Austin still hitting bumps in buying properties to house the homeless

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For the second time in six months, the City of Austin has rejected buying a property as part of its plan to house a growing homeless population in the city.

After the city council decided against spending up to $7.8 million for a Microtel two miles west of Austin Bergstrom International Airport, Mayor Steve Adler on Tuesday reaffirmed the city’s commitment to buying hotels and motels and retrofitting them as temporary housing for some of Austin’s estimated 2,600 homeless people.

“The city is more committed than ever to the motel strategy, and I hope to quadruple the number of rooms over the next few months in multiple properties,” Adler told The Texas Monitor in an email Tuesday. “This is a cost-effective and permanent result-effective way to get people off the streets.”

The council kicked off its motel strategy last month, when it approved spending up to $8 million to buy and renovate an 87-unit Rodeway Inn in the 2700 block of South Interstate 35.

The appraised value of the Rodeway Inn is $2.7 million, but city staff said the market value could be as high as $6.4 million. The council approved another $1.6 million for necessary renovations.

The council in June had originally considered buying and renovating a property at 1112 W. Ben White Blvd. for $8.6 million, which would have been the first homeless housing available outside of downtown. Residents in the area expressed health and public safety concerns, in particular, because of a nearby elementary school.

The mayor and council pivoted to hotel and motel properties because of the comparatively low purchase and renovations costs and the relatively quick turnaround time to get the rooms ready for occupancy. City staff has identified at least eight small hotels and motels in the city that might be bought for the program.

The council at a work session Tuesday was prepared to buy a 71-unit Microtel at 7705 Metro Center Drive. To defray additional taxpayer costs, the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition has offered to partner with the city and operate all of the homeless shelters purchased by the city.

At the work session, ECHO presented a plan to raise $6 million, or $750,000 a year for the next eight years, from private and other grant sources to help pay to operate the shelters. ECHO estimates that it will cost the city about $1.2 million a year to operate each one.

To guarantee long-term funding for operations, Austin will have to make a commitment to upgrade properties like the Rodeway so homeless clients could stay in units permanently, Matthew Mollica, executive director of ECHO, told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday. 

Zoning like the airport overlay allows for temporary homeless housing, but not permanent housing. The Microtel is a temporary housing option, but city taxpayers would have to cover most of the annual operating cost, Mollica said.

“ECHO needs to prioritize sites that can be turned into residential housing so that we can create permanent supportive housing units,” he said.

Mollica said there is a sense of urgency moving into cold weather months after a tumultuous summer that saw the city council relax its homeless loitering and camping ordinances, giving rise to large encampments beneath several freeway overpasses.

The council committed more than $62 million over the next year to fund all of the city’s homeless initiatives, including the motel strategy.

Nevertheless, Gov. Greg Abbott took to social media to lambaste Adler and the council for the “lawlessness” triggered by their decision to decriminalize panhandling and loitering.

But while the council restored some of the public-space restrictions for the homeless, Abbott in early November sent in Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, Department of Transportation workers and private cleaning contractors to break up and clean out the underpass camps.

Abbott also opened five acres of state land off U.S. Highway 183 and Montopolis Drive for a temporary homeless campsite, although few people have taken him up on the offer.

Police reports of homeless camps reappearing are on the rise. Last week, residents in the area of East Riverside Drive complained to police that homeless people have begun camping on the median there.

The ordinance revision does not prevent the homeless from occupying a public space like the East Riverside Drive median.

“If it’s not hazardous to them or to anybody else,” Austin Police Lt. Francisco Rodriguez told a reporter for KXAN-TV, “then our hands are pretty much tied.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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