- The City of Austin currently owns 1,765 properties totaling nearly 14,000 acres.
- 1,148 of those properties have no improvements.
- A 2020 Point In Time count from ECHO reveals the number of people sleeping unsheltered that night was at least 1,574.
- Why hasn’t the City of Austin endeavored to create a joint venture with an operator to utilize a fraction of their real estate portfolio?
1,574 unsheltered people is a sad number. It’s likely much more than that, maybe by an order of magnitude. It is a manageable number, though.
The homeless population deserves their safety and dignity. Taxpayers deserve their sidewalks and parks. Since the repeal of the camping ban I’ve observed something missing from the “conversation” — how much real estate does the City of Austin own which could be put to better use?
I decided to assemble a spreadsheet of every single property owned by the City, and you can see it here. The raw data was sourced from TCAD and required some recompiling to become useful information. It’s worth noting that the City is not the only public entity with significant property holdings: AISD and Travis County both have a shared interest in this effort.
A small fraction of the City’s ~14,000 acres of land could be contributed to partnership(s) with established operators such as Community First!, The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), Foundation Communities, and other groups who know how to fund construction and operate facilities using grants and private donations.
For context, Community First! Village’s Phase 1 took ~27 acres for 230 homes. Phase II contained 310 homes on 24 acres. Meanwhile, TOOF is trying to build 200 individual shelter units on five acres. Foundation Communities uses a more standard multi-family template, but has also converted hotels to affordable housing containing between 80 and 130 units on just a few acres of land.
Many of those 14,000 acres and 1,765 properties have improvements; however, by my count 1,148 of those properties have no improvements. Many of these unimproved properties have noble purposes attached, such as watershed and wildlife protection. Other unimproved properties are simply not being used.
The key point is that there is a surplus of land within the City’s real estate holdings which can be programmed to mitigate the need for public camping right now. According to one of my sources, leaders of local churches have also stepped up, expressing a strong interest to offer their own small campuses, but the City’s restrictive land-use regulations have added friction to those efforts.
As is often the case in Austin, the good work of City staff goes unrecognized, and the answers that seem obvious to lay people (me) are not so simply realized. In my research I learned that the housing Community First! has built includes a variety of housing, including tiny homes with no plumbing, making it cheaper and easier to build. This is an intentional part of their model of using shared kitchens and bathroom facilities to reinforce community amongst residents — but it also precludes qualification for federal HUD funding or affordable housing vouchers. So, building costs of any variation of facilities for the homeless are absolutely a major factor, but making housing accessible begins with the City contributing the land.
There have been some efforts to identify parcels within the City’s real estate holdings which could be utilized for this purpose. In the June 2019 City Council agenda, item 184 specifically asked for sanctioned camping and safe parking areas to be evaluated and identified. By August 15th, City Staff came back with a memo stating that they would “respectfully not bring forth recommendations for authorized encampments nor options for parking areas.” Why not? Apparently around this same time, the Mayor spoke with or visited a number of cities to discuss homelessness. The conclusions floated are that sanctioned camp sites are more expensive to maintain than you’d expect. They are even more difficult to close down once established.
My knowledge of the complexities of serving the homeless population is admittedly limited, but I would support a concept beyond “sanctioned camping” areas with something more like what TOOF and Community First! are trying to achieve. A reasonable person can see that there’s more than enough opportunity within the City’s 14,000 acres and 1,765 properties to identity, contribute, and promote helping the chronically unsheltered off our shared sidewalks and trails, out of their tents, and into a safe and dignified environment. Food for thought.
Early voting began yesterday on Austin’s May 1 election, including the item known as “Prop B” that would reinstate enforcement of the public camping ban — and whatever your opinion, here’s where to find a polling location near you.