AUSTIN — Amid a tumultuous two-year public safety disaster in Texas’ capital city, citizens continue to resist harmful decisions by their city officials—and are offering alternative solutions.
The most recent storyline is that the newly-organized citizen group “Stop Candlewood” is calling out the Democrat-run Austin City Council for their controversial plan to purchase a multimillion-dollar north Austin hotel—a Candlewood Suites—and convert it into low-barrier homeless housing for only 83 individuals.
“The [Williamson County] Appraisal District valuation for Candlewood Suites [is] $2.5M for 2021. Why does Austin want to pay almost 4X the appraised value – $9.55M – to purchase Candlewood?” the group wrote on social media Tuesday. “Even if the market value was 2X the appraised value ($5M), that would still mean Austin is paying another almost $5M more for some reason.”
“Stop Candlewood” was formed after the city council made the spending decision in February on short notice, without notifying area residents or officials and disregarding the county’s request to delay the purchase. The move sparked community outrage, lawsuit threats, and even a proposed state law.
“We are not against [the] homeless, but our problem is the location,” said citizen Rupal Chaudhari, who helped organize “Stop Candlewood” and whose family “invested their livelihoods” to own two hotels adjacent to the homeless project. She said separately that the city’s conduct in making the decision was an “absolute abuse of power.”
The Candlewood incident is just one of the most recent chapters in the broader storyline that traces back to 2019, when the city council legalized homeless camping in nearly all public spaces (except city hall, notably).
That decision began a disastrous saga of tent cities along sidewalks and neighborhoods, a drastic surge of the city’s homeless population, a wildfire of public backlash, and a more dangerous public environment (violent crime rose by double digits in 2020 and has already surged to record numbers this year.)
During that time, the council also went on a questionable taxpayer-funded spending spree on their own homeless plans—purchasing four hotels for upwards of $30 million total. On just the Candlewood project, the council would spend nearly $135,000 per hotel resident, which doesn’t even include the substantial annual staffing and maintenance costs of the hotel.
Furthermore, the council has also spent $160 million of citizens’ money overall on homelessness over the last three years, recently spent another $100 million of federal COVID relief funds on similar projects, and wants to spend a whopping $515 million over the next three years on just 3,000 homeless housing units.
Their bewildering expenditures—with few tangible results—have raised many questions about where the money actually went, and why they did not follow provenly successful models.
The issues reached a major milestone in May, when Austinites of all political parties, after a long grassroots petition campaign, voted overwhelmingly to restore the city’s original public camping rules.
Then last week, the city council voted to put the Candlewood plan on hold for the moment.
“We feel enormously grateful for the hard work of hundreds of people who made calls, signed letters, rallied, and made this win happen,” Chaudhari said in a statement last week. “We hope that we never have to go through anything like this again, but that if we have to, the City of Austin can engage with us in a transparent and productive way next time. We want to work with them to actually build a common-sense process for these kinds of issues so that other communities won’t have to go through what we went through.”
“Stop Candlewood” also proposed an alternative solution—a city-owned airport-area hotel that was once a military headquarters for Austin’s Bergstrom Air Force Base .
“Today, Stop Candlewood unveiled a superior location for a [permanent supportive housing] hotel: the Airport Hilton,” the group announced in a press conference. “It is near the Travis Co. Correctional facility, can house many, many residents (250+), has ample space for services like Integral Care on site (79K sq. ft.), is nowhere near businesses or residences, has access to transportation and convenience stores, has a kitchen that can serve on-site residents, and more. The best part: The City already owns and operates it, and it’s seriously underutilized right now (occupancy down 60%).”
City hall has already announced resistance to the airport hotel idea, but the outcome remains to be seen, as the council just left for a six-week summer vacation.
Concerned citizens may contact their Austin City Council members.