by Daryl Slusher

A new flashpoint has arisen in the ongoing saga of the Austin City Council majority remaking East Austin in the name of racial and social justice while long time residents push back that the Council policies themselves are aggravating racial disparities and accelerating gentrification. In this particular case, however, it is a City staff recommendation to Council that is under fire. The Council will have to sort it out.

The Council is scheduled to decide Thursday on a recommendation for the builders of multifamily affordable housing on two tracts of City owned land assembled since 1997 for affordable housing in the Govalle neighborhood in East Austin; six acres at 900 Gardner and five acres at 1127 Tillery. The plans also call for preserving a beloved pecan orchard on the Tillery property. Technically the decision will be made by the board of the Austin Housing Finance Corporation, a City entity whose board is the Mayor and Council.

After a procurement process, staff recommended for the Gardner project DMA Development Company, LLC and their partner/subcontractor on the venture, the arts group Big Medium. For the Tillery project they recommended MRE Capital and partner/subcontractor Imagine Art. In the process, staff twice passed over the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC), which finished a close second in both procurement matrixes. GNDC has a roughly 40-year history of building and advocating for affordable housing in East Austin, including in the Govalle neighborhood. 

The neighborhood contact team, which officially represents the area in land use and zoning matters, supports the affordable housing development and has for years worked with the City to make it happen. The contact team, however, is objecting strenuously to the City staff recommendations on who builds the project; objecting not so much to the development firms, but to the partners or subcontractors. On one property the partner is Big Medium, the art consortium which sponsors the East Austin Studio Tour, as well the West Austin Studio Tour. On their website they describe the tours as “annual city‑wide art events that offer the public an opportunity to meet local artists in their creative spaces.” Among other things they also sponsor the Texas Biennial, “a curated statewide survey exhibition of contemporary art in Texas.”

On the Tillery property, the partner is Imagine Art, according to its website a “Christian ministry. . . tailored to empower artists with disabilities while high caliber services attract non-disabled artists to engage.”

Long time East Austin activist Daniel Llanes (photo at top) views the inclusion of the two arts groups over the GNDC as tone deaf at the very best. He made his views extremely clear in a letter sent to City staff on Monday, September 13. Writing “on behalf of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace (G/JT) Neighborhood Plan Contact Team,” the group of residents and businesses, “designated by the City as the official neighborhood voice of the G/JT neighborhood planning area in zoning and development issues,” Llanes explained, “One of the first classic elements of gentrification is white artists moving into predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods.”

Llanes continued, “Your choice of white-led arts groups for housing, who have no experience in the housing market, over G.N.D.C., who is rooted in and from this community. . . is unacceptable to us.” He asked that the City “Equity office set up a meeting with A.H.F.C., City management and members of G/JTNP CT to discuss this decision.”

Llanes concluded, “We will ask the Council to postpone the awarding of this contract until our concerns are satisfied.  Further, if this decision stands, we will consider filing a complaint of racial discrimination with the Department of Justice and federal housing authorities.”

While any help from the current federal government is unlikely, the Council will take up the item on Thursday. Overturning a staff recommendation on a procurement is unusual. If a Council does it more than infrequently it becomes questionable. It does happen occasionally though, and the Council agenda language allows for the possibility. Agendas routinely read “ Authorize negotiation and execution of an agreement with (the recommended firm) or other qualified respondent.” Stay tuned.


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