Austin at Large: On the Ground, in the Sky

Council tackles Austin’s intractable housing crisis in several dimensions

Austin at Large: On the Ground, in the Sky

Our friend and colleague Austin Sanders has the month off, after he and his family welcomed new girl on the block Penelope on April 1, no fooling. We'll be picking up some Council coverage in this space and in "Public Notice" until his return, in addition to our attention to matters electoral and legislative, and the long-awaited consultant and task force reports on reimagining public safety (rolling out 4/20, also not a joke) in our News pages. This week, as in many weeks, Council has turned its attentions to housing – Austin's lack of it, City Hall's increasingly complex and costly efforts to produce more of it, and the snowballing frustrations of Austinites as they watch the city lumber and struggle to catch up with the needs they perceive.

City leaders face a noisy reckoning both at the Capitol and the ballot box over what both their friends and foes concede is Austin's failure to solve for homelessness since Council in June 2019 eased restrictions and criminal penalties for public camping, sitting or lying in the rights-of-way, panhandling, and other common components of life on the street. Save Austin Now, the campaign behind the citizen initiative to restore some of those rules (Proposition B on the May 1 ballot), raised $438,000 in the last two months, an impressive sum made up mostly of small-dollar donations that take up 400-plus pages of its finance report. What was originally thought by many local politicos to be a futile, mostly symbolic effort that would goose Republican-leaning turnout when it was submitted (but failed to qualify) for the November 2020 ballot has become a real contender in the much smaller special election we now approach, with backers from the left, right, and center.

But First, We May Heal

Ironically, as the SAN initiative gets closer to a victory it would not have enjoyed in November, its real-life impact continues to fade. The Lege is already considering measures to adopt a stricter camping ban than SAN's statewide, with deliberate provisions to insult and disempower local leaders who, as in Austin, deign to seek better solutions than those preferred by some local business leaders, upscale Republicans, or police unions. Meanwhile, Council pushed forward this week on its HEAL (Homeless Encampment Assistance Link) initiative to direct intensive efforts at four particularly unpopular-with-the-neighbors camping sites, get their residents into housing and connected with services, and then ban camping in those locations.

The HEAL effort, spearheaded by Council Member Ann Kitchen with backing from colleagues Pio Renteria, Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, and Kathie Tovo, involves lots of players, both among city departments (spearheaded by Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey, a permanent hire, in place after two years of false starts) and the community partners who actually provide housing and services. It also involves a lot of money, $4.3 million in funding for the initial pieces of the "blueprint" laid out by Grey for Council at its April 6 work session. Most of that ($3.9 million) is to set up places for camp residents to go instead – both initial "very low-barrier" shelter and rapid rehousing options (such as the motels the city has used as protective lodging to keep the unsheltered safe from COVID-19) while the city brings more permanent supportive housing (PSH) units online.

Advocates for Austin's unhoused and ill-housed poor, whether trying to counter callous disregard from uncaring GOP tough guys or genuine fear from people who are concerned both for themselves and their unsheltered neighbors, have been urging patience with these homelessness strategies for several years now. What is becoming clearer to them is the need to lean toward, rather than recoil from, the full cost of supportive housing. There are tens of thousands of adult Austinites who can't live on their own without assistance. Many of them can afford to pay for the services that close the gap, but those things are expensive. Some people can't. Sometimes we pretend that those people deserve to struggle because they've made bad choices, but lots of people have the money to make their bad choices go away. The ones who don't have the money need our help. If we don't want to offer that help and spend that money, the choice to live on the streets is as much ours as theirs.

Looking Down From Above

Speaking of years of patience, Tovo has been trying since before she was first elected to Council in 2011 to distill community benefits – like affordable housing – from the sugary churn and froth of our local real estate markets. This helped beget the existing Downtown Density Bonus Program, adopted in 2014 along with the Downtown Austin Plan. The fees and requirements for a bonus haven't been updated since then, even though everything's more pricey now. Some buildings get to bonus out with added height and size without contributing anything. Even those that do conform with the program can then go to Council and ask for even greater entitlements. Three such towers on Rainey Street are coming to Council this week to ask for that extra bonus, which they'll probably get. The Planning Com­mis­sion recommended a fix for this two years ago that Council hasn't acted upon. A new land use code that promised a total rethink of density bonuses has, as you may have heard, been stalled.

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