As Democrat-run Austin City Hall continues a controversial multimillion-dollar spending spree on homeless hotels, county and state elected officials are fighting back and threatening a lawsuit.

Last week, the Austin City Council voted to purchase a local hotel for up to $9.5 million to house 80 homeless individuals. The hotel is located in the small portion of Austin that’s in neighboring Williamson County, and the council’s decision incited community outrage.

“I want to say this unequivocally clear to the City of Austin: Don’t mess with Williamson County. I want you to know that Williamson County will use any and all resources to protect our citizenry,” said County Judge Bill Gravell at a press conference on Wednesday.

Officials and citizens said the council decided on short notice, without notifying area residents or officials. The council also disregarded Williamson County’s request to delay the purchase.

“At the last minute—without consulting anybody, without conducting an economic analysis, a safety and security analysis, or a health analysis of its decisions—[the city council] entered into a major contract and just sort of kicked the problem up to Williamson County,” said Aaron Reitz, the Texas deputy attorney general for legal strategy. “It’s not fair. It’s not just, and it stinks.”

“What the City of Austin did was bamboozle these business owners and residents and force them into a position where they’ve had to make a choice about whether or not they can stay here any longer. And we don’t need to have that,” said newly elected Austin Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly.

“You have stepped over the line without coming to the table and having a conversation,” Judge Gravell said. “I’m willing to have that conversation, but if you are not, we will take you to a conversation in the local courthouse, and you will not be pleased with the outcome.”

The council has now purchased four hotels to use for homeless housing, spending upwards of $30 million. On just the latest hotel purchase, the council will spend nearly $119,000 per person, which doesn’t even include the substantial annual staffing and maintenance costs of the hotel.

Furthermore, the homeless controversy traces back to the summer of 2019, when the council made it legal for homeless individuals to camp in nearly every public space throughout the city (except for city hall, notably).

The council’s action sparked a swarm of new tent cities, a drastic increase in the city’s homeless population, a more dangerous public environment, and a wildfire of public backlash.

Violent crime subsequently rose by double digits, with homicides up 64 percent year over year in 2020.

“Let there be no mistake, the Austin City Council and Mayor [Steve] Adler have completely failed the homeless with the policies they have enacted in Austin. The citizens of Austin have seen that,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner (R–Georgetown). “And now they want to transport their failed problems to Williamson County, without the services, support, and the coordination necessary to benefit the homeless. This is wrong.”

Schwertner has proposed a state law to prevent city governments from purchasing property to house homeless individuals without approval from the county.

“It’s going to totally destroy my business. Please reconsider,” said citizen Freda Cheng, who owns Freda’s Seafood Grille. Cheng’s restaurant would be right next to the city’s latest homeless hotel.

“We are not against [the] homeless, but our problem is the location,” said citizen Rupal Chaudhari, whose family “invested their livelihoods” to own two hotels adjacent to the new homeless project. She said separately that the city’s conduct in making the decision was an “absolute abuse of power.”

“All we are asking is: Where is the impact study? What will happen to our businesses? What will happen to all the residences that surround this place? What happens to the security of our children? These are all questions we need answers to.”

“It’s often said, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire.’ … This whole business stinks, so we’re going to dig around and see where the rot is,” concluded Deputy AG Reitz. “If there’s something there, then [Attorney General Ken Paxton], as he always does, will work with Sen. Schwertner and the county to take decisive legal action.”

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.


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