The Austin Chronicle

Future Uncertain for Cactus Rose

Rezoning would force mobile home residents out

By Joseph Caterine, March 25, 2016, News

Residents of Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park could be forced to move pending a City Council review of a proposal to rezone the property, submitted last year by owner 500 Bastrop Highway Ltd. If approved, developer Oden Hughes has a contract to build a new apartment complex, Lenox Oaks, which would include 356 units, with rent at market rates. Planning Com­mis­sioner Nuria Zaragoza is one of those who has expressed concern over this plan, which in her view contributes to the depletion of affordable housing in Austin.

"What often goes unsaid in discussions around affordability," she said, "are the degrees of affordability, and how we as a city are losing deeper affordability." A 2014 housing market analysis conducted by the city found that there were 60,000 renter households making less than $25,000 a year, but only 19,000 rental units they could afford. A November 2015 affordable housing audit corroborated these findings, showing that from 2012 to 2014, only 17% of the affordable units created in the city benefited families that made less than 30% of the median family income.

The Cactus Rose tenants currently pay between $400 and $700 for their living expenses, a level of affordability Zaragoza said would be "nearly impossible for the city to re-create." At the Planning Com­mis­­sion hearing for the amendment proposal in January, residents claimed that they had not been able to find any alternative housing in the same area with rent less than $1,000. After deliberating, the Commission sent the case forward to Council without recommendation. In Zaragoza's opinion, it does not make sense for the city to directly fund affordable housing projects on the one hand while permitting the demolition of affordable units that already exist on the other. "If we value diversity like we say we do," she said, "we need to be able to house everyone who works in our city."

However, the rezoning the developers are seeking would require an amendment to the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, which the contact team does not support. City Council rarely overrides a recommendation from a Neighborhood Plan Contact Team; in fact, a recent review of proposed Neigh­bor­hood Plan amendments for 2014-2015, prepared by Com­munity Impact News­­paper, shows only two instances out of 47 total cases, in which City Council voted against contact team recommendations. Both of those previous cases occurred in Montopolis.

Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, has acted as the Cactus Rose community's liaison to Council. She has discussed the case with several council members, and met with the mayor to ask him to talk with the developers and owners about at least postponing the zoning change. "The mayor has made a name for himself as a compromiser," she said. "We need his help in this case."

The mayor told Almanza that he would meet one-on-one with Hughes to negotiate a plan where the developers would pay for a new mobile home park on a smaller portion of the land, in exchange for the city permitting higher housing density on the rest of the property. If the developers do not accept those terms, Almanza said there might be a way to redesignate land that the city owns into a community land trust, but that would be more expensive and likely not be ready by the time Cactus Rose residents are forced to relocate.

Members of the newly formed Cactus Rose Community Association met with Council Member Pio Renteria last week to ask him to postpone Council's decision. "My commitment is to delay the rezoning of the property," Renteria said. At the work session Tuesday, March 22, he announced that he would move to postpone the Items from this week's agenda.

The city's relocation assistance fund, which provides financial aid to the growing number of tenants who have had to move due to redevelopment, will not be available until some time in April, which is part of the reason Renteria wants to stall the rezoning process in this case.

Saul Madero, the recently appointed president of the community association, told Renteria during the meeting that the residents' main concern was when they were going to have to move out. "We need to know how long we can stay," he said. "Some people are afraid they will lose their homes."

Renteria could not give him a definite answer and did not want to predict the owner's actions, although he said he thought it was unlikely that the owner would do anything rash. Representing the tenants, Stephanie Trinh of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid clarified that demolishing the mobile home park could be considered a "use change" of the property, regardless of whether Council approves the zoning proposal. If that were the case, the owner would have to give tenants a six-month warning before evicting them. However, she said that the standard 60-day notice would apply if a judge decides it's not a use change.

The tenants who attended the meeting were hopeful. Still, the future seems uncertain, according to Madero. "Because we're low-income, because we're not very educated, it's like we don't have any rights," he said. "It's easier for the city to just let it happen than to be on our side."

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