As Austin morphs into whatever’s next, it’s important that we hold on to some of our historic past. But would you feel that way if you were living in a patched, repatched, outdated relic from that historic past?
East Austin’s Rosewood Courts has 124 low-cost apartments. The complex’s future is in doubt, partly because its past is so important. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin, fueled by a $300,000 federal grant, is halfway into a two-year study of what to do about the old complex. The study could lead to federal funds for an East Austin neighborhood overhaul that could include big changes for Rosewood Courts. Demolition and replacement is a possibility, one that has divided folks, including some current Rosewood Courts residents.
The complex opened in 1939 as the nation’s first federally funded public housing for African-Americans. It was a product — along with East Austin’s Santa Rita Courts (initially for Hispanics) and Chalmers Courts (initially for whites) — of legislation pushed by then-U.S. Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson. Rosewood Courts was built on the site of Emancipation Park, established by African-Americans to have a place to celebrate Juneteenth when other folks in town were not too interested in celebrating Juneteenth.
The divide over Rosewood Courts’ future splits those who prioritize improved current housing over history on one side, and on the other those who think renovation, not demolition, is the way to both preserve the historic complex and move it into the 21st century.
Rosewood Courts resident Alexis Henderson, a 27-year-old mom of two daughters, ages 6 and 1, understands the history. “I’m concerned about that, but the thing I’m more concerned about is the people that are staying here (now),” she said, adding “there’s a time to be new, there’s a time for change.”
She sees a way to build new apartments and honor the history of the old ones. But it’s time for the complex to be “torn down and rebuilt from the bottom to the top,” she said.
“This is my home. I raise my children here. That’s why I want change,” she said.
Rosewood Courts resident Matt Bragg, 78, a retired plumber and president of the resident council, sees another future for the place he’s called home for 3½ years.
“I don’t think they should tear it all down and start over from scratch. I think that would be way too expensive,” he said, calling for “modernization” to add central air conditioning and other changes.
Officials of the Housing Authority (which is not a city agency) are very careful with their words about Rosewood Courts. They’re sensitive to, and they reject, criticism that a decision already has been made to tear it down. The authority’s board, taking the next step in the review process, recently hired St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar for “developer services,” which includes participation in the study process and potentially a role in any changes made at Rosewood Courts.
Before the vote to hire the firm, Carl Richie, the authority’s acting board chairman, amended the motion to make sure everyone understood the contract involves “potential or possible” changes to Rosewood Courts.
The vote came after several residents of the complex made their case for major overhaul.
“Home should not feel like a jail cell,” said Kenesha Campbell, single mom of two young daughters. “I say jail cell because our walls are made of bricks that bring in heat and sweat, causing mold to grow.”
“Home should be a place where you hang pictures, not tape pictures,” she told the board.
Housing Authority CEO Michael Gerber, also careful to note no decisions have been made, told me the status quo is a bad option for Rosewood Courts.
“I don’t think it’s the best place for people to live and I think we can do better,” he said, adding that “a large part of it has outlived its useful life.”
Whatever, if anything, happens to Rosewood Courts, Gerber said it would be guided by three principles: There’ll be no reduction in the number of apartments, current residents would be guaranteed apartments after the project is done and the historical importance will be respected and represented.
“An historic designation is one thing,” Gerber said, “having a suitable place for people to live is another.”
Though modernization efforts have been made, there are some things that can’t be changed about housing built in 1939. Residents are given one window-unit air conditioner and can buy additional ones. The units have connections for washing machines, but not dryers or dishwashers. There’s no on-site laundry facility. The rooms are small and some apartments have very steep stairwells. The multilevel grounds include steps that are obstacles to the aged, infirm and folks with kids in strollers. Gerber said there is “potential for some asbestos issues.”
For many residents, there’s a steep slope to navigate to get to their mailboxes and public transportation. Interior doorways are narrow, making bathroom access potentially tricky for larger residents. The plumbing is old. Replacement parts sometimes are difficult to find, Gerber said.
Diana Garcia lives with her two daughters (10 and 7) and her mom in a two-level, three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. It’s nicely decorated and clean, but small for four people. Her daughters share a bed in a small upstairs bedroom.
Garcia, a student, has lived in that apartment for 21 of her 24 years. She understands the history of the property, but she says it’s ready to be torn down and replaced. “It’s been a long time,” she said.
Much of the complex cannot be retrofitted for accessibility for people with disabilities, something about which Stephanie Thomas, a longtime advocate for the disabled, told the board.
“The historic stuff is very, very moving to me, but history is so often used as an enemy of creating access and low-income stuff and that really shouldn’t be the way it works,” she said
The history also is very moving to Austin Community College adjunct associate professor Fred McGhee, who calls himself a “scholar in public housing” and is a leading critic of the Housing Authority process to date.
