Amid a tumultuous two-year public safety disaster in Texas’ capital city, area county officials are trying to stop the Austin City Council from moving forward with a highly contentious homeless hotel project.
On Tuesday, the Williamson County commissioners voted unanimously to file a lawsuit against city hall for the Candlewood Suites project, a multimillion-dollar north Austin hotel that city officials want to convert into low-barrier homeless housing for only 83 individuals.
The Democrat-run city council had been attempting the controversial plan since February, when they initially decided to buy the hotel on short notice, without notifying area residents or officials and disregarding the county’s request to delay the purchase.
But last week, the council voted 7-4 to go ahead and purchase the property, which is located next to neighborhoods, restaurants, and a nearby middle school.
“We are not against [the] homeless, but our problem is the location,” said citizen Rupal Chaudhari, who helped organize the “Stop Candlewood” group and whose family “invested their livelihoods” to own two hotels adjacent to the homeless project. They and other community members have expressed concerns regarding safety and the prudence of the project, as the city’s other homeless hotels throughout town have been havens for drug trade and crime. The group offered alternative solutions, and Chaudhari added separately months ago that the city’s conduct in making the decision was an “absolute abuse of power.”
“It’s clear we can’t trust the City of Austin,” said Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell on Tuesday. The county is located primarily outside of Austin, but the proposed homeless hotel would be located in the small portion of Williamson County that is within city limits.
The state Legislature could have acted on the issue earlier this year by passing a proposed state law to require city officials get county approval for homeless hotel projects, but they chose not to approve the law.
The Candlewood incident is just one of the most recent chapters in a broader public safety storyline that traces back to 2019, when the Austin City Council legalized homeless camping in nearly all public spaces (except city hall, notably).
That decision sparked 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. Eventually, it led to a citizen petition campaign where Austinites of both political parties overwhelmingly voted in May to override the city council’s decision and restore the original public camping rules.
Additionally, throughout the past couple of years, the council 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 spent $160 million on homelessness over the last three years, recently spent $100 million of federal COVID relief funds on similar projects, and wants to spend a whopping $515 million of citizens’ money 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 proven, successful models.
“[The council] promised to answer our questions prior to voting on any issue, but yet here we are today, about to make a vote on it, and we have not been informed. We have not been involved in the process,” said citizen Bianca Ramirez, who testified to the council last week.
“We feel like we are being deceived, we feel like this isn’t transparent, and we feel like the majority is speaking and we are not being listened to,” she added.
Texas Scorecard will continue reporting on this story as the county’s lawsuit unfolds. In the meantime, concerned citizens may contact their elected officials.