Council moves forward on ‘Downtown Puzzle,’ looks to address Austin homelessness

Austin police officer patrolling outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) (KXAN Photo)
Austin police officer patrolling outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin City Council voted to move forward on the mayor’s “Downtown Puzzle” proposal — an effort to address homelessness and fund public improvements through tourism — by exploring funding options.

The latest version of the resolution went before the council Thursday. The puzzle would create a Tourism Public Improvement District, which would take 40 percent of taxes collected from that downtown area to support and house the homeless.

The puzzle also could allow for the council to look into the potential impacts of expanding the convention center by asking hotels to increase the Hotel Occupancy Tax by 2 percent.

In addition to addressing homelessness, the puzzle would assist in several areas that are of interest to the Austin community such as the local music industry and local cultural centers.

It would also create a downtown TIF (tax increment finance zone) that could dedicate $30 million in future property taxes to pay for homes for about a quarter of Austin’s homeless. The puzzle would also increase the Waller Creek TIF which could dedicate $100 million toward private parks.

Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday morning he wants to see as much money as possible from the puzzle applied to things that are important to the Austin community.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan supports moving forward with the puzzle, while he does have more questions about how some of its taxes will work.

“The tourism public and improvement district and the expansion of the convention center are gonna enable us to solve a lot of homeless issues in this community that we have struggled to solve for many years,” Flannigan said.

Flannigan believes the concerns expressed by his fellow council members about this resolution have been addressed over the past few days. He supports how the puzzle could use Hotel Occupancy Taxes to benefit the city of Austin in a way that’s never been done before.

“This vote today enables staff to expend the resources required to answer these very complicated questions, we are not making a final decision today,” Flannigan explained.

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza had a few reservations about the puzzle at first, but supports this most recent draft.

“While this has been framed in a way that is all or nothing, that’s not the case, all of us think that all these issues are very important,” Garza said. “But it needs to be a very deliberate process. We can accomplish all these important things and they don’t need to be tied together, if we do have to be tied together it’s important to have that discussion.”

For Garza, moving forward with the puzzle means committing to address homelessness in Austin, committing to expanding public projects like the Mexican American Cultural Center, and committing to talking more about possibly expanding the Austin Convention Center.

Garza wants to learn more before she’s sure about expanding the convention center.

Mayor Adler said Thursday that he wants to see an expert evaluation of how to fund the community benefits in the puzzle, but he suspects they’ll find the greatest amount of non-taxpayer money through a convention center expansion.

“What the legislature has told us is that if you do a convention center renovation or expansion, or renovation, 70 percent of the money has to go for that purpose and 30 percent of the money needs to go for things like art or historic preservation,” Adler said. “I think we can get some of that 70 percent as well for area facilities that contribute and are part of the convention center operations and I want them to look at that.”

Ann Howard, the executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, explained that the puzzle offers hope for those who’ve been advocating to get Austin’s homeless into long term housing. Howard, who is part of a city effort to tackle the “public health and safety crisis” facing Austin’s homeless, explained that it will be impossible with current funding to get all of the homeless off the streets and in touch with the resources they need. While the city now has an active list of the chronically homeless people downtown, Howard says there simply isn’t enough room in current programs to house them all.

The puzzle is a game changer, she says, because it could provide two possible streams of long term funding for homeless outreach.

“We need to scale up the programs and the housing for people experiencing homelessness because if we don’t, they’re very likely to die on the street in the coming months and years,” she said.

“If we delay the puzzle, we’re delaying access to housing for people who are very vulnerable and on the streets right now.”

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