At a September meeting of the Austin Independent School District's board of trustees, almost half of the public comments weren't about academic issues. Instead, they were about housing. Students, parents, teachers and other community members were asking the board to create affordable housing at the former Allan Elementary School on the East Side.
It wasn't a random request. More than a year ago, the district announced it wanted to sell 10 properties, including Allan Elementary. Some of the other properties got bids from commercial developers, nonprofits, the city and even Alamo Drafthouse. But this summer, the district took Allan off the market.
Without Affordable Housing, 'Schools Close'
Vincent Tovar, an East Austin resident with two kids in the school system, is one of those community members calling for affordable housing at the old school.
Tovar said affordable housing is rare in the area. Some neighborhoods in East Austin are the most expensive places to rent in the city, outside of downtown. Tovar said a lack of affordable housing will only hurt public schools in the city.
"Without affordable housing, we're just going to continue to see schools close," he said.
Here's how Tovar arrived at that conclusion: Traditionally low-income families, usually minority families, lived and sent their kids to school in East Austin. Over the past 10 years, though, many of those families have been pushed out as these homes become more and more expensive. The people moving in either don't have kids or transfer them to schools in other parts of town.
Enrollment in East Side schools dropped, with some now only half full. If schools continue to lose kids, the district can’t afford to keep the schools open. That's why Tovar, like many residents in East Austin, says Austin ISD should use the land to build housing for families who want to send their kids to these district schools.
"I think AISD has to realize the future of its schools being open and successful means that families who have supported these schools … need to be honored, recognized and supported with housing," he said.
An Affordable Solution Is A Tough Sell
The land next to Allan is in the middle of a neighborhood, making it a great location for families. But it's also a large plot of land, which in Austin these days means money. The district had the property appraised at $12 million, but one of the most popular bids among community members came in a lot lower, at $5 million.
Foundation Community, a nonprofit focused on building affordable housing, came up with a proposal for the site, not an outright bid. It proposed building 200 units, all two- to three-bedrooms, for a monthly rent of $800-900.
"There are 3,000 new apartments in East Austin, but they’re almost all one-bedrooms," said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Community. "So generally they’re not large enough to attract families with kids, and you see that in the enrollment numbers."
Along with housing, Moreau wants to turn the former school into a community center where families can get health, financial and academic services.
The $5 million offer is a fraction of what a commercial developer could offer. But Moreau said it's a better investment, because it could essentially fix the district's under-enrollment problem by building housing for families who want to attend East Side schools.
"There is a tremendous opportunity for the school board to say, 'We’ve got to look at our inventory of underutilized property, and we need to increase enrollment in our schools,'" Moreau said. "'Can we do something innovative and creative at Allan or other communities?'"
Will The District Take The Offer?
AISD and the school board decided to pull Allan off the market in July.
"We just needed more time to look at what are the different options for that campus," said Jacob Reach, an assistant to Superintendent Paul Cruz.
Reach said the district won’t open the formal bidding process again right away, so selling Allan in any capacity won’t happen any time soon.
The school board is expected to talk about prioritizing affordable housing at a meeting later this month.