Austin Will Use Money Cut From Police Budget For Supportive Housing

Above photo: Paul Bradbury, Getty Images.

The City Council voted to buy one hotel and use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the homeless people who will live there.

Texas – The Austin City Council voted today to purchase one hotel and turn it into 60 units of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The vote to purchase a second hotel has been postponed to next week after a city council member asked for more time to gather feedback from her constituents.

Under the measure, the city will spend approximately $6.7 million from its Housing and Planning Department’s general obligation bonds to acquire one hotel and use some money from a recurring $6.5 million fund taken from the police department’s budget to provide services to the residents of the hotel. At full occupancy (which wouldn’t happen this year), services and operating costs for the hotel are expected to be about $1.6 million annually. 

“In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, we made a significant cut to policing dollars and reinvested that in things like this,” said Council Member Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to cut police funding and sponsored an amendment last August that set aside $6.5 million in recurring funding to be used for permanent supportive housing and services. “That’s how we’re paying for this. That’s the only reason we’re able to do this.”

In August, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab—though that money will still be spent on those functions, just not within the department.

Austin will now move ahead with negotiations to buy the Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites in District 7. The property was built in 2018 and has 65 rooms (41 with kitchenettes), onsite laundry, and a front desk with controlled entry. Some of the rooms will be converted to add more office and common space, like a community kitchen, leaving the building with about 60 permanent supportive housing units. 

The city’s Homeless Services Division will contract with nonprofit service providers to cover operating costs and set up wraparound services for residents, like case management, support for mental health or substance use issues, workforce development programs, and job placement services.

The purchase will create about 60 units of low barrier permanent supportive housing with these kinds of wraparound services.

The council was supposed to vote on proposals to purchase two hotels today, but ultimately only voted on one after some council members agreed to postpone the vote to allow the council’s newest member, Mackenzie Kelly, to spend more time hearing from community members and businesses near the hotel, which is in her district. 

“We have a homelessness crisis, but treating every proposal as an out-of-context emergency is not great policy and silences stakeholders,” Kelly said at the council meeting. “We need to provide housing to the unhoused, but we can do so in a way that creates good feelings throughout the community. … We want to educate the community on this important project and continue to get feedback.”

Kelly replaced former city council member and public safety chair Jimmy Flannigan after winning a runoff election in December. Kelly is the president of Take Back Austin, a pro-law enforcement group and has denounced the council’s move to decriminalize homelessness and pledged to bring back a ban on public camping.

Ninety-five people signed up to give public comment on the proposals. The vast majority of community members spoke in favor and urged the council to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness as soon as possible. Only five people signed up to speak in opposition of the proposals, citing concerns about crime and safety.

“Voting in favor of both of these items today confirms your commitment to humanely and sustainably ending the homelessness crisis we face, not just hiding it away,” said Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, during the council meeting. “Voting in favor of this housing today is one less week that upwards of 150 folks will have to live unsheltered. It’s one less week of trying to survive the elements and the constant peril associated with living outdoors.”

The vote on the proposal to purchase a hotel from Candlewood Suites in District 6 for $9.5 million will be postponed until next week. The hotel was built in 2018 and has 83 rooms, all with full kitchenettes and air conditioners. The property also includes amenities like a computer room, onsite laundry, a fitness room, and outdoor patio space. If the city goes ahead with the purchase, some of the current guest rooms may be converted into additional common areas or office space, though the property will still provide roughly 80 units of permanent supportive housing once it’s complete.

About 2,500 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin at the start of last year, according to the 2020 Point-in-Time Count. Nearly 1,600 of those people were unsheltered.

“Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending,” Casar previously told The Appeal. “It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”