Nonprofit evolves with medical, housing advancements

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With the goal of zero new HIV infections by 2030, the nonprofit Project Transitions has embarked on a plan to more than triple the number of affordable housing units it offers for low-income people struggling with HIV and AIDS. The move effectively turns the supportive housing provider into a housing developer. 

HIV infections a​nd AIDS continue to rise in Travis County despite medical advancements. Health officials report that Texas ranks seventh in the nation in terms of new infections, and in Austin there are approximately 5,800 people with the disease. But federal and international collection of data and information have illuminated a path to end the disease, and in the U.S. the Trump administration has requested $290 million for the 2020 federal budget toward that goal.

The evolution of Project Transitions coincides with the advancements in medical treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS. When it first opened its five-bedroom house in 1989, it was to provide compassionate hospice for people dying with AIDS. Later in 1995, it opened the 22-unit  Roosevelt Gardens to provide supportive, affordable housing for people infected with the HIV virus, adding the eight-unit Highland Terrace apartments in 1989. “Back then, there was such a need,” said Cynthia Y. Herrera, executive director of Project Transitions. Project Transitions could trace its clients’ path from supportive housing to hospice. But today’s medical treatments help people significantly reduce the presence of the HIV virus in their blood. “Now we sometimes see patients going in the exact opposite direction,” said Herrera. 

In order for patients to keep the “viral load” low, they must maintain a daily regimen of medications, which is difficult to maintain for people with low-income or who are experiencing housing instability or homelessness. “Housing is really important because it’s nearly impossible to get that treatment and keep that viral load down,” said Herrera. “Consistency is really key, and you can’t have that without housing.”

Soon after Project Transitions set a goal to increase housing, it enlisted the help of True Casa consulting, led by Jennifer Hicks, who led affordable housing development for Foundation Communities for 15 years. With her knowledge of affordable housing, Project Transitions has been able to take advantage of funding from Austin’s $250 million affordable housing bond passed in 2018 and “Affordability Unlocked”, a density bonus program aimed at affordable housing developers like Foundation Communities and Habitat for Humanity, enacted earlier this year. In the spring of 2020, Project Transitions will tear down its current 22-unit apartment community, Roosevelt Gardens, to rebuild it with an additional 18 units. And that summer it will break ground on new construction on Burnet Rd with 55 – 60 new units.

“The city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department and City Council have been unbelievable in their support,” said Madge Whistler, financial and operations manager for Project Transitions. “We already have a waiting list for these homes.” 

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