A Happy Ending for Historic Saga

City staff backs as existing tax exemptions preserved

Martha Hawkins' mother gave the Red-Purcell House in South Austin its fame, but it's the kind of fame that Hawkins can no longer afford.

Stuart and Mabelle Purcell, who came to Austin in 1938, were never wealthy. Stuart was a farmer. Mabelle was a teacher at the School for the Deaf. They moved to Austin to put their children through UT. The restoration of the Red-Purcell House, built in 1885, was Mabelle's passion and on her deathbed she asked her daughter Martha to preserve the house on its 2 acres on Academy Drive.

That was 1978. Today, a frail Hawkins struggles to maintain the house on her fixed income. She just put on a roof. It cost her $8,000. Painting the house cost her $5,000. The price estimates on trimming the 65 trees on the property are anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000. As Hawkins stood at the microphone at last week's City Council meeting, it was easy to imagine the worried, white-haired woman sitting at her kitchen table, stooped over her checkbook as she tried to figure out just how she could afford the rollback in property tax abatements proposed as part of the yearlong overhaul of the city's historic preservation ordinance. "If I don't have the exemptions, it's going to be awfully hard on this little old lady. But I promised my mother I would keep the house in the family if at all possible," Hawkins told the council, her voice breaking. The audience stood and clapped as she sat down.

The council considered the new historic ordinance on first reading last week; actually, it was a second attempt at a first reading, a revision to a year's worth of revisions, intended to address concerns raised by the city's legal department over grandfathering tax exemptions for the city's 270 homes already deemed historic, with lower abatements for future H-zoned properties. The city's lawyers had argued that having different tax levels for existing landmarks and for new landmarks would violate the provision for "fair and equal taxation" under the Texas Constitution, but they were ultimately overruled. Abatements for the 150-odd commercial historic properties were proposed to remain unchanged.

Other provisions of the new ordinance include tightening the criteria used by the Historic Landmark Commission to recommend that properties be landmarked; changing the makeup of the HLC itself; and – most importantly to several of the advocates at council – adopting workable rules for creating local historic districts in Austin, with additional incentives to help fend off gentrification in historic East Austin neighborhoods.

Austin has the most generous tax abatements for historic houses in the country, a distinction the City Council is eager to change. It's one thing, however, to imagine a wealthy pair of high-powered lawyers in Old Enfield dashing off a larger check to pay the taxes on their historic house; it's another to imagine an 80-year-old woman trying to juggle her bills to preserve her parents' farmhouse, which is now valued on the Travis Co. tax rolls at more than $500,000.

The task force, chaired by Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, did its best to protect low-end property on the tax rolls, even after being told to come back with a plan B not involving grandfathering. Its final recommendation was to roll back the exemptions on all residential structures from 100% to 85% over three years, and to phase in a $2,000 maximum cap on exemptions – a provision that will only affect a handful of high-end houses, but likely including Hawkins' house.

Baker, during remarks prior to the public hearing on the ordinance, reiterated the task force's commitment to grandfathering, putting the task force's own "phase in" proposal as the clearly less-desired alternative. She noted that the county and ACC mirror the city's tax exemptions, while AISD offers abatements that are half as large. Should the city roll back its abatements, other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit, adding up to a sizable hit for owners.

Council Member Brewster McCracken, in particular, did not look like he relished the thought of taking away tax exemptions. A number of speakers spoke of the city "going back on its word," and a handful of homeowners who happened to be lawyers – none of them specializing in taxation but all of them interested in the subject – told the council they could find no precedent in case law that would stop the city from grandfathering. McCracken gathered their paperwork before the City Council went into executive session to hear city legal's side of the story. About 30 minutes later, staff objections were themselves history; the council quickly approved a version of the ordinance that included the grandfathering originally recommended, while maintaining the $2,000 cap. Mayor Will Wynn – himself the owner of a commercial historic property on East Sixth Street – recused himself from the vote.

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historic preservation, historic zoning, tax abatements, Martha Hawkins, grandfathering, Red-Purcell House, Betty Baker, historic districts, Brewster McCracken

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