texas law to require affordable housing as part of new development.”

Removing affordable housing from the Statesman site would lower the overall affordable housing within the South Central Waterfront Plan, she wrote, noting that the plan has been through “multi-year stakeholder processes, and affordable housing has been an issue of primary discussion throughout these conversations.”

“I can say for certain that providing substantial on-site affordable housing on this site and others within the SCW will be key for me,” she continued. “It will also be key to meeting our Council-approved goal of having 20 percent of the new housing within the South Central Waterfront be affordable. To even come close to 20 percent, we’ll need all tracts to contribute toward that goal – including our city-owned tract, One Texas Center.”

However, she did agree that the city should look for more funding for the HEAL initiative. “I look forward to continuing the discussion about funding for homelessness shelters, services and housing. The Public Health Committee has a standing agenda item related to homelessness so that we can review HEAL, the (American Rescue Plan Act) investments, and other issues related to housing and services, so that might be a good venue to discuss possible budgetary shifts that could allocate more money to emergency shelter,” she concluded.

Asked what he would do to meet Tovo’s rejection of his proposal, Vela said he wants to see what the rest of Council thinks.

“The public is demanding a solution to homelessness. There is widespread frustration, both from those who advocate for the homeless and – it breaks their heart to see people living in those conditions – and from the other side that just doesn’t care what happens to them, they want them off the street,” he said. “Everybody wants something done on homelessness. I think the Council feels that pressure and from my point of view I want to get something done now. There are very serious public health and public safety consequences from having people on the street, and the quicker we can get them housed, the better.”

Rendering courtesy of 305 South Congress PUD via the city of Austin.

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