Council Members Support Using Hotels To House Homeless, But Are Wary Of Locations And Quick Timeline

Dec 3, 2019

Austin City Council members say they're concerned about the timeline, placement and funding strategy for a plan to expand efforts to buy and retrofit hotels to house homeless Austinites.

Last month, the City Council OK’d a plan to buy the Rodeway Inn near Oltorf and I-35 to house at least 87 people. At their work session Tuesday, members were briefed on a similar plan to buy hotels to house as many as 300 people in what's called bridge housing – a strategy that allows people to move in without preconditions.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who said she generally supports the idea, said she’s concerned the city is doubling down on a strategy that hasn’t been tested yet. She also noted the housing could be concentrated primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

"I hope as we continue these searches for these needed facilities, we sincerely do look throughout the city," she said. "Because I will have big concerns if every single one of these is going to be in the majority-minority parts of our town."

While the city would provide initial funding to buy the properties, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition would operate and raise money for on-site services like counseling. In a memo last week, ECHO and city staff said they would avoid concentrating all the projects in one area and that they wouldn't all be "located in historically disadvantaged areas of Austin."

Garza, Mayor Steve Adler and District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo also expressed concern city staff may be acting too quickly without looping in council. As proof of that sped-up timeline, Tovo cited an email from the assistant city manager Monday that could put another hotel purchase before council as soon as next week.

"I am also very interested in this model. I have to point out, though, that it is happening very quickly," she said. "It's not at all clear to me what the funding strategy is for funding operations and maintenance [or] renovations."

ECHO's executive director, Matt Mollica, said the city and his organization estimate each hotel would cost roughly $1 million a year to run. As much as $700,000 would be spent on on-site services, while actual operations would cost about $300,000.

Ultimately, Mollica said ECHO hopes to cement its plan for operating and fundraising with the Rodeway Inn, then duplicate that model at future sites.

"Once we have that blueprint set in place – which, I think, we'll obviously have in time for the Rodeway – we'll be able to replicate that pretty easily over and over again," he said. The Rodeway project is expected to be open by early next year.