Austin, Texas— A former addict who’s now in job training and reunited with her daughter, a video editor studying business management with plans to start his own theater center, and a small-plane pilot who lost his home after a back injury and is now working to become a physicians’ assistant: These are some of the people who have been helped by Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in Austin.
That’s because CDBG dollars helped fund Garden Terrace, an 85-unit single-room occupancy development that’s the city’s first permanent housing for the homeless. Opened in 2003, the project tapped $1.6 million in CDBG dollars, and offers individuals furnished efficiency apartments at rents ranging from $50 to $300 a month, or a maximum of one-third of the resident’s income.
“What makes us unique in Community Development Block Grants is that we look at the housing continuum,” said housing office director Paul Hilgers, describing Austin’s programs as an effort to create a “stairway to self-sufficiency.” The concept is to “make enough housing available at every level so that everybody can find housing where they find themselves,” he said.
Garden Terrace—developed by Foundation Communities, a local nonprofit, in partnership with the Capitol Area Homeless Alliance—is just one of many projects the city has helped fund using the CDBG program. Austin tapped another $9 million to buy and demolish old houses and bars in the city’s 11th and 12th Street area as part of an effort to revitalize the neighborhood with new mixed-use development.
In conjunction with that effort, 31 homeownership and 24 rental units are being built in the adjacent Anderson Hill area.
In the current fiscal year, Austin’s share of federal CDBG dollars totaled just under $9.1 million, down from $10.6 million the previous year. Almost $3 million of that was used for housing-specific programs ranging from the Anderson Hill redevelopment to assistance for elderly or disabled residents needing remodeling to make their homes or apartments accessible. That doesn’t include the more than $1.2 million in CDBG funds that go toward debt service on the 11th/12th Street project and the homeless shelter, or the $261,000 the city has budgeted for tenants’ rights assistance and housing counseling and referral services this year.
When the Bush administration in 2005 proposed replacing CDBG funds with a much smaller program, Mayor Will Wynn was among those who protested.
He released a statement arguing that Austin, which would see its CDBG allocation sliced in half under the proposal, has “judiciously and strategically” used its funds for housing, public facilities, services for victims of abuse, and redevelopment efforts.
“I know how to make difficult budget decisions and painful cuts, but these are the wrong cuts,” said Wynn. “As a community, we are only as successful as the least fortunate among us.”
The CDBG program “can have a huge impact; it just can be very hard to quantify when you’re looking at a city of a million people,” said Hilgers. “You can beat your head against a wall thinking you’re not doing enough until you meet the family that got their roof repaired or the woman who now has a ramp that allows wheelchair access.” That’s one reason he thinks “the best way to measure your success honestly in this business is one family at a time.”