Herman: Progress on updating Austin’s Rosewood Courts public housing


It’s time for our periodic update on the plan to improve Rosewood Courts. I’m pleased to report this can be viewed as a progress report, as in there are hints of progress on an important project that has defied progress.

The quick history: As a project built by the feds in 1939 as the first public housing for blacks, Rosewood Courts on Rosewood Avenue in East Austin has an important place in local and national history. But as homes, despite patchwork upgrades over the years, the 124 apartments are nothing we’d allow to be built today.

So the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, which is a public but not a city government entity, decided several years ago to seek a $30 million federal grant to help pay for 21st-century housing that could cost a projected $40 million to $55 million. Six of the original 24 buildings would be preserved.

That wasn’t enough preservation for some folks. The project stalled, and Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, whose district includes Rosewood Courts, stepped in and got a panel appointed with an eye on maximizing preservation.

READ: Report offers options to remodel units to preserve them

So that’s where we were. We’re now at a new place with a report and a new president, both of which could impact where we go next.

The report is a preservation feasibility study recently completed by h+uo architects of Austin that captures the challenge and cost of preserving the history of Rosewood Courts while also providing more and better low-income housing.

Houston has shared the concerns of preservationists and was instrumental in putting together a working group that recently received the architects’ report. It shows the cost of upgrading apartments in the old buildings would range from $274 per square foot to $350 per square foot. Housing authority President and CEO Michael Gerber says new construction would cost about $175 per square foot. But, armed with the numbers and preservationist input, he now thinks it’s possible to preserve more than six buildings.

“I think the right number is probably six to nine, somewhere in there,” he said.

Gerber notes the new report shows preservation is possible but pricey. “But it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “and we can afford it.”

(More in a minute about how paying for the ambitious project has become more challenging.)

WATCH: Rosewood Courts, an uncertain future

To be determined is how many and which buildings to modernize on the inside while preserving on the outside. Gerber said it’s a topic of “very productive conversations” with Houston, whom he credits as a very productive part of the process. “She is trying to find consensus where sometimes it just doesn’t exist.”

Lindsey Derrington, programs coordinator at Preservation Austin and president of Mid Tex Mod, which advocates for significant modern places, is on the Rosewood Courts working group. She said the numbers in the new report supplant what she had seen as “vague negativity” about whether the old buildings were worth saving. Derrington notes the report focuses on rehabilitation and not restoration, which would be more museum than living space.

Derrington said saving all of the old buildings would be “the best preservation outcome,” but she understands that would mean losing much-needed low-cost housing units.

“I think what the plan shows is that you can put very modern apartments into the historic buildings,” she said, adding that she’d like to see more than nine of the old buildings preserved but is encouraged to hear that Gerber said as many as nine could be saved.

In a statement released by her office, Houston said she’s reviewing the new report. And she expressed gratitude to the working group members and praised HACA officials and Rosewood Courts residents “for being open and willing to work with the community and stakeholders in an effort to find common ground to preserve and rehabilitate this historic site.”

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Laura Toups, a local civil engineer who has helped lead the working group’s discussion, said it’s been easy to sense the passion of the preservationists and the sincere needs of the current residents, two different views in search of an elusive compromise.

“I don’t know what that number is,” she said of the correct number of buildings to preserve. “I believe it’s more than the six that HACA had in its original plan.”

But Toups said she believes it’s less than the full 24 some want: “It’s hard for me as a citizen and a professional to say that preserving the whole site serves the greater good the best.”

But she has come to fully understand what she calls “the really strong emotional response” that the Rosewood Courts discussion stirs in some. “It’s hard,” she said of the search for compromise. “But if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to increase resources to the underserved, it’s a big issue for us a city.”

That’s the update on the old challenge. Now there’s a new one: The housing authority’s original plan counted heavily on a $30 million grant from the federal government’s Choice Neighborhoods program. The program still exists, but Gerber, nodding to the change in Washington, said, “I suspect it’s not going to for long.”

He doesn’t see that as fatal for the Rosewood Courts project, but it will mean finding another funding mix. It’s doable, he said.

So there’s progress on an old challenge and potential problems on a new one.

I’m encouraged that there’s a more cooperative tone among those involved. Several people have told me that Houston should get much credit for this. That’s leadership.

However it happened and whoever caused it, I find cause for optimism that we’re on track toward a compromise that preserves for all of us an important slice of Austin’s past while providing better low-income housing for Austin’s present and future.



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