At a Feb. 10 press conference in front of the Candlewood Suites hotel, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell and Commissioner Cynthia Long said their objections to the purchase of the hotel at 10811 Pecan Park Blvd., Austin, are not based on the merits of converting hotels into housing for the homeless but rather for what they said they perceive as a lack of transparency from the city. They said they should have been invited to the table and announced Feb. 10 that if they are not given a seat, they will pursue legal action.
“Don't mess with Williamson County," Gravell said, directing his comments to the city. "You have stepped over the line without coming to the table and having a conversation. I'm willing to have that conversation. But if you are not, we will take you to a conversation in the local courthouse, and you will not be pleased with it.”
Williamson County commissioners voted Feb. 9 to search for a law firm to represent the county against the hotel purchase. The county's legal standing to bring the city to court remains unclear, and Community Impact Newspaper was unable to reach a municipal law attorney for comment by press time.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said he wants to make sure another similar situation does not arise in the future. Flanked by Gravell and Long at the press conference, he said he has filed legislation that would require cities and counties to coordinate such efforts in combating homelessness.
“I will fully fight this with every ounce of energy I have,” Schwertner said. “We need to find a better way forward to address the homeless situation in Central Texas. But what has been enacted by the city of Austin through their City Council is not right.”
Schwertner said a better way forward would involve coordinating mental and physical health services as well as food and nutrition. Austin has pegged the Candlewood Suites for a permanent supportive housing facility that would include support services to help people stay housed.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is also prioritizing the issue, according to Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz, who railed against the city of Austin’s decision at the Feb. 10 press conference.
“Paxton has devoted the resources, the attorneys, the time and the bandwidth within our office to explore all options,” Reitz said. “So we're going to dig around and see where the rot is. If there's something there, Attorney General Paxton, as he always does, will work with Senator Schwertner and the county to take decisive legal action.”
District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, the lone dissenter in Austin City Council's 10-1 vote to purchase the hotel, said she felt the city forced the purchase through despite objections from some neighbors and the Williamson County Commissioners Court.
“What the city of Austin did was bamboozle these business owners and residents and force them into a position where they had to make a choice about whether or not they will stay here, and we don't need to have that,” Kelly said.
In response, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the city will take the concerns of the Williamson County commissioners seriously. However, he reasserted that the city needs to move forward with the purchase in order to make progress on its growing homelessness-related issues, for which it has also drawn criticism from state lawmakers.
“There’s a lot of housing we have to get online quickly if we’re to get people off the streets and out of tents, like so many people want us to do,” Adler said.