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ASPIRE project to bring affordable housing, business training to North Austin

Thursday, November 3, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

BiGAUSTIN, the Black-led nonprofit group that has provided microlending, business training and workforce assistance for nearly 30 years, has announced plans to construct a massive new community resource center and affordable housing community in a partnership with Banc of America Community Development Company. Those two $65 million projects, located in Northeast Austin on East Braker Lane near Graham Elementary School, will sit near middle-income workforce housing that will be constructed as part of a separate development deal on roughly 30 acres sold off from the 38 acres BiGAUSTIN purchased in 2019.

Known as ASPIRE, the 20,000-square-foot resource center will be located adjacent to the 400-unit multifamily affordable housing complex that BiGAUSTIN will create with San Antonio-based Mission DG, a private firm that specializes in affordable housing projects.

Stacy Rhone, CEO of BiGAUSTIN, said as more nonprofit groups moved into microlending in recent years, the organization had to look for new ways to generate funds to allow it to offer its services mostly for free.

“We started thinking about how do we create a source to be able to lower our costs for rent and things like that and start generating revenue. We said we need to build our own resource center with new and relevant training and technical assistance that is needed in this new environment that we’re in. So we decided we were going to purchase land here in Austin to be able to do that.”

In addition to serving as BiGAUSTIN’s new headquarters, the resource center will offer its previous menu of services as well as podcast and multimedia rooms and other resources to help local creatives who may lack access to the technology they need. A handful of local law firms have agreed to assist with creation, filings for LLC and other social impact needs.

Rhone said she hopes the new activity center, which is expected to break ground next fall, will help to define a portion of the city that currently lacks a definitive character or atmosphere.

“It’s a strange little area because it’s across from Graham Elementary School and directly across the street is a high-end assisted living facility. It’s a really mixed-income and diverse community,” she said. “I’m not sure what the character is in that neighborhood yet. And so we’re hoping that we can help contribute to a character by creating more community there.”

While initial interactions with city offices have helped move forward efforts related to opportunity zone and other funding, Rhone said the initial start date of late spring 2023 has already been moved back because of expected delays with the city’s permitting processes.

“​​We’ve got the zoning done, so that’s not an issue. It’s the permitting that becomes the issue and that’s just a hard thing to determine. So our homes are breaking ground now in late 2023,” she said. “The longer we have to hold on to a property and not be able to generate revenue or make it work for us, it’s harmful. And we are dedicated to affordable housing. But with the challenges and strategies that you get from going through the permitting process and the processes and the reviews of the city of Austin, I’m praying that we don’t have to go to a fully market-rate deal to get this done.”

As the projects come to fruition, Rhone hopes ASPIRE can serve as a model for how to slow or reverse the movement of longtime Austinites out of the city as home prices have increased dramatically over the past decade.

“And so we were hoping that this is an example project that can bring folks back into the community but also ensure that they are also a very positive participant in that community. They feed back into it and grow with it, as you should.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons.

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