Austin looking for more motels to turn into homeless shelters

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin plans to look at every single motel that comes up for sale in the city limits and consider turning it into a homeless shelter, according to new city documents released in a memo Tuesday.

These details come less than two weeks after the city voted to buy the Rodeway Inn off of I-35 near Oltorf Street with plans to turn it into a homeless shelter.

With the Rodeway Inn property, the city is allocating $6.4 million to pay for the building itself, plus an additional $1.6 million to get the building ready. In total, the city will spend $8 million on the acquisition and renovation. Those dollars will come from certificates of obligation.

The vote to buy the Rodeway Inn marked a shift in the city’s strategy. While previously the city had looked at using money in other ways such as a now-scrapped idea to build a shelter near Ben White, Austin now plans to use this motel strategy as a key pillar of its overall strategy to address homelessness.

The memo out Tuesday shows the city plans to screen “all motels for sale within the City of Austin” to make that happen.

“City staff continue to emphasize homelessness as the City’s highest priority,” the memo said.

In the memo, Austin says it will consider ten factors when trying to decide whether to purchase a motel for people experiencing homelessness. Those include how well the motel can be converted into permanent supportive housing and how close the motel is to existing health service facilities and Cap Metro transit services.

There are a number of things that could prevent a motel from being considered. For example, if it’s too close to a school or playground or if it’s built in a historically disadvantaged area, that could potentially prevent the city from pursuing a sale.

The city says it won’t conduct a written scoring assessment of new motels it might buy, but will consult with ECHO, the Homeless Strategy Office and the Office of Real Estate Services.

ECHO Executive Director Matthew Mollica said they support the city’s decision to pursue motels in an effort to take a housing-first approach to homelessness. The city plans to purchase these motels and lease them to ECHO, who has stepped up to fund their operation.

“ECHO is committed to raising the funds for operation of the Rodeway Inn and subsequent hotels that ECHO endorses for purchase,” Mollica said in an email dated Nov. 22 but released Tuesday. “The hotel sites will provide a place for people experiencing homelessness to access the necessary support and medical services to begin their path out of homelessness.”

Mollica has operated similar hotel-shelter operations in his previous employment in the cities of Denver and San Francisco.

In the letter cited in the memo, Mollica said that the city investing initially in 200 to 300 units of motel-shelter housing “would have a substantial impact on Austin’s unsheltered population.”

ECHO’s 2019 Point in Time Count identified that 1,037 people are experiencing homelessness and unsheltered every night, the city says many of these people now live in encampments.

“We are confident that the creation of these housing units outside of Austin’s shelter system would help address unsafe camping using a trauma-informed, harm reduction approach,” Mollica said in the letter.

City process for selecting motels

Taken directly from city document:

Although there is no written scoring process, both ECHO, the Homeless Strategy Office, and the Office of Real Estate Services will collaboratively screen and select motels to be considered for purchase based on several factors. All motels will be examined for a variety of characteristics to determine whether it is physically and economically feasible to convert the motel into housing. All motels for sale within the City of Austin jurisdictional boundaries will be pursued and screened. Some, but not all the screening factors include the following:

  1. Candidate for Conversion. The motel can be successfully converted into bridge units and eventually permanent supportive housing. This screening requires an on-site evaluation of the building and its location.
  2. Building Condition. Evaluating the building for physical wear and tear and whether there are existing, unremedied code violations. Evaluating the building to determine whether extensive renovations will be required.
  3. Building Configuration. Reviewing the building design to determine whether it can be adequately secured. Identifying on-site amenities and features such as outdoor courtyard, laundry facilities, usable open space, parking for service providers, perimeter fencing, interior common areas that can effectively be used for meeting rooms, space for pets, recreational facilities, and/or computer space?
  4. Unit Configuration. Determining whether the rooms are large enough to serve as stand-alone housing units and how easily the units can be converted from bridge housing into permanent supportive housing.
  5. Number of Rooms. Assessing whether there are enough units to support employment of an on-site manager and on-site maintenance staff.
  6. Plumbing and Utilities. Inspecting the units for existing kitchenettes and whether existing plumbing and wiring support future installation of kitchenettes and associated appliances.
  7. Location, Agglomeration of Motels, and Adjacent Amenities. Seeking motels that are not too closely located near each other and are not primarily located in historically disadvantaged areas of Austin. Identifying adjacent or nearby transit and health service facilities.
  8. Environmental Factors. Determining how close or far other facilities are such as schools, and playgrounds.
  9. Acquisition and Renovation Costs. Determining the per-unit acquisition in relation to all other factors to determine whether the per-unit cost is reasonable.
  10. Relocation Support. Identifying whether the motel is occupied with “long-term” residents and how conversion of the facility can occur over a period so that existing residents can remain in place and potentially move to new units as they are ready and available.

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard contributed to this report.

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