City of Austin to forgo creation of Ben White homeless shelter, focus on hotel acquisition instead

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Building to the left is the proposed site for a new homeless shelter in Austin located off of Ben White Boulevard. (KXAN Image/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In an Austin City Council work session Tuesday, Assistant Austin City Manager Rodney Gonzalez explained that the city would be forgoing its prior plans to create a referral-only homeless shelter at 1112 W Ben White and instead focus on acquiring hotels to house the homeless.

In a presentation about the city’s efforts to acquire hotels and motels for those experiencing homelessness, Gonzalez noted, “Just to be clear with the council, we are pursuing the motels as a strategy, we won’t be pursuing the South Austin Housing Center.”  

The South Austin Housing Center is the 1.66-acre property off of Ben White which was expected to cost the city $8.6 million to purchase. Council approved this purchase in June. The City of Austin confirmed that they had not yet purchased or begun work on this building off of Ben White.

A City of Austin spokesperson explained that the Certificates of Obligation Bonds that were set aside for the South Austin Housing Center will go towards acquiring other properties to address homelessness. The city added that the property on Ben White would not have been ready for immediate use and would have required renovations to convert it from office space to housing.

Gonzalez said the reasons for this decision were that the hotel option offers a “more immediate response” and offers a partnership where the city won’t have to pay for everything.

Austin City Council is slated to vote Thursday on acquiring and renovating the Rodeway Inn off of I-35 near Oltorf to house the homeless. The city would pay $8 million for the building if the council approves it.

A City of Austin spokesperson said the decision to not pursue the South Austin Housing Center, ” was made recently as the Rodeway Inn motel acquisition opportunity became available.” The city says that because the Rodeway Inn is currently being used as a motel, it can be used right away as “bridge housing.”

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness coalition has volunteered to fund the operation of the hotels the city acquires for this purpose, they plan to fundraise to cover the costs it would take to actually operate the shelter. ECHO says that because the rooms will already be ready to live in, they hope to be able to start moving people into those rooms immediately after the council approves the purchase of the motel.

ECHO hopes for these hotels to offer immediate shelter for Austin’s homeless as well as a place for service providers like psychiatrists and substance use counselors. In the long term, ECHO hopes to convert these hotel rooms to permanent supportive housing.

KXAN has reached out to the city of Austin for more comment on the details of this decision to forgo the South Austin Housing center, we are awaiting more information.

On Friday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN of the hotel option, “this option that we’re seeing here tonight appears to be the most cost-effective and the one that is getting us to the goal the most quickly.”

KXAN’s Kevin Clark asked the mayor if that meant the city would be pursuing the hotel option in lieu of the Ben White shelter.

“I think we’ll wait to see on Tuesday what the recommendation is, with respect to the Ben White shelter, but I hope that we have more opportunities than just this one.”

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