Council gives initial OK to contentious East Austin project

Updated Sept 23, 2016

In a case that underscores the debate over East Austin’s gentrification, the Austin City Council has given initial approval for a zoning change that would allow a developer to build a mixed-use project with 340 upscale apartments on land that now is a mobile-home park.

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, whose district includes the Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park at U.S. 183 near Vargas Street, made the motion to approve the rezoning on a first reading. He said the tentative approval is contingent on the landowner, developer and residents continuing to work on relocation options — a situation he, his staff, the property owner and developer, and others have been trying to resolve for some time.

Until recently, Cactus Rose was home to 57 households, many of them Hispanic and non-English speaking. Some have relocated, with 37 mobile homes and recreational vehicles remaining, said Jimmy Nassour, one of the landowners seeking the zoning change for the 23-acre Cactus Rose property.

On Thursday, some of the remaining tenants asked for the City Council’s help, including a young girl who in Spanish implored the city: “‘Please don’t leave us homeless.’”

Several East Austin neighborhood activists said the case highlights the conditions of low-income minorities in gentrifying East Austin.

“Maybe gentrification is legal, but it is immoral and unjust,” Daniel Llanes, an East Austin community organizer, told the City Council. “This is tied to the broader issue of people of color in white America.”

Austin-based apartment developer Oden Hughes has a contract to buy the Cactus Rose land, with the purchase contingent on the zoning change. In addition to apartments, retail and restaurant uses are planned for the project.

With a surge of new housing continuing to replace older, lower-income rental projects in East Austin, the City Council approved a tenant relocation assistance ordinance Sept. 1. However, staff members in the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development are still working on specific program guidelines.

Susana Almanza, an East Austin community activist and Montopolis neighborhood leader, asked the City Council to deny the zoning request — unless there’s a signed agreement for building a new mobile home park and providing new and/or used mobile homes for Cactus Rose residents.

“We will lose some affordable housing and displace people of color and the poor and working poor,”Almanza said. “Austin will be known as a city that speaks with forked tongue.”

In the past 45 days, nine Cactus Rose households have relocated with financial help from the property owners, and seven others are in the process of moving with relocation assistance from the owners, said Alice Glasco, a consultant representing the landowners. Nassour said Friday that the tenants “are not having to pay a penny” for relocation assistance or utility hook-ups, and their security deposits are being refunded.

Glasco said the owners have identified other mobile-home parks — including several within 3 miles of Cactus Rose — that could accommodate the remaining residents.

Nassour has said that residents rent their spaces for $400 to $415 a month. Nassour and Oden Hughes are offering owners of recreational vehicles a $2,000 stipend plus a final month of free rent, and mobile-home owners have been offered $5,000, plus the return of a security deposit.

The offers, Nassour said, exceed the assistance recommended in the city’s new tenant relocation ordinance.

In a written statement, Mac McElwrath, Oden Hughes’ managing director, said: “The financial and logistical assistance that we are offering these residents is equal to or superior to every mobile home or RV relocation assistance program that we are aware of anywhere in the country including the program recently approved by the city of Austin… We understand the challenges this presents for current residents who have lived with the uncertainty of month-to-month leases for the last 17 months. Our proposal guarantees residents meaningful assistance upon rezoning.”

The City Council will consider the zoning case again in two more upcoming votes, possibly on Oct. 13.

Before Thursday’s vote, City Council Member Delia Garza said she would vote in favor initially “with the hope the owner can give (these residents) a better package.” If not, Garza said, she will ultimately vote against the zoning change.

“We can’t be displacing our residents. We can’t be pushing them further and further east. Why can’t they build an affordable housing project there? …I think it’s important that our community stays diverse in color and income.”

Nassour said the property owners have successfully relocated some of the residents into “more sustainable” trailer parks “and it hasn’t cost them a nickel.” However, some of the remaining tenants have “refused to take yes for an answer,” he said.

“It’s difficult to negotiate with someone who says this is what they want, and when you give it to them, the game changes,” Nassour said. “The solution is not giving them a check and throwing them out the door. The solution is to put them in the same position they’re in or a better position.”