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Don't Put Their Back Yard in My Back Yard

Council approves affordable housing facility over neighbors' objections

By Rachel Proctor May, Fri., May 5, 2006

Everyone loves affordable housing – except if said housing happens to be next to your housing. This eternal truth was demonstrated this week at the City Council, which in recent years has faced a monotonous din of neighbors opposing projects because their high prices will drive up local property taxes, and which on Thursday enjoyed a thrilling change of pace in the form of neighbors opposing a project because its extreme affordability will bring bad elements to the neighborhood.

"We are not opposed to Foundation Communities, and we're not opposed to helping the homeless," said Bob Thompson, who lives near the planned project. "The issue is whether they should build their next facility at this site or at a more appropriate site."

Despite the neighbors' objections, the council unanimously voted to allow the housing nonprofit Foundation Communities to convert a hotel on the corner of Ben White and Banister Lane into a permanent supportive housing complex for single adults. Supportive housing, designed to help homeless and other extremely low-income Austinites, is extremely cheap (around $300 a month, utilities included, for a furnished efficiency) and offers on-site social services. The residents of Foundation Communities' current supportive housing complex, a former nursing home called Garden Terrace, can access counseling, a computer lab, job referrals, and other help getting back on their feet. A contingent of Garden Terrace residents showed up at the hearing to testify about the difference the facility made in their lives. Lee Bollinger, who was homeless a year ago, credited Garden Terrace with helping him turn his life around. "As of May 31, I have to move out of Garden Terrace," he said. "It's not that I want to; it's because I make so much money now I don't qualify to live there."

The South Lamar Neighborhood Association endorsed the project. However, it was a "tyranny of the majority" sort of situation, in which the north end of the neighborhood – those farthest from the proposed project – rustled up more votes than the people on the south end of the neighborhood, who will actually live near the facility. The now-very-peeved outvoted neighbors put together a petition opposing the project and also showed up to voice their concerns: that the building is a high-rise, that it houses single adults, not families, that there's no nearby grocery store so residents will have to walk long distances "pushing shopping carts or carrying bags," as well as the well-being of the residents themselves. As Thompson explained, many homeless have histories of drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness, and he feared that housing them in a neighborhood already struggling with crime hot spots and "illegal aliens" would make it harder for them to start over.

"These residents are trying to escape past problems and turn their lives around," he said. "However, they are vulnerable and perhaps fragile, and the host neighborhood could also be vulnerable if they should revert to their behavior problems. What they need and deserve is to be housed in a safe neighborhood without a high-crime environment and a neighborhood not already under stress."

The concerned neighbors asked to delay the hearing and vote, but council moved ahead anyway, swayed by Foundation Communities' pleas that looming grant deadlines meant that delay could scuttle the $8 million project. "I think that it's just going to do wonders for our community if we can bring this third facility online and I just can't commend Foundation Communities enough for what they have done to help us in meeting this need," said Council Member Raul Alvarez.

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