City staff must be more transparent as city moves toward motel shelter strategy, Austin City Council says

The city of Austin authorized the purchase of a Rodeway Inn at 2711 S. I-35 on Nov. 14. The city plans to convert the property into a homeless shelter. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
The city of Austin authorized the purchase of a Rodeway Inn at 2711 S. I-35 on Nov. 14. The city plans to convert the property into a homeless shelter. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

The city of Austin authorized the purchase of a Rodeway Inn at 2711 S. I-35 on Nov. 14. The city plans to convert the property into a homeless shelter. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin is moving full speed ahead with its plans to identify motels throughout the city to convert into low-barrier homeless shelters; however, City Council criticized staff this week for what they called a lack of transparency and communication regarding its motel conversion plans.

The city entered into negotiations to purchase its first motel for conversion—the Rodeway Inn at 2711 S. I-35—on Nov. 14. In greenlighting the pursuit of the purchase, City Council acknowledged it would pull out of negotiations for the proposed South Austin homeless shelter off Ben White Boulevard it approved over the summer. The motel conversion model was heralded by staff as cost-effective and providing a more immediate solution in getting people off the streets. City staff independently developed criteria for acquiring motels and announced it would identify and grade motels throughout the city for potential purchase. City Council members said they are expecting to approve another motel purchase sometime next week; however, details of the location have not been released.

Although they emphasized their support for the model, several City Council members said they were uncomfortable with how staff has proceeded with the motel model and how little City Council has been consulted.

“We have never as a council really discussed or endorsed [the motel conversion strategy],” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said during City Council’s Dec. 3 work session. Garza said although City Council had voted as a body to purchase the South Austin homeless shelter in June, staff unilaterally decided to not pursue the purchase and pivot to the motel while only informing council through a memo. She lauded the motel model and agreed City Council should lean on the expertise of staff but said the city’s elected officials need to be at the table when making these decisions.

Equity, Garza said, was another central concern. She said she feared that if staff were to follow the criteria they developed on their own in choosing motels to purchase, all the motel-to-shelter conversions would happen in East Austin, which counters City Council’s policy goal of having shelters spread evenly across the city.

Mayor Steve Adler agreed and applauded the direction the city has taken in addressing homelessness but demanded better communication from city staff.

“You have to be doing a better job of communicating with council on this,” Adler said. “You can’t nail everything on a property and then bring it to council. You have to start by going to the council and make the council part of that conversation. You have to provide a lot more [communication].”

The mayor said he understood the trickiness of discussing real estate matters too prematurely, especially in a real estate market as hot as Austin’s but demanded that City Council be at the table before the city pursues motel locations.

City Council was criticized for rushing through the process following the purchase of the Rodeway Inn after some City Council members and the mayor, responding to concerns from neighbors, admitted they did not know about the area’s high crime rate.

In a statement, a city spokesperson acknowledged the concerns voiced by City Council.

“We’re aware of the issues raised by some members of the City Council and city management will be following up to better understand their concerns and assess what might be done to better meet their needs going forward,” Shelley Parks, the spokesperson said.

Council Member Kathie Tovo similarly said she was “enthused” by the motel strategy but admitted it was happening very quickly, and she was still unclear about the funding mechanism for purchases. She said she wanted to see a complete business plan outlining how the city will purchase, operate and maintain the shelters. Matt Mollica, the executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition—a quasi-governmental organization leading homelessness efforts in Austin—said much of the money would come from philanthropy. Mollica and city staff did not say there was a plan B if the philanthropic efforts did not pan out.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was hesitant to support a City Council-created process for purchasing motels, saying City Council was not a board of real estate experts and market forces require fast action in order to secure a property purchase.

City Council expects an emergency item to be placed on next week’s City Council agenda to approve the purchase of another motel for shelter conversion; however, no further details were available by press time.
By Christopher Neely

Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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