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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When Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would rescind business capacity limits and a statewide masking mandate on Texas Independence Day, he framed it as a step forward. "With this executive order, we are ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny," he said during a press conference at a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock.
But some local restaurants and bars, which have been caught in the regulatory crosshairs since Texas' first positive COVID test 364 days ago, have chosen to ignore Abbott's overture. Instead, they will continue to maintain pandemic precautions once the executive order takes effect next week, citing a desire to keep their staff and patrons safe.
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(AUSTIN, TEXAS) Austonia has hired Claire Partain as a reporter covering Austin FC, the MLS expansion team that will be Austin's first major league sports franchise.
Partain is a former sports editor for the The University Star, Texas State University's daily newspaper. She edited, covered sports, produced podcasts, and hosted a pre-game TXST football tailgate live series. Partain has been freelancing with the company since January, prior to accepting a staff position.
A native of Fairfield, Texas, Partain grew up playing youth soccer. In her high school years, she played alongside her mother in what was then called the Freestone County Hispanic Women's Soccer League.
Claire's coverage philosophy: "I like to bring out the humanity of sports, and I want to make this the most accessible sports coverage possible."
She notes that soccer is the predominant sport for young people. "It's a global sport, and we're more connected to the world than older generations."
That approach fits the team's already visible presence in Austin, says Austonia CEO Mark Dewey. "Austin FC has established itself as a leading Austin brand, one that stands for a more unified Austin community, a bigger global presence for Austin and fun. Austonia shares those values."
Partain's soccer coverage begins immediately, with her free, hosted text service—Austonia FC. For updates, special access and inside info, all moderated by Claire, sign up below.
Austonia is the city's independent, free, locally-owned and all-digital source for Austin news, information and entertainment.
Connect with Austonia through its daily email newsletter and text updates, @austonianews Instagram feed, @austonianews and @austinist Twitter feeds, @austonianews Facebook page and its website austonia.com.
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Austin Public Health will release another batch of first dose COVID-19 vaccine appointments for Thursday on Wednesday evening. A department spokesperson estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 slots will be available.
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