Austin designated homeless encampments: Here’s why some sites will likely be cut from the list

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A day after the City of Austin released its preliminary list of possible sites for sanctioned homeless encampments, KXAN has learned at least six are set to be taken off the list, according to city council members.

That includes the old Home Depot building at 7309 N. IH-35, which sits in Greg Casar’s District 4.

“The City Law Department has stated that this land cannot be legally used for this purpose because of the existing bonds on the land. That is why the property remains vacant today. That is also why our community has gone through a multi-year process to bring a builder to the table whose development can pay off the bonds, while also proving affordable housing, parkland, and other benefits,” Casar wrote to KXAN.

That’s a relief for Akeem McLennon, the St. Johns neighborhood association president. For nearly three years, he has given his input about what would happen on that piece of land in his neighborhood.

“I was mostly worried that all of the community input would be ignored, and I’m very glad that that’s not the case,” he said.

A request for proposals for that property just recently closed.

“This project is sort of almost near the finish. And so it’s kind of surprising to see that it was even considered for something like this,” McLennon said.

Casar’s office said they have already started working with city staff and community members to search for other appropriate locations.

Council member Mackenzie Kelly said there were five sites listed for District 6 on the city’s preliminary list on Tuesday, but they’ve all been scrapped.

“My understanding is that the city manager and the parks department have removed the district six locations from being considered,” Kelly said.

She said some locations had a fire and/or flood risk, like the parcel on Anderson Mill Road.

12101 Anderson Mill Road, a parcel of land in council member Mackenzie Kelly's district that was on the city's preliminary list of possible encampment sites. (KXAN Photo/Tim Holcomb)
12101 Anderson Mill Road, a parcel of land in council member Mackenzie Kelly’s district that was on the city’s preliminary list of possible encampment sites. (KXAN Photo/Tim Holcomb)

“The location is more than 2,000 feet from a fire hydrant, which increases the risk there,” Kelly said, adding there are also waterways nearby.

“I also know that that site specifically, a one-time capital investment would need to be provided in order to make the land suitable for this use,” she said.

Kelly said this shows just how preliminary Tuesday’s list is. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any sanctioned campsites in her district, she said.

“We will have a sanctioned encampment in every district if that’s what we need, but we need to make sure it’s done pragmatically,” Kelly said.

She said her office has spoken with at least 15 people about other parcels of land within her district.

She also recognizes many of her constituents are angry and feel left in the dark in this process so far, but said her office will be reaching out to them.

“As soon as we find a suitable location, we will definitely get community… input ahead of time,” said Kelly. Until then, she encourages neighbors to keep reaching out to their council members.

KXAN reached out to the city to confirm which sites were already being taken off the list. A spokesperson said they “don’t have any information about that,” and that “staff will be updating council on June 2.”

Other council members working on alternative sites

KXAN asked all the city council members to see if they’ve started looking for sites not owned by the city that could be used for a sanctioned encampment.

City Manager Spencer Cronk told council members on Tuesday he expected their help.

“We’re going to be following up with each of you individually to look at other potential sites in your district,” he told the council. “Those may not be city-owned properties, but maybe you have a relationship with a private land owner,” he said.

Along with Casar and Kelly, Leslie Pool and Paige Ellis said they’ve started searches as well, with Ellis’ office saying they’ve already sent a couple new ideas to city staff to vet.

A spokesperson for Kathie Tovo said Wednesday morning they hadn’t yet started the process.

Alison Alter didn’t answer directly but said she doesn’t support camping in wildfire or flood-risk areas, and she’s also concerned about parks.

“However, I am not yet ruling out all land owned by the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), because PARD does own large swaths of land that are not yet developed​ as parkland, are not currently used as parkland and are in areas not adjacent to residential neighborhoods,” she wrote in an email to KXAN’s Jacqulyn Powell.

“I welcome productive and thoughtful input or ideas for viable sites, and I hope our entire community will be part of the effort to house our unsheltered neighbors,” she said.

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