Herman: A little more progress on Rosewood Courts

Six years in — and who knows how many more years to go — it looks like the long overdue project to bring Rosewood Courts into the 21st century finally, at long last, has some wind at its back.

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin has an ambitious plan to replace much of the historic public housing complex in East Austin with new low-income housing, including some home ownership opportunities.

I told you Sunday that the city Historic Landmark Commission had given its blessing to a historic designation needed for the housing authority’s revised plan — developed with community input — to rehabilitate and renovate eight of the 25 buildings at Rosewood Courts while demolishing and replacing the rest.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: New future for historic Rosewood Courts complex?

That’s up from a six-building rehabilitation proposal in a previous housing authority plan that drew concern from some — including City Council Member Ora Houston, whose district includes Rosewood Courts — who wanted a deep look at whether more could be saved.

On Tuesday, the city Planning Commission added its endorsement to the historic zoning change. It’s now scheduled for March 22 review and action by the City Council at a City Hall not always known for quick review and action. Here we have an example of how when a community — including some with disparate interests but shared goals — does some hard homework, City Hall can become an efficient machine.

Rosewood Courts, built in 1939, was the nation’s first public housing for African-Americans. It’s been patched and rehabbed over the years and is long past its due date. The housing authority plans to restore the exterior of the eight preserved buildings to their original appearance and improve the interiors to current standards, adding features like central air conditioning and modern plumbing and wiring.

“Preserving 8 leaves room to create,” said the T-shirts worn by Rosewood Courts residents at the Planning Commission session.

Commission member Conor Kenny said, “It’s stupefying to me that … we haven’t seen a change in the conditions that were bad 25 years ago.”

Steve Sadowski, the city’s chief preservation officer, reminded commissioners of these facts: “This is a public housing project. These are people’s homes.”

And, Sadowski said, the current compromise strikes a good balance between preserving an important past and providing proper, modern housing for the people now living in Rosewood Courts.

Taneka Perkins, one of those residents, posed this challenging and to-the-point question: “This is what I would say personally to the people that want to keep it like it is and make it historic: Why don’t y’all come live there for one month and let us trade places with y’all and see how it is? Because it’s a challenge every day. Even for our kids, it’s a challenge.

“Give us a chance to make new history there and have better living for us and the kids,” Perkins said.

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To be clear, I’ve heard nobody talk about doing nothing at Rosewood Courts. Everybody agrees the current conditions are unacceptable. The discussion has been over how and how much to restore.

Fred McGhee, founder of the group, Preserve Rosewood, believes the housing authority can preserve and modernize much more than what’s planned. He does not believe the studies that show that would be prohibitively expensive and would result in the loss of units.

McGhee perceives racism at work.

“There is no intellectual case for the claim that only 30 percent of Rosewood Courts has history and community value and the rest doesn’t,” he said. There’s “a racist double standard,” he said, “especially since preservation does not foreclose rehabilitation.”

“Rosewood Courts is part of the soul of our city,” McGhee told the commission. “If the City Council ultimately chooses to destroy and redevelop the site, that is their prerogative and their bed to lie in. But you do not have to aid and abet this woeful example of institutionalized racism masquerading as virtue. Emancipate yourself from the mental slavery of benevolent paternalism and stand up for the truth and for what’s right.”

That’s a lot, and a lot of it is over the top.

“Exercise some basic common sense. If the plumbing leaks and the toilets don’t flush at my house, do I demolish the entire house? No, I fix it up. I repair the problem,” McGhee said. Rosewood Courts is “safe, decent and affordable housing.”

Planning Commission member James Schissler asked this of McGhee: “How old is your house?”

“How old is my personal house?” McGhee replied. “I don’t see what relevance that has for this discussion. That’s a strange question. How old is your house?”

Schissler: “We’re not going to have that back and forth.”

McGhee: “That’s a very fatuous remark, sir.”

As the commission, which was meeting at City Hall, moved toward its unanimous vote to recommend the historic zoning needed for the housing authority to move this project along, commission member Greg Anderson noted that Rosewood Courts residents “have been walking the halls of this building now for I think at least four years … saying, ‘Please, please, please, help us.’”

“So you’ve been at it a long time,” Anderson said.

Indeed they have. And many have been living it far longer.

Even if all goes smoothly in the next steps, this still is a long way from a happy conclusion. Many questions remain, including how to pay for the project. But it’s nice to see momentum.

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