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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Council action would pave the way for $30M in private dollars to house the homeless

Thursday, August 1, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

A resolution slated for consideration at next week’s City Council meeting could pave the way for foundations and other private sector entities to contribute to the estimated $30 million annual cost to provide housing for the city’s homeless population.

The resolution would create a local government corporation that would be charged with raising funds from the community to be used in large part to pay for the operational costs of offering housing and related services to those experiencing homelessness. That body, which is governed by state law in its formation and actions, would have greater flexibility than the city in how it raises funds by using government grants and other financial sources.

The action comes as city leaders take up the call to find ways to fund housing for the city’s growing numbers of homeless people. Criticism from the community in response to Council’s decision in June to relax prohibitions on camping and panhandling by homeless people has fueled the debate over how to provide adequate housing and resources to achieve an “effective zero” level of homelessness. Recent counts put the city’s existing homeless population at more than 2,000 people, with some estimates that more than 7,000 people in a given year experience some period of homelessness.

Last year the city passed an action plan to solve homelessness which estimated it would take $30 million per year to end chronic homelessness, with more than $12 million a year needed directly from the city.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said those funds will need to be raised externally through the local government corporation and redirected to the city. That money would then be given to nonprofits and other relevant groups through existing application and oversight processes.

“The city does not have the resources to end homelessness. It has to be a partnership with the private community and others,” Tovo said. “The LGC can be the body to raise those dollars so we are able to house (people) quickly and do more work to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.”

If the resolution is approved, it will be followed by a brief period of community input to help Council decide on the total scope of the LGC’s work and the makeup of its board.

Tovo said she would prefer that the corporation not play a role in deciding how the money is spent, and instead stay focused on bringing in the needed dollars.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, a co-sponsor of the resolution, shared Tovo’s view that the city should maintain all decision-making control in how funds related to homelessness are used, “rather than having lots of people going off in lots of different directions on how to take action.”

One possibility is that dollars raised by the LGC could help pay for operating expenses for the new housing center proposed for her district in South Austin.

“One of the reasons we’re creating this is it’s a vehicle for resources that are less restrictive in how they’re used,” Kitchen said. “Right now we’re dealing with lots of different pots of money and when we have grants available there’s some that can only be used for bricks and mortar and others that can be used for operations. Having an avenue for fundraising from the private sector gives us more flexibility.”

Many entities throughout the city are working to reshape their policies on homelessness, with a new operational model at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless focused on moving clients into stable housing with needed services.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said money for housing subsidies and incentives to property owners to rehabilitate idle properties that could be made available to the recently homeless are some possible uses for new funding.

“None of it is cheap. To get into market-rate housing you’ve got to be able to pay rent, and lots of these clients can pay some rent but can’t pay it all, so we’ve got to find housing subsidies to help them pay rent and then they need expert help to sign that lease and compete with everyone else wanting to sign that lease,” she said.

“How can we incentivize some property owners here to work with us, so we can tell them, get your property cleaned up and we’ll rent it and get the police involved so there are no safety issues, and find areas we can make safer with a concerted effort. We’ve ripped the Band-Aid off and we’re going to be much better for it once we’re done with this as a community.”

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