Austin Mayor Steve Adler rolled out a plan earlier this month to address homelessness in Austin through increasing the taxes paid by hotel guests, but what remains unclear is how that money would be allocated.
The proposal would add 1 percent to the hotel tax bill immediately and another 1 percent in 2021 to create a Tourism Public Improvement District, with some of the revenue dedicated to combating homelessness. This tax would allow for an ongoing funding stream of $4 million a year — until 2021, when it doubles — for programs that help homeless people.
The money wouldn’t be dedicated to any one specific approach to ending homelessness — such as job placement, free meals or temporary housing — or any specific advocacy group or nonprofit, said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.
Instead, it is about “what do we need as a community?” Howard said. A means and needs report crafted by ECHO last year estimated that 7,054 homeless people lived in Austin in 2015.
The decision as to where the money goes would be driven by data collected by a homeless management information system that identifies gaps and needs within the community, Howard said. Then the City Council would decide which organizations and nonprofits helping the homeless are best equipped to provide those services, she added.
The plan also would allocate $30 million for permanent supportive housing for the homeless, which advocacy groups say is the single greatest need in ending homelessness. Under Adler’s proposal, the funding for that housing would come from creating a tax increment financing district that channels a portion of future property tax revenue from the downtown area into a fund for district improvements.
This supportive housing would address major issues in the long run, but more beds and services are still needed in the short term. With advocacy groups, as such as the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in downtown Austin, providing more functions than it was designed to do, the money would relieve some of that burden, said Mitchell Gibbs, executive director at Front Steps, which manages the ARCH downtown.
The Austin Hotel and Lodging Association has offered to support the tourism district tax if the city expands the convention center, as that would bring more tourists to Austin. So in addition to the tourism district tax, Adler’s plan calls for a 2 percent increase in the hotel occupancy tax to expand the convention center. Visitors currently pay a 15 percent hotel occupancy tax.
Adler envisions an expansion of the convention center with two towers, probably built in partnership with private developers: one dedicated to affordable housing and another providing office space.
“I want this housing to be affordable to the people who work in the bars and restaurants downtown so we can better serve those who serve us,” Adler said.
But for this to happen, a majority of the 11-member City Council would have to approve the plan. Briefings are scheduled to begin in August.
“I think this is a great opportunity in front of us to engage a full range of businesses to address the issue,” Gibbs said. “This is a big issue, and it certainly needs all of us working together to solve it.”