“Planning means that you involve the people that are going to be impacted,” he said. “That hasn’t happened here. This decision to do this was made a long time ago and the entire planning process has been a charade to basically produce a predetermined outcome, which is the demolition of Rosewood Courts.”
The process, he said, needs to start over. Several Rosewood Courts residents with whom I spoke said they’ve been satisfied with the process, which has included many meetings and activities. But McGhee said Rosewood Courts residents “are under duress because they are poor and the Housing Authority holds all the cards.”
The old buildings, he said, “are more than viable and what they need is a facelift and what they require is proper maintenance” to overcome what he called “75 years of mismanagement and lack of attention.”
“They still discharge their function 75 years later,” McGhee said.
Tearing them down, he said, would mean Austin would lose “a tremendous part of it soul and its legacy.” And, at this point, he said, the Housing Authority’s guarantee that current Rosewood Courts residents would be guaranteed they could return to new apartments is a “shallow promise.”
Retired teacher Eleanor Perkins, 67, has lived at Rosewood Courts for seven years, represents the older residents and sides with McGhee. There’s no need to tear down Rosewood Courts, says Perkins, who’s proud of the complex’s history, including the site of Austin’s first immunization clinic for blacks.
Perkins has challenging words for residents who want Rosewood Courts replaced.
“There’s a lot of young people that are complaining, wanting central air conditioning and heat,” she said. “But if you’re on a fixed income you can’t afford that. These young girls, they’re not even trying to work. They’re looking for improvements but they still don’t want to put any input into it.”
Maybe, she said, some of the younger families should move out instead of “waiting for government assistance programs.”
“That’s what’s been going on for years on the east side and you just see people looking for something free and complaining,” she said. “What have they done for themselves?”
Perkins said all that’s needed is some “modernization.”
Jacqui Schaad, Preservation Austin’s executive director, agrees with McGhee and Perkins that the process has been inadequate. “People have been kind of led through the process,” Schaad said.
In a letter to the Housing Authority, Preservation Austin President Tom Stacy referred to the “multi-layered and powerfuly significant history of” Rosewood Courts, which he said is a classic example of “the earliest modern architectural works in Austin.” The process, he wrote, “should identify structures and landscape elements for retention and preservation, as well as develop methods for interpretation of the full history of the site.”
At the recent board meeting, Richie, an Austin lawyer, spoke of growing up in public housing in Wichita Falls in a complex called Rosewood.
“I can relate to the (Rosewood Courts) families that talk about not being able to hang pictures because I, too, lived in those four brick walls where if you wanted to put something up it had to be taped,” he said. “I understand and I agree with wanting to live in a development that has central air. I’m one of the advocates on the board who has been pushing very hard to try to … come up with central air in all of our properties.”
He said he’s “very sensitive to the comments that have been made about preservation,” but that the agency must provide residents “the best and the most comfortable life that we can afford them.”
After the meeting, Richie detailed the difficulty of modernizing Rosewood Courts.
“You’re talking about a structure that’s 75 years old,” he said, steering clear of anything approaching a decision on what should be done.
“I don’t know that you’ll have to demolish the entire structure, but you’ll have to make modifications to the structure in order to bring those units up to have the modern amenities,” he said.
Sylvia Blanco, the Housing Authority’s executive vice president, told me there’s no way to retrofit central air conditioning into Rosewood Courts. She said an assessment showed it $115,000 per unit to do necessary upgrades, “but you’re still left with a 1939 product.” Tearing it down and building new would be more cost-effective, Blanco said.
Gerber and Blanco have several ideas for preserving the complex’s history if there are major renovations or demolition. They talk about green space to honor and remember Emancipation Park and perhaps leaving parts of some of the buildings and transforming them for community use or other non-residential purposes.
“I’d like to do better for the next generation,” Gerber said. “This property has held up the vision of Lyndon Johnson. It’s been here for 75 years. We’ve been proud to have it and I think it’s operated far better than a whole lot of public housing around the United States. But we think for our city we can do better and would like to have that chance and we think that’s what the residents themselves are asking for.”
He rejects the complaints of those who say residents have not had sufficient input. They have, he said, and they’ve been heard.
“I think two-thirds want to do something significantly different with this property and want to have dramatically improved living conditions,” Gerber said. “I think there’s a group of people who are apathetic. And then I think there’s probably 10 or 15 percent that are very, very upset about the possibility of change. I think many of them are seniors. Many of them are persons with disabilities and we feel a very special responsibility to them.”
Richie understands the challenge.
“Any time you have sort of competing interests, neither group gets everything they want but hopefully there will be a sort of a happy medium where everybody can at least get something out of it,” he said.
To see a video about Rosewood Courts go to mystatesman.com.