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Planning Commission prods developer to talk with tenants facing displacement

Friday, April 15, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Tenants don’t often speak at public meetings on zoning cases that affect them. But when they do, people seem to listen. At least that was the case Tuesday when the Planning Commission heard from Andrew McKenna, a North Austin resident unsure where he’ll move should the city approve a proposal to redevelop the apartment complex where he lives.

“I’m very concerned about becoming homeless,” McKenna said. “That’s why I got on my bike and came down here in 90 degrees.”

Developer JCI Residential plans to build 295 apartments at 1120 and 1124 Clayton Lane, replacing the 16-unit building where McKenna lives. Alice Glasco, representing JCI, is asking the city to approve Vertical-Mixed Use (VMU) zoning, which would allow a bigger project in exchange for pricing 10 percent of the units affordably, among other requirements.

McKenna said he was not against the development. “The owner is a good guy and he deserves to retire and get out,” he said. Rather, he criticized the lack of information from the developer and the city about how tenants will be affected and what their options are.

The city did not notify McKenna of the rezoning because he doesn’t have a city utility account (his utilities are bundled with rent). Notifications are only sent to property owners and utility account holders, meaning some renters may not receive notice. “They could have easily put a note in the mailbox for 13 units,” McKenna pointed out. Tenants were, however, notified of the owner’s intent to sell. 

Glasco said that she had planned to speak with tenants, but that it was still early in the process – the apartment won’t be demolished for at least a couple of years. She explained that JCI will let tenants apply to live at another of its projects​​, High Point Preserve, located four miles away on Highway 290.

McKenna said the relocation plans won’t work for everyone. “If you are like me and a bicycle is your primary transportation, you don’t want to live at 9301 East 290.” 

Tenants may also not be able to afford the new rent. “How much is that apartment? Who knows? It’s not going to be less than what we’re currently paying,” McKenna said. Glasco couldn’t say if the units would be affordable for the tenants, though the property does have income-restricted units affordable to those making between 60 and 100 percent of the median family income.

The commission, sympathizing with McKenna’s testimony, voted unanimously to postpone to May 10 so that the developer can speak with the tenants.

“I would hope that within a month there’s a robust process with the residents, not just a meeting letting them know, ‘these are the plans and deal with it,’” Commissioner Solveij Rosa Praxis said.

If the developer follows through, commissioners seem likely to approve the case.

McKenna, fearing personal repercussions, hesitated to support a postponement. Praxis tried to assuage his concerns. “We will be paying attention to see that (tenants’) concerns are truly addressed and that they don’t face repercussions for speaking up.”

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