City Blamed After Break-Ins at Future Housing for People Exiting Homelessness
Former Candlewood Suites hotel broken into and vandalized
City officials are responding after the former Candlewood Suites hotel in far Northwest Austin, purchased by the city as future supportive housing for people exiting homelessness, was broken into and vandalized on May 5, causing an undetermined amount of property damage and stoking the fears of neighbors vocally opposed to Austin's plans for the building.
City Council approved purchase (on a 7-4 vote) of the hotel at 10811 Pecan Park Blvd., near U.S. 183 (Research Blvd.) and FM 620, for $9.55 million in August 2021. The property, which after conversion will be known as Pecan Gardens, has since sat vacant while the city maneuvers to transform the hotel into income-restricted supportive housing for single adults 55 and over and living with disabilities. That has included selecting a site operator (Family Eldercare), identifying renovation needs, applying for housing vouchers to cover rents for future residents, and completing federal environmental review. The hotel was also temporarily used as a COVID-19 isolation facility in January and February 2022.
Spending nine months wading through these steps is reasonable, sources with experience in affordable housing development tell the Chronicle. But leaving the building unsecured overnight and on weekends was an oversight, the city admits. "The intent had been to have security on-site" prior to the break-in, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said at a virtual town hall May 16. Security had been requested, but the ball was dropped and security was never provided. "We acknowledge that as a failing and apologize," Grey added.
Now, the building is staffed 24/7 by the city's remediation contractors during work hours and contracted security at other times. It's unclear how much this will cost; a spokesperson with the Homeless Strategy Division said we could get that figure through a public information request, but a response was not returned as of Wednesday, May 18, when we went to press.
The next step is approval of a $3.9 million contract with Family Eldercare to carry out renovations to the property. Council is set to vote on that contract at today's meeting (May 19); once that's finalized, construction should take six months, with the property opening for occupancy in late 2022.
City staff are still assessing damage to the property, but images shared by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly (whose District 6 includes Pecan Gardens and who voted against buying the Candlewood Suites) show extensive damage to walls, flooring, and doors. Grey hopes the renovation work will take care of the damage; the contract includes a 20% contingency for cost overruns. If the $3.9 million estimate holds, the city will have spent roughly $13.45 million to produce 78 apartments out of the 83-room hotel – roughly $172,000 per unit. In January 2021, city staff estimated that renovation would be about $1.6 million, before the entire industry saw increasing construction costs and this project encountered design needs that hadn't been anticipated. Local builders say new construction of apartments in Austin can cost around $250,000 per unit.
Family Eldercare's plan for Pecan Gardens includes removing 50 parking spaces to provide space for gardens and a crushed granite walking path; a 7,000-square-foot interior community space; and converting some rooms to office space for social service providers. People will be selected for residency through the Coordinated Entry system used by homelessness service providers, which ranks a person's needs for particular types of housing and services. The nonprofit, which owns the Lyons Gardens' deeply affordable housing community for seniors in East Austin and partners with other senior housing providers to deliver supportive services at their properties, has submitted a proposal to Austin Public Health to pay for 12 on-site staff, including clinical services, at Pecan Gardens, which could cost between $1.33 million and $1.56 million per year. Once APH vets the proposal, it will require Council approval.
What Pecan Gardens will not be is a shelter where unhoused neighbors can drop in to access services, which is the fear of many of the housed neighbors in the area and the focus of some misinformation being spread by people who should know better. Those facilities are vital for a population that struggles daily with finding food, bathrooms, and water, but FEC spokesperson Brittany Baize says Pecan Gardens will be more like Lyons Gardens, where 20% of the 53 units are set aside for residents exiting homelessness. Pecan Gardens will be fully reserved for that group and include on-site services and staffing 24/7, but will meet the same community need for a quiet place where disabled seniors experiencing dire poverty can live comfortably and safely.
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell would have his constituents believe otherwise. "I am deeply disappointed that once again the city of Austin has made decisions regarding their property in Williamson County without involving [WilCo] leadership," Gravell said in a statement following the hotel break-in. "I have heard from our residents that Austin's property has brought crime to their neighborhood … Our residents deserve to not live in fear." While Gravell – a Republican running for reelection in an increasingly purple county – implies the Candlewood Suites deal is responsible, unhoused Austinites in the city's slice of Williamson County used to be in settled encampments under the highway, visible to everyone and not committing crimes, before local and state GOP leaders worked in concert to make those encampments themselves a crime. Now, people live in the woods, and fear and distrust is growing on both sides.
That's according to people who work at businesses near the intersection, and people living in the camps nearby. The camps have been a frustration to people working at nearby businesses; they report property damage, theft, drug use, and other behaviors that are sometimes seen at encampments. It's hard to say if these incidents are now more frequent or just more visible, but they were happening before the Candlewood was purchased or vandalized, so drawing a connection between those events and any perceived increase in crime is thus far unsubstantiated. (A WilCo spokesperson said Gravell was unavailable to answer questions about how the hotel purchase has impacted public safety. The spokesperson declined to provide the number of shelter beds or supportive housing units WilCo provides for the county's unhoused population, instead pointing to various nonprofit and faith-based organizations operating in the area.)
One woman, who asked that we not use her name, has lived in the woods along Pecan Park for two months. Before that, her neighbors lived in camps under U.S. 183. After enforcement began of the ban on public camping that Austin voters approved in May 2021, they slowly began moving into the woods. Employees at a nearby business corroborated this timeline: Just a few people lived in the woods along Pecan Park about a year ago, but once the camps under the highway were cleared, the camps in the woods grew.
João Paulo Connolly, housing director for the Austin Justice Coalition, says this echoes a trend seen throughout the city following the recriminalization of homelessness. "Prop B pushes people around from the highways deeper into neighborhoods and communities," Connolly said, "because Prop B enforcement encourages people to hide."