Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dallas likely to pay for 500 permanent housing units for homeless

The Dallas City Council has agreed that taxpayers should help fund the construction of 700 permanent housing units for homeless people who need consistent support to get off the streets.

Though council members haven't yet committed any money to the plan, their vote Wednesday signaled that they intend to use city money to pay for about 500 of the 700 units within the next five years. Federal funds will pay for about 200.

In today's dollars, the cost of the housing ranges from $7.2 million to $18 million. The project also will include about $4 million to provide support services like medical care and drug and alcohol treatment to residents.

Mike Rawlings, Dallas' homeless czar, told the council that providing permanent homes to people on the streets not only helps them but is cheaper for taxpayers in the long run.

"It's important to say to the public that this works," Rawlings said.

The city has worked aggressively in recent years to tackle homelessness, most notably with construction of The Bridge, a multimillion-dollar downtown homeless center that provides shelter and food with no questions asked.

Hundreds of homeless have already moved from The Bridge into homes, Rawlings said.

The permanent housing element of the city's plan to end homelessness is certain to draw heavy scrutiny, however, both because of its cost and concerns about where the city would place the housing units.

Council member Mitchell Rasansky noted that each unit the city builds would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"I want to study the whole thing, but it would be a long time before I would support something like that," he said.

Hotel vote delayed

The council deferred a vote on approving Omni Hotels as operator of the planned convention center hotel downtown.

The deferral was caused in part by a delay in the completion of documents related to the agreement and in part because the council would have had little time to review the final agreement.

It comes, however, at a time when Omni's rival for the contract, Marriott Hotels, is heavily lobbying Mayor Tom Leppert and the council.

Though the council's economic development committee voted to give the contract to Omni, a vote of the full council is required.

Smoking law enforcers

On the heels of approving a sweeping municipal smoking ordinance expansion last month, the council voted Wednesday to spend $165,674 in contingency reserve funds to hire new smoking law enforcers.

The expenditure is necessary, City Manager Mary Suhm said, in order to adequately address complaints about smoking occurring within buildings such as bars, billiard halls and most other indoor workplaces.

Smoking in such venues will be illegal starting April 10. The expenditure will pay for three new "sanitarian" positions in the Environmental and Health Services Department.

Not all council members were convinced, however, arguing that the expenditure is unnecessary.

"You'll see a lot of initial complaints, and then you won't get a lot," council member Sheffie Kadane said.

The expenditure easily passed, 11-3, with Kadane and council members Mitchell Rasansky and Steve Salazar voting against it. Council member Vonciel Jones Hill was absent.