AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council unanimously approved to turn a motel off of I-35 near Oltorf Street into the city’s newest homeless shelter.

The plan is a big change from five months ago when council voted to build a new shelter on Ben White Boulevard.

“The south Austin location wasn’t really one that was broken up into rooms, didn’t have the kind of residential structure that we wanted and I don’t know when the final timeline would happen,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said about the Ben White proposal that’s now scrapped. “My understanding is it would’ve been a year or two to do those kinds of renovations on that building.”

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 city explained in a council work session Tuesday that they plan to pay for the building and then lease the motel to Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). ECHO has agreed to fund the cost of operating the shelter, and while they don’t have the cash on hand to do so now, they plan to fundraise to reach those amounts.

A spokesperson for the City of Austin explained to KXAN that the city will still need to go through the process of procuring and closing on the property, a process which they estimate may take two to three months.

Once the city has full possession of the building, the city can officially start moving people in. However, the city noted, the process over the next few months does not preclude ECHO from working out an arrangement to get people into rooms sooner.

ECHO executive director Matt Mollica told KXAN earlier this week, he was hoping to be able to move people into the shelter as early as a week after the council vote. However, on Thursday, Mollica deferred to the city’s real estate office for a timeline on when people would be able to move in.

The Rodeway Inn location has about 80 rooms, but Mollica said it will serve more than 80 people a year as the average stay at similar facilities in other places is around 90 days.

ECHO hopes the converted Rodeway Inn will offer immediate shelter for Austin’s homeless as well as a place for service providers like psychiatrists and substance use counselors. Long-term, Mollica said ECHO hopes to turn this building into permanent- supportive housing.

Mollica said that the city will not require any sort of background checks for people to enter the shelter and will not require people to pay any money upfront. He added there will be no requirement for sobriety in this shelter. Mollica noted that some conduct that will be prohibited for people staying there such as violence against others.

People also will be allowed to keep their pets at this shelter, Mollica said. That is significant because some people experiencing homelessness opt not to stay at shelters downtown because they have been told they would have to part with their pets to do so.

Part of a larger strategy

The decision to buy this motel is also part of the city’s new strategy to acquire hotels and motels to offer shelter and services for the homeless.

Adler said the hotel acquisition approach has a quicker turnaround than the shelter on Ben White, “It’s something that we can put into service probably a year or two earlier than we can put into service the Ben White facility.”

Not only will rooms be available sooner for homeless through the hotel but Adler said it’s cost-effective with a 25 to 50% savings in comparison to the shelter facility on Ben White Boulevard.

“We are in discussions with other motels,” Adler said. “We might very well be able to get to the critical mass in a short period.”

Adler talked about how the city would afford purchasing these hotels.

“There are a lot of different sources for that money. We can pull money out of the excess that’s in the Waller Creek tax increment financing district, we have money in our budget that’s been earmarked for helping folks experiencing homelessness, we can do a certificate of obligation which oftentimes is done when there’s a unique real estate opportunity that comes up outside of a budget cycle in order to be able to move forward — there are many ways,” Adler said. “So long as the city has the commitment and the urgency to deal with homelessness we’re going to be able to do that. I think the most likely scenario is a certificate of obligation.”

Measuring success within the homeless community

With all the efforts being made to address homelessness across the city, KXAN asked the Adler how he measures success.

“We will measure our success lots of different ways, we’ll measure of success based on the number of people were putting into housing, the number of people that are receiving services, the number of people that exit our system because they’ve been able to return to a stabilized life outside of the support structure,” Adler said.

He added the city plans to keep track of new metrics in terms of how they handle capacity, provide new opportunities, new apartments, new rooms, and new motels into the system.

While the mayor said it may appear sudden to make the switch from a shelter to acquiring hotels, he said this has been a conversation city leaders and service providers have been having for years.

“Success has many mothers,” Adler said. “It was probably about two years ago that I had the real estate department compile a list of hotels that were on the market and turn over to Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) but the idea didn’t really go anywhere.”

Adler said with the new ECHO executive director, Matt Mollica, he believes this could now be the way to go.

“It’s a strategy that has been implemented by other cities around the country, our ECHO director has implemented similar strategies in Denver, San Francisco, and the City Council of Los Angeles just passed a new ordinance to help facilitate this kind of strategy,” Adler said. “There are people doing this all over the country.”

According to “Point in Time” counts conducted every year, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin ’s homelessness has been increasing. In 2015, 1,832 were experiencing homelessness on a given day. In 2018, 2,147 people didn’t have a place to call home, and in 2019, that number rose to 2,255, which represents a 5 percent increase. However, it’s also important to note that the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin (according to the counts) has stayed in the range of around 2,000 people since 2010.

State vs. City of Austin

The city of Austin has been working for the last couple of years to find new ways to address homelessness in Austin. The current council has made it clear that addressing homelessness is a top priority for them.

In June, the council voted to repeal previous bans on camping, sitting, and lying down in public, this was with the intention of decriminalizing homelessness. That vote sparked a heated debate over the best way to address homelessness and where people experiencing homelessness should be allowed in the city.

That debate even caught the attention of state leaders, Texas Governor Greg Abbott expressed his concern over Austin’s policies on social media, and over the past few months, a public Twitter battle has ensued between the mayor and Governor Abbott over Austin’s rules.

The city council voted this fall to put some of the old restrictions on camping in public back in place, translating into new rules which went into effect in late October.

Governor Abbott called for the city to make “consequential improvement” on addressing homelessness by November 1, and at the start of November, state agencies stepped in at his direction, helping again to clear homeless encampments from overpasses and providing a temporary homeless camp.

The mayor said he appreciates the help but what the city could really use is state money to help pay for things like this hotel.

“I invite the state’s assistance in this,” Adler said. “Our state actually assists the city much less than other states are helping their cities but I do appreciate that the state is at least more focused on this now than they had been in the past and there are other cities around the state that could also use the state’s assistance on the same challenge.”

East Austin apartment for homeless

Starting today, Integral Care will begin to move in people into the Terrace at Oak Springs. The 50-unit apartment complex in east Austin will house 25 homeless veterans and 25 other people experiencing homelessness and will also be provided with the support they need.

Other cities with motels converted into housing

In a city memo, the staff listed examples of they looked at. In Denver, Colorado, where Mollica used to work, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless recently purchased a Quality Inn.

“We identified the property back in May/June. We purchased in October. We hope to be leasing those units by the end of, or some time in December, so that’s about a 6-month process for getting 139 units,” said Cathy Alderman, Vice President of Communication and Public Policy.

She said if they were building from scratch, it would take up to three years to house 139 people.

Another example the Austin city staff looked at is the Orchard in Santa Ana, California, which opened last year.

The old motel is home to about 70 people who used to be chronically homeless.

“Credit scores. Any criminal activity that’s not violent. Rental history. We try to look at those, and say hey, doesn’t matter if they have a bad credit score or bad rental history, we let them in anyways,” said Kyle Paine, President of Community Development Partners.

He said as long as the residents don’t violate the lease terms, they can stay.

In Austin, many people who live near the Rodeway Inn were concerned about crimes increasing.

When asked about that, Paine said, the motel they bought used to have a higher number of police calls. Now, he said, “Our biggest issue is outside influence on our property.”

Santa Ana Police told KXAN the crime level in that neighborhood has remained about the same in recent years.