The Austin City Council has abandoned an unpopular plan to create a permanent homeless center on Ben White Boulevard and, instead, is poised to buy an 87-room hotel for that purpose on Interstate 35 in South Austin.
The council is expected to consider paying up to $8 million — $6.4 million for the purchase and the rest for renovation of the 32,000-square-foot Rodeway Inn — at its meeting Thursday.
Like the proposed Ben White Boulevard purchase, the Rodeway offer is more than twice the appraised value of $2.7 million, set by the Travis Central Appraisal District.
The proposed purchase comes after a chain of events that began with the council’s decision in late spring to decriminalize public camping, squatting and panhandling in the city. That led to a proliferation of camps and then last week to a cleanup of the camps, ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott.
A split council in mid-October reinstated some of the public restrictions but did not specifically ban camping beneath highway overpasses. Still legal is the sprawling camp beneath Texas State Highway 71 in South Austin that sparked public condemnation.
Under state pressure, city planners have shifted attention to purchasing older hotel properties that can be converted relatively quickly to homeless shelters. Staff identified at least six small hotels around the city that might be purchased and converted to shelters for the homeless.
At a work session Tuesday, council members applauded the choice of the Rodeway Inn because of its proximity to the bloc of homeless facilities on East Seventh Street, as well as to health care facilities and public transportation.
City officials said the homeless could be occupying rooms immediately after the purchase without the city having to comply with federal regulations regarding of permanent supportive housing.
Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness (ECHO) coalition, told the council Tuesday his organization will begin to raise funds to operate the Rodeway Inn and any other hotels the city purchases as homeless shelters.
(Please see Item B2 of the work session video for the entire exchange.)
“This is a more immediate response, and it’s a true partnership between the city and its community partners in that they’re coming to the table with funding of their own,” Rodney Gonzalez, assistant city manager, said after the meeting Tuesday. “I believe that it’s a winning strategy and it truly is going to turn the corner in how we address homelessness in our community.”
Gonzalez made a point of saying the Rodeway Inn was a faster and cheaper way to address the homeless housing shortage and that the city had dropped its plans to buy a smaller building on slightly more land at 1112 Ben White Blvd.
The council had agreed to pay as much as $8.6 million for a property appraised at $3.56 million, but the property would have to be renovated to accommodate residents. After the announcement in June, neighbors in the area complained about a drop in their property values and reduced public safety, with an elementary school in the area.
However, the homeless were already moving in nearby under Highway 71 in what would grow to become one of the largest homeless camps in the city.
In August, the council approved spending a record $62.7 million in the coming year to combat homelessness, including funding for shelters like the Rodeway Inn.
According to city estimates, the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen only slightly in the past couple of years, to 2,255 currently. However, the subset of people who regularly do not have shelter has risen by more than 60 percent over the past five years, to 1,086 people.
The council based its decision to stop arresting people for public camping or loitering in large part on a growing body of evidence that says such arrests shift the burden to law enforcement, the municipal courts and city jails without putting a dent in homelessness.
The growth of large underpass camps following the decision prompted Abbott early last month to blister Mayor Steve Adler and the council on social media for the “lawlessness.”
After giving the city the rest of the month to do something about the camps, Abbott deployed troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety, workers with the Texas Department of Transportation and private cleaning contractors to move in and clean out the camps last week.
Several local news organizations reported residents of the camps moving back to the sites less than an hour after the cleanup crews were gone.
Two days later, business, nonprofit and church groups formed ATX Helps to raise $14 million to build at least one 300-cot “sprung shelter” — heavy-duty tent-like enclosures that have successfully served cities like San Diego in providing a way station to permanent housing for the homeless.
In response to that announcement, Abbott offered five acres of state land off U.S. Highway 183 and Montopolis Drive for a temporary campsite until the sprung shelter is built and opened.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].