Austin voters overwhelmingly supported Prop B—a city code amendment to reinstate restrictions on public sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain parts of downtown, near East Austin and West Campus—during the May 1 election.
Prop B's passage raises many questions, including what enforcement will look like and where homeless residents who are camping in the designated areas will go. Austonia has answers to five of these questions below.
When will the ban be reinstated?
The new ordinance will take effect on Tuesday, May 11, according to a city spokesperson. In the meantime, city staff will be evaluating options for how to best implement the new ordinance, focusing first on individuals living in camps that present higher health and safety risks.
Where will homeless campers go?
This question remains unanswered.
Richard Bryant became homeless a year and a half ago after moving to Austin for a job that fell through shortly after he started working. He's been on a waitlist for housing for more than a year; in the meantime, he camps downtown.
Prop B's passage has Bryant concerned about his future. "They didn't provide a solution for the problem," he told Austonia while attending an anti-Prop B protest Monday morning. "We don't work, so how are we going to pay for tickets? If we don't pay for tickets, they're going to throw us in jail."
Once enforcement begins, Bryant expects the downtown campers will spread out into the wooded areas nearby. "People are going to die," he said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who opposed Prop B, has repeatedly stressed that Prop B does nothing to provide housing or designate camping areas for homeless residents. Instead, he fears Bryant's prediction—that homeless people will be forced into less safe, and less visible, areas—will come true. "Let's get rid of tents the right way—the only real way—by housing people and not hiding them," he wrote in an April 27 opinion piece for Austin Monthly.
The Downtown Austin Alliance, which has been active in the city's homelessness efforts, also addressed this issue: "With Prop B's passage, we must provide real solutions and not just enforcement strategies," the local nonprofit wrote in a statement Saturday. "We need to provide clarity for those experiencing homelessness on where they can go, allow for voluntary compliance before ticketing, and provide mental health services and (ensure) adequate time to establish plans and alternatives to camping."
How will the Austin Police Department enforce the new ordinance?
A new ordinance prohibiting camping, among other activities, in certain designated areas will take effect next week. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
APD is still developing its enforcement plan and training its officers to respond to the new ordinance, a spokesperson told Austonia.
Prop B proposed an ordinance "that would create a criminal offense and a penalty" for those sitting, lying down or sleeping outdoors in certain areas, but it did not specify what the offense would be. Before council overturned the ban in 2019, violation of it was considered a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $500 and no jail time.
Such citations, homeless advocates say, do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness but, if they go unpaid, can lead to arrest warrants that can make it harder for homeless people to access housing, employment and other resources.
Is there a possibility of a court challenge?
Although no Austin officials have suggested this so far, there are reasons to question the legality of a camping ban.
A group of homeless people in Boise, Idaho, sued their city in 2009, alleging that a local camping ban was unconstitutional because there was not adequate shelter space. A federal judge ruled in their favor, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. The Supreme Court declined to review the appellate decision in 2019.
Boise City Council approved a new local ordinance allowing homeless people to camp outside in February, as part of a settlement agreement that also includes $1.3 million in payments to homelessness prevention nonprofits.
The Boise case partly inspired Austin City Council's 2019 decision to overturn the local camping ban, both because the city did not have enough shelter beds and because of the possibility of a legal challenge. "Criminalizing homelessness and really upholding camping bans when there isn't enough shelter to house the population could be something that could be a violation of the citizen's rights," Texas Homeless Network President and CEO Eric Samuels told Austonia last week. "Boise went through all of this."
What is being done to connect homeless people to housing?
The city is in the midst of several efforts to provide housing, including to homeless people living in four designated camps, which city officials have said will continue regardless of the election outcome.
In addition, the city continues to purchase motel and hotel properties to convert into housing for homeless residents, despite substantial pushback from neighboring residents and businesses.
During a recent summit on homelessness, city officials and community leaders developed a plan to address unsheltered homelessness. The main goal, which Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey presented to council last month, is to house 3,000 people in the next three years at a cost of $250 million.
