Austin at Large: The Lessons of Cady Lofts

An unusual zoning case may lay out the future contours of land-use politics

The Cady Lofts development team's rendering of the front of the property, facing 39th Street

I got some firm pushback from people I respect for my intemperate reference to "NIMBY slimeballs" last week; rest assured I had in mind a specific few people, not the multitudes of Austinites who are less urbanist than me. But it's still not helpful, because while there are real social justice issues, worth being passionate about, underlying our intricate land-use debates, we can still reason together to transform those conflicts into collaborations. We're all adults here.

For example! Over the last few weeks, some firmly opposed stakeholders acted like adults and solved a land-use puzzle (at warp speed by Austin standards), leading to City Council's unanimous vote to rezone three lots on E. 39th Street, near Hancock Center and the Chronicle offices. This is the site of the planned Cady Lofts, a 100-unit studio complex offering permanent supportive housing to people who need it, primarily those exiting homelessness.

By now, there are enough properties like this in Austin – Foundation Communities alone operates eight – that people don't have to guess what living near one is like; they can just ask people who do. But a lot of current and planned PSH properties (we have about 1,000 units and need about 2,000 more) are in commercial districts, like the hotel/motel locations the city is buying to convert into single-adult complexes. The Cady Lofts team is building new (there are two small houses on the lots now) and is aiming for competitive low-income housing tax credits to be awarded next month; the zoning case was filed on Feb. 28 and was disposed by Council 13 weeks later.

But Was That a Good Thing?

The Hancock Neighborhood Association is not the most inflexibly NIMBY of central-­city NAs, but they do have a sophisticated membership when it comes to land use, and they have their own process and certain expectations of how much time they are entitled to use deliberating their own recommendations. So Cady Lofts, which was allowed to move faster than other projects because it's affordable housing in an area that needs more of that, already got off on the wrong foot with the NA. It didn't help that the developers' initial request was for MF-6, the highest-density multifamily zoning (unlimited heights and units), which no neighborhood ever supports. Neither did city staff, which made a counteroffer of MF-4; instead of digging in its heels, the development team agreed, with a 48-foot height limit.

In its original resolution opposing the project, HNA wasted no time pointing to Cady Lofts as a public safety nightmare in the making: "The Staff failed to [address] the concern that the proposed homeless housing project ... may create significant issues regarding: (a) the quality of the immediate and long-term use, operation, and management of the project AND (b) the risk of the increased likelihood of crime and/or drug use in the neighborhood." At least they weren't weaselly about it and say they have nothing against very poor and unhoused people but ... as we hear all too often on the News desk.

The Hancock resolution does say the NA supports affordable and even supportive housing, but once you've expressed fear that the people who need it will victimize you, it hits a little different. There are plenty of Class B-at-best apartment complexes in this end of Hancock; one wonders who lives in them, and how many paychecks or medical emergencies they are away from needing supportive housing somewhere.

Others Felt Differently

I'm sure these Save Austin Now! sentiments are not shared by many people who live in Hancock. But in the past, as developers of social housing have made this same slog through the swamps of neighbor resistance, they've been short of advocates to back them up during the public process. The people actually delivering homelessness services have to stay neutral and factual much of the time, and they don't have cheerleaders. This time, though, the Aus­tin Justice Coalition's point person on housing – former Planning Commissioner João Paulo Connolly – organized and brought his troops to PC when it heard the Cady Lofts case on May 25. They helped lay out, in ways the applicant and staff simply cannot in the dynamic of a public hearing, exactly why this area needs more subsidized housing and why this location was actually a perfect place for PSH – near grocery stores, medical services, parkland, and a bunch of bus routes, and someday the new Project Connect Gold Line to Highland. They got a unanimous vote (with two abstentions) from PC.

A week later, on June 2, Hancock NA sent an amended recommendation on the case to the city. Noting that "[Planning] Commissioners were not receptive to the opposition's concerns," it goes on to agree that more PSH is needed and Hancock is a great place for it. "To address the homelessness crisis in Austin and add to the inventory of Permanent Supportive Hous­ing Units with the eventual goal of ending homelessness ... Despite many of our original and ongoing concerns, the Hancock Neighborhood Association NO LONGER OPPOSES" the zoning case. (Their emphasis.) They do recommend, though – "having learned from our experience" – that the city improve its notification processes and "proactively work with neighborhoods ... to locate and secure properties for PSH units ... We believe that collaboration would accelerate the building of PSH units and minimize friction during the planning process."

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