After a one-week delay requested by District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, Austin City Council voted 10-1 to authorize the $9.5 million purchase of an 83-room hotel in her district to create permanent supportive housing—functionally, an apartment building, with leases and on-site support services—for homeless residents who are disabled.
Kelly requested an additional delay but was outnumbered on the dais. "We do need permanent supportive housing in the community, but I cannot support this permanent supportive housing because of the outcry from the community about it not being in the right location," she said during the meeting on Thursday.
The city began converting hotel and motel properties into transitional housing in late 2019, with a goal of purchasing properties in all 10 districts. Since the pandemic began, the city has leased five motels for use as socially-distanced emergency homeless shelters. Last week, council voted to approve the $6.7 million purchase of a hotel on Burnet Road for use as permanent supportive housing. Members were slated to vote on a second purchase—the Candlewood Inn & Suites near the intersection of Hwy. 183 and FM 620—but Kelly requested a postponement amid protests from constituents, many of whom expressed support for permanent supportive housing efforts but opposed the decision to place such a facility in their neighborhood.
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison pointed out that permanent supportive housing exists in other districts and geographic diversity of such facilities is an important step toward equity. "I don't see why this area can't be an appropriate place," she said.
Misconceptions and transparency
Kelly, who was elected in November, campaigned on her opposition to council's 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping. But she framed her request for a postponement as a chance to get her constituents on board with the purchase. "There are a lot of misconceptions about the hotel purchase and homelessness in general," she said during the Jan. 27 council meeting. "My hope is, by postponing, we will be able to clear up confusion and open healthy dialogue."
On Wednesday, Kelly hosted a town hall to discuss the prospective purchase with local experts. More than 200 people attended.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly hosted a town hall to discuss the Candlewood purchase on Wednesday.
Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of the local nonprofit Caritas of Austin, addressed a commonly voiced misconception: that the hotel would be converted into an emergency shelter. "Many of you are familiar with the ARCH downtown," she said. "This is not at all what is being proposed for Candlewood Suites. (Permanent supportive housing) is permanent. It is an apartment community."
Kelly also stressed the need for transparency and community engagement around such purchases. Some other elected officials concurred.
After neighbors and business owners "expressed deep concern for the lack of any communication by the City regarding the project before it became an item on your agenda last week," Williamson County commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to urge council to delay the purchase by at least six months, County Judge Bill Gravell wrote in a letter to city officials. State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) also opposed the purchase and announced plans to file a bill that, if passed, would require advance notice and approval by a county commissioners court before a city is able to develop new housing projects serving homeless residents.
Although many District 6 constituents expressed support for the project, others raised concerns about the impact on surrounding businesses, the potential for crime and the cost of operating such a facility.
"We need some compassion, yes," said Freda Chen, who owns Freda's Seafood Grille, which is next door to the Candlewood property. "But I think the city picked the wrong place."
Chen wishes the city had been more transparent about its interest in the property and considered its proximity to businesses like hers, which have already been adversely affected by the pandemic. "I don't think they think we're important because we're on the edge of the city," she told Austonia.
Rupal Chaudhari, CFO of the Hampton Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites in northwest Austin, which share a driveway with the Candlewood site, also opposes the purchase. "It is a fact that crimes do go up around homeless housing," she said during a Jan. 27 council meeting. "How are we supposed to feel safe in the community?"
"I think it is really important that we make sure that our community is not equating homelessness with criminal activity," District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo said at the same meeting.
Freda's Seafood Grille sits to the left of the Candlewood hotel property, and the Hampton Inn & Suites to its right. (City of Austin)
Austin officials have said it is important to keep prospective purchases under wraps, and council is allowed to do so under state law to avoid unwanted competition from other buyers. The cost of the hotel purchase price evens out to around $115,000 per unit. "That is well under any average acquisition cost for a one-bedroom unit in Austin," newly appointed Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said during the town hall.
The Candlewood purchase will be funded by the 2018 affordable housing bond and is expected to open late this year, according to a Jan. 20 memo from city staff. Annual operating costs are estimated to be around $2.2 million, which will come from the Austin Public Health budget.
Caritas of Austin, a local nonprofit that provides rehousing services to the homeless community, will manage the facility.
Despite the vocal opposition, some District 6 constituents welcomed this news. "There are several homelessness camps nearby, some right off of Pecan Park Boulevard," said Preston Mans, who is also a member of the Austin DSA chapter, during last week's council meeting. "So I think this location is perfect for helping the homeless."
