Heights on South Congress- Update

heightsWith the soaring cost of living in Austin and shrinking number of affordable rental units, many working-class families are being pushed out of central Austin and the South River City Citizens’ boundaries. So when the owner of an affordable housing complex in the neighborhood, the Heights on South Congress, announced plans to redevelop the ten oak-filled acres between St. Edward’s and the Gardner-Betts center, residents were put on edge.

Would they be forced to move far away? Would their children get to continue to go to neighborhood schools like Travis Heights Elementary, Fulmore Middle School, and Travis High? Would they be able to return?

As the SRCC summer newsletter pointed out, Travis Heights Elementary, with SRCC residents and partners with Austin Interfaith and Wildflower Church, hosted a successful Community Action in May. The owner, Doug Gurkin, publicly promised to provide transportation for families wishing to continue attending neighborhood schools while displaced and to make residents’ relocation away and back to the Heights smooth.

This summer, a new Advocacy Team at Travis Heights was created following the great momentum from our Community Action. Working with families in the Heights, we went door-to-door asking folks to come to a follow-up meeting on July 27th.

At that meeting, the owner gave the assembled residents some important news: no construction would happen in the next 12-18 months, giving residents some breathing room and relief from fears about having to relocate soon.

Further, the owner explained his plan to do the redevelopment in phases such that many (and perhaps all) families with children will be able to stay on the site while the affordable units are rebuilt on the southern portion of the land. Gurkin proposes to do this by leaving 11 of the complex’s 15 buildings standing after knocking down the four buildings adjacent to St. Edward’s. He intends to relocate families with children from these four buildings into the remaining 11 when vacancies emerge, where they can remain while new affordable units are built on the south side.

Right now, the property does not have the necessary zoning for the owner’s redevelopment plan, which includes rebuilding all of the 173 affordable units and adding possibly 200 market-rate units. He will have to apply for a zoning change with the City and needs City Council approval to move forward.

We appreciate the owner’s willingness to meet with the neighborhood, school, and community leaders; however, we would most like his promises to become legally binding through a private restrictive covenant, much like the Tenants’ Association at Oak Creek Village in Bouldin Creek did when their complex was redeveloped. A legally binding agreement will ensure that children in the Heights will be able to have school continuity despite possible displacement during redevelopment.

UT Law School students are interested in working with residents to ensure that their rights are protected. Concerned neighbors can weigh in with their support for residents of the Heights as the project winds through the City’s review and approval process. You can also join the Advocacy Team at Travis Heights Elementary by contacting Colin Clark at (512) 367-0309 or sprinklerintherain@gmail.com.

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