Homeless hotel fight moves to the Texas Legislature

The stage is set for another state-versus-local showdown as two bills have been filed in the Texas Senate in response to the Austin homeless hotel controversy.

Testimony was heard Monday at the Texas State Capitol regarding Senate Bill 796 and Senate Bill 646, both filed by state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) to regulate how local communities should consider controversial homeless housing plans.

Schwertner says that his bills before the Senate Committee on Local Government were not filed to simply bash Austin. "This is about doing right for not just the homeless, but for the community that’s going to be affected by the placement of a homeless shelter in the middle of their community," said Schwertner.

Schwertner’s legislation is in response to the city of Austin‘s plan to purchase the Candlewood Suites hotel in North Austin. Residents held another protest Sunday in front of the Pecan Park Boulevard location. They say Austin blindsided them with its plan to convert the site into a homeless housing and resource center.

SB 796 would require a public hearing before approving a project, certified mail notification to every resident within a two-mile radius of any proposed site, and a 36-hour notification before approving the project.

SB 646, a companion bill, requires a city to draft a comprehensive operation plan and submit it to county commissioners for approval. It also requires public notification 61 days before the property can be purchased.

"I think the best good neighbors solution is to sit down and have a conversation but since this very matter has begun, I have still not heard from the elected leadership of the city of Austin nor have I heard from any central leadership that works for the city of Austin. If we’re not gonna have conversations with one another we are going to have conflict and this is the result of lack of communication with Williamson County and I want to make this unequivocally clear to the city of Austin, you should work with us, if not you will suffer the consequences and today is one of those consequences," said Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell.

Members of the Texas Homeless Network during the hearing voiced opposition to the bills. Members of the group are worried the legislation will create additional barriers to building shelters.

A spokesperson for the city of Austin, in response to accusations of stonewalling made by residents, claim a community outreach was done regarding the hotel purchase plan. However, residents note that outreach was done after the controversy erupted and it was an online meeting that took place just before the council vote.

"In that hour there were at least 200 people, they took questions from four people, I had three or four questions, they said that they would answer only one question, and I don’t think it was answered satisfactorily at all," said Rupal Chaudhari who runs a business on Pecan Park Boulevard.

Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly was also at the hearing. She said the city is moving forward with the plan, despite her objections. She understands the fear that Pecan Park will eventually look like the downtown ARCH.

"In my role I will ensure that this does not become a drop-in center or shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness it will be permanent supportive housing and I will do everything I can that it is the best permanent supportive housing if it moves forward," said Kelly.

Residents and business owners argue a more appropriate site could be found. That search, according to Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, should have involved Alan Graham with Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Long likes his community in Northeast Austin, which has proven to help people transition out of homelessness.

"Let’s learn from somebody who has a track record of being successful, you could take the 9 1/2 million dollars the city of Austin wants to spend on this and invested in Community First, and build over 300 homes as opposed to 50 or 70 that Austin is proposing with this project, to me that’s a much better investment," said Long.

A committee vote on Schwertner’s bills is expected next week. Schwertner believes his legislation could be fast-tracked to help those on Pecan Park. One of the business owners has already filed a civil lawsuit against the city in an attempt to stop the project. Gravell also noted that the county is already exploring its legal options.