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By Kali Bramble
Calls for firmer regulation of the dockless scooters, mopeds and e-bikes scattered about the city may hit the desks of City Council in coming months, as a recommendation from the Downtown Commission makes its way to the agenda.
The recommendation proposes stricter requirements for providers to remove devices blocking sidewalks, crosswalks and other rights of way and increase fees for subsequently impounded vehicles. The proposal also calls for implementing a ticketing system for riders who violate municipal traffic code or state law.
Since 2018, the steady influx of electronic scooters has left Austin’s Transportation Department scrambling to integrate the devices into city infrastructure. As of this year, companies Bird, Lime, LINK, and Wheels collectively operate a total of 14,100 micromobility devices, many of which are concentrated in Austin’s urban core.
“I walked out of my office at Sixth and Congress today at noon and counted 65 scooters laying on their side,” Texas Monthly founder Michael Levy said in a public comment. “It looks like a war zone.”
Critics of the exploding scooter market cite incidents of devices blocking pedestrian walkways for days on end. Under the commission’s proposal, improperly discarded devices would be subject to impounding within two hours, with the time limit reduced to one hour in the downtown area. A $100 release fee along with a $5 per day storage fee would go toward investment in infrastructure solutions, such as augmenting the 25 existing parking corrals throughout the city.
Detractors also cite episodes of reckless and inebriated scooter riders as an increasing public health problem. While restrictions like in-app speed reduction technology have sought to mitigate such incidents, emergency room workers anecdotally report an alarming number of scooter-related injuries, especially on weekends. Preliminary data from Austin Public Health supports such claims, though it is still a challenge to quantify.
Micromobility advocates, on the other hand, argue that scooters provide an important service to those navigating Austin’s patchwork public transportation system. The Transportation Department considers such short-distance mobility options another solution in its toolbox to combat the city’s over-reliance on cars.
Still, scooter skeptics wonder if these benefits outweigh consequences. Levy noted that cities like San Diego have responded very differently to the burgeoning industry, instituting strict regulations and penalties that have reduced the presence of scooters without banning them entirely.
The Downtown Commission’s recommendation proposes citations for scooter riders violating municipal parking and traffic laws amounting to $100 for first-time offenders, followed by $250 for subsequent offenses. The proposal would also ban scooter-riding on a number of highly trafficked sidewalks, though these remain unspecified.
The commission hopes such tools could work alongside efforts by the Transportation Department to ramp up enforcement, including the recent establishment of 10 full-time mobility service officer positions charged with regulating scooter use. Increased revenue from licensing fees and ticketing could also serve to finance infrastructure solutions.
“It’s shocking to me that we currently only get around $1 million a year out of these fees,” Commissioner Mike Lavigne said. “I did some rough math … and figure we’ve maybe gotten $6 million since this thing started. It seems to me like we could be getting a whole lot more to invest in making it more sustainable, like more docking stations and corrals, so there’s somewhere for these scooters to go.”
Come later tonight, Texans will officially know who will be on the ballot for the November general election.
In Texas, candidates must win at least 50% of the vote to be elected. In the March primaries where the top candidate only received a plurality of votes, a runoff is being held. Voters will decide on the candidates to represent their party in the November general election. Just like the March primaries, voters will choose which party they'd like to vote in. Then based on location, each ballot will show which races are in a runoff.
Here's everything you need to know before heading to the polls.
Know before you go
The registration period for this election has passed; check if you're registered to vote here.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. As long as you're in line by 7 p.m., you can vote.
You'll need a valid photo ID to present once you're at a polling location.
Here is where you can vote in Travis County.
View wait times at polling locations here.
Races to watch in Travis County:
- Republican: Incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won his primary in March.
- Democratic: Mike Collier and Michelle Beckley are vying to be the Democrat candidate on the ballot.
- Republican: Incumbent AG Ken Paxton is fighting for his seat against George P. Bush.
- Democratic: Rochelle Garza and Joe Jaworski will face off to be the Democratic candidate in this race.
View all the statewide races on the ballot here.
U.S. House of Representatives
View the district you live in here.
- Republican: Incumbent Chip Roy won his primary in March.
- Democratic: Claudia Andreana Zapata and Ricardo Villarreal are hoping to secure this vote.
- Republican: Dan McQueen and Michael Rodriguez are going head to head to be the Republican candidate in this race.
- Democratic: Former Austin council member Greg Casar won this race in March.
- Republican: Ellen Troxclair and Justin Berry are vying to be the Republican candidate in this race.
- Democratic: Pam Baggett won her primary in March.