Local nonprofit Mobile Loaves & FIshes also announced plans last month to vastly expand Community First! Village, a 51-acre master-planned development that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents. The two-phase expansion will add 1,400 micro homes across two pieces of land, with development to begin in summer 2022.
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What would Austin be without its City Hall, Central Library or iconic 360 Bridge?
For 50 years, Austin developer Henley Phelps has shaped Austin with city-focused landmark developments across the metro, gracing the top spot on Austin Business Journal's best general contracting list for years in a row.
In 1972, the company broke ground for the first time in Austin with the Town Lake, or Mopac Bridge project, connecting the developing areas of West Austin to the rest of the city.
Hensel Phelps broke ground for its first project, the Mopac Bridge, in 1972. (Texas Freeway)
The Town Lake Bridge was one of eight available bridges in Austin at the time of construction. (Hensel Phelps)
Since then, it's headed several projects, including:
- The Pennybacker (360) Bridge: After the Town Lake Bridge success, the company set out to build the world's second cable-supported bridge. Newcomers and native Austinites alike take to the nearby 360 Bridge Overlook Trail to see sunset views of the cliffside, copper-colored landmark.
- Dell Diamond Baseball Stadium: Since it opened in 2000, the Round Rock Express, the metro's Triple-A- Minor League baseball team, has held countless games at this 85-acre, 11,000+ capacity stadium.
- Samsung Fab 2 Chip Fabrication Facility: When Hensel Phelps helped Samsung with its second semiconductor project in the area in 2007, the grand opening ceremony was commemorated with the University of Texas Longhorn Band, UT Cheerleaders, pop singer LeAnn Rimes and a bald eagle to boot.
- Austin Central Public Library: With six floors, a rooftop garden and plenty of window views of downtown, Austin's Central Library project quickly became a central hub for the city when it opened in 2017.
- Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium: The company has had a hand in all major expansions of the Texas Longhorns' longtime football stadium.
Austin's new Central Public Library first opened in 2017. (Hensel Phelps)
Through dozens of projects dotted throughout the region, Hensel Phelps' Southwest district manager and Vice President Brad Winans said the company's focus has always been the public sector.
"That's where we think we support and develop the city, from truly grassroots, truly local support and involvement in the community," Winans said. "Our job is to develop things that truly support the city, not specific to one business."
Austin's City Hall was constructed with native Texas limestone and built with sustainability in mind. (Hensel Phelps)
A University of Texas graduate and 30-year employee, Winans said that the company's 2004 City Hall project felt most impactful to the community. The building, built from both native limestone and recycled materials, embraced sustainability and high-tech qualities, including solar panels in its garage, while maintaining a classic Texan identity.
"It's a very hard industry to be a part of, but it's also very rewarding," Winans said. "For me, City Hall means a lot because the back in the day, we called it 'The Jewel,' and so it's great to be part of that."
The company has constructed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in the past and will continue to help expand the airport. (Hensel Phelps)
With 50 years under its belt, Winans said the company will continue to work on the "endless" development opportunities coming to the city, from expansion of the rapidly-growing Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to projects in the tech sector.
"Everybody seems to want to come to Austin," Winans said. "It'd be nice if things did kind of spread out a little bit, but right now there's still a very eager push to develop in and around Central Texas and I think (Hensel Phelps) will be a major part of that."
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One of Austin’s oldest film studios is under new management and promising to become a “true entertainment destination” after a little TLC.
Spiderwood Studios 969 is now managed by Spark River Entertainment, who took over the lease in February. The company plans to revitalize the venue, add a high-tech studio and an amphitheater, and open by the end of summer.
Since the 152-acre studio sits about 45 minutes east of Austin in Bastrop County, the company also hopes to built apartments and a hotel nearby.
Spark River CEO Maria Espinosa Booth and co-founder Christopher Chisholm leased the site, which is already home to sound stages and a few prop-making businesses, from Tommy Warren, who opened the space in 2009.
Austin’s film industry has been booming lately—“Walker,” “Queer Eye,” and “Fear The Walking Dead” were filmed locally—and it’s spreading. Bastrop 552, a 486,000-square foot studio, is set to be complete in August 2023 and $276 million Hill Country Studios in San Marcos was recently approved.