Neighbors Know Best
Lewis, Garcia Team Up Against Affordable Housing
"Neighborhoods Council" has such a heartwarming ring. Everybody can get behind it. What's not to like about neighborhoods? You got your families, your parks, your friends, your churches, your businesses -- all living in perfect harmony. But when you're a member of a city council which has taken a blood oath to fight for neighborhood issues, along with friends, neighborhoods also tend to foster enemies and infighting. This week's difficult decision on the Tannehill Apartments complex is just the latest in what promises to be a long series of tough calls for the "Neighborhoods Council." But with a moniker like that, you've set yourself up. The council's neighborhoods-friendly promises have already made them unwitting referees in squabbles such as the clash between the Eastside Gardens neighborhood and the BFI recycling plant, and the recent editorial page tug-of-war between the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood and the East Cesar Chavez Pueblito Association over inclusion in the city's neighborhood planning initiative. The council's covenant with neighborhoods has opened a Pandora's box of debate over the definition of neighborhoods, and who should be included in making decisions for them. Defining "neighborhood" seems easy when it comes to the Stone Gate and Springdale Hills neighborhoods nestled just west of the intersection of Martin Luther King Blvd. and US 183. Single-family homes occupied primarily by African-American professionals since the Forties and Fifties, these were once the only middle class residential areas open to African-Americans in Austin. As the neighborhood has aged, it has remained close-knit, the crime rate has stayed low, and things have remained pretty much the same. So, when the proposition for the Tannehill Apartment complex cropped up at the corner of MLK and Tannehill Lane in late October, the neighbors banded together to fight against the multi-family housing project, fearing that it would change the face of their area.
President of the nearby Pecan Springs neighborhood association, Al Dotson, summed up the feelings of residents, calling the project "a big cancer."
The neighbors' fear is focused on one word: "affordable," a word that is part of a catch-phrase used in nearly every local candidate's campaign. Tannehill would have been affordable. In Austin these days, "affordable" no longer means cheap. At Tannehill, affordable would have meant between $435 and $925 per month. Affordable no longer means government-built and government-run. Although Tannehill's financing would have received a boost from federal tax credits, funding, ownership, and management were to remain in the private sector. Affordable also no longer means ugly. In attempting to work through neighborhood concerns, the proposed Tannehill design was not only attractive, it also included buffers and setbacks from the neighborhood which far exceeded normal requirements. Nevertheless, the Stone Gate residents put together a valid petition to block the rezoning of the Tannehill property, forcing the council to come up with six votes to override their effort.
Tannehill's rezoning case first came up before council in early November, inviting hour after hour of elderly residents pleading for the project to be scrapped, countered by twentysomething professionals pleading for affordable housing in an area offering little rental property. Toward the end of the marathon public hearing, it leaked out that Praise Tabernacle Outreach and Family Worship Center, located on the outskirts of the Stone Gate neighborhood, was not only in partnership with the apartment's developers, but also had supplied much of the twentysomething testimony through its parishioners, many of whom did not live in the area. Council's mistrust of the church was compounded when rumors about the church began flying through city hall. Several councilmembers admitted hearing that Praise was some sort of cult.
"The neighborhood is skeptical of that church," explains Stone Gate spokesman Larry McKee. "[Pastor Dr. Dana Carson] has a very dedicated audience and it's a young audience. It's scary."
Carson interprets the mistrust differently, suggesting that the neighborhood residents are loyal to other churches in East Austin and so do not welcome another large church in the area. "We're not trying to isolate anything, they are. That's cultic behavior," Carson argues. "If anyone's cultic, it's them."
McKee says that the neighborhood's concern was about more than just the church, however. Traffic and increases in crime were also at the heart of their worries. Although he knew little of the project and doesn't live in the area, the neighborhood called on community activist Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson to voice these worries to council. Ironically, the last time Henderson was before council it was on the other end of a zoning case for a proposed bank on property he owned along Airport Boulevard. Henderson aggressively fought against an elderly neighborhood who had the same concerns as Stone Gate about development in their area, and he won. Nevertheless, with no horse in this race, Henderson happily stepped up to the podium. "What's wrong with homes in East Austin? What's wrong with a beautiful apartment complex? Why does it have to be `affordable,' or some kind of welfare?" he wondered, echoing the worst fears of Stone Gate residents.
In his rebuttal, Richard Suttle, the attorney for Tannehill's developer, admitted that communication with the neighborhood had been bungled. Opening his comments with an apology, he went on to appeal for a decision based on the overall housing needs of the city, not just a single neighborhood's interests. "How high does the city have to set the bar to do affordable housing?" he asked council.
Reflecting the difficulty of the decision, the vote was one of the first to truly split this council. The usual alliances were broken, and each member seemingly voted his or her individual conscience.
Carson's and Suttle's pleas made little impression on Councilmember Willie Lewis, who quickly moved to deny the rezoning and sink the project despite the fact that he had testified in favor of awarding the project tax credits only a few months earlier. Lewis, who left his post as president of the Pecan Springs Neighborhood Association to run for council, lives near the neighborhood and argued its case that any affordable housing in the area should be single-family homes, not apartments. "I lived in the city housing complex when we moved to Austin and I know there is a need, but it is not necessarily so that people who can pay between $435 and $925 a month can't buy a house, because they can. If they can afford that, they can buy a two- to-three-bedroom house, especially in that neighborhood," Lewis declared.
Although he now says he doesn't think the Tannehill project was a bad idea, Lewis admits that the council's efforts to encourage neighborhoods-based planning precluded voting against Stone Gate's valid petition. "If we went against this neighborhood now, we'd be sending the message that you can do [all the planning] you want to, but we're the ultimate decision," Lewis says. "By denying this application, at least we send a message to the neighborhood [that] we'll allow you to develop the neighborhood in the way that you want it."
In a circular argument in which he seemed to be arguing against himself, Gus Garcia finally made clear on the dais that he intended to side with Lewis. Garcia, who also testified in favor of Tannehill's tax credits, said he was now more concerned that the "pillars of the community" be protected in the neighborhoods they had founded.
Councilmember Bill Spelman lamented the inevitable outcome of the vote. "Where are we going to put it?" Spelman asked. "This is infill housing, not sprawl, and it allows affordable housing to work because it allows the people moving in there to work with a sense of community that's already in place." Pointing out that 47% of Austin's residents would meet the income requirements for subsidized housing, Mayor Kirk Watson agreed with Spelman on the need for "reasonably-priced" housing.
Jackie Goodman, who has pledged never to vote against a valid petition, seemed particularly distressed by the issue. "This should have been a win-win, but it's turning out to be a no-win," she groused, explaining her bias in favor of multiple-use neighborhood planning. Single-use "was the post-war thing. That's a neighborhood built for cars," Goodman said. "If that's the way they like it, then that's the way they'll stay, but I don't think it'll be sustainable."
Lewis' motion to deny Tannehill's zoning passed 4-2-1, with Spelman and Watson voting against the motion, and Goodman abstaining.
Later, Spelman pondered the problematic issues raised by the case, suggesting that although siding with neighborhoods is admirable, as a stated policy it may limit creative solutions. "If the neighborhood knows sure as heck that we're gonna come down on their side, then they have no incentive to negotiate," he says, adding, "Affordable housing feels different to me than just another neighborhood issue."
Spelman admits that the issue of affordable housing may require its own champion on council. "I didn't think we needed to until last Thursday, and now I think somebody needs to focus on it," Spelman said. "It's clear that we're going to need more than a case-by-case approach to get affordable housing through."
Next Week in Council: The final annexation hearings, including the always volatile Circle C.