Carl Richie started his remarks as you’d expect the board chair of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin to start his remarks. Then he veered in a more personal direction.
The topic was Rosewood Courts, as it’s been for several years as HACA (which is not a city government entity) works toward providing better housing forRosewood Courts residents.
Quick refresher: Rosewood Courts (on Rosewood Avenue in East Austin) opened in 1939 as the nation’s first public housing for African Americans. Its status as an important historic landmark is unquestioned. Also unquestioned is the fact that generations of patches and updates later, it’s no longer suitable housing.
HACA has ambitious plans to demolish most of Rosewood Courts and replace it with housing complete with such modern conveniences as central air conditioning. Included was a plan to preserve six of the 25 buildings. But the plan drew push back from those who thought it was light on historic preservation. At the insistence of City Council Member Ora Houston, whose district included Rosewood Courts, a group was put together to come up with a revised plan.
On Feb. 26, that revised plan went to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission for consideration of historic district designation, including preservation of eight buildings to be restored to the original exterior look while the interior would be updated to current standards.
At the commission’s Feb. 26 meeting, Richie detailed Rosewood Courts’ untenable situation.
“At almost 80 years old, Rosewood Courts has reached the end of its life cycle. While we acknowledge the historical significance of the property, we have a duty to balance the preservation of its history with being good stewards of effectively using scarce resources of public dollars.”
This is when Richie veered from public housing official to public housing alum.
“I’m just going to deviate for a second because this is pretty interesting for me. I’m a lawyer,” he said. “If you look at me, you wouldn’t know, you couldn’t tell, that I actually lived in public housing.”
Standing with Richie was Brandon Njoku, a seven-year-old Rosewood Courts resident holding a sign with a reasonable request: “2018. Let us live in the present.”
Richie continued: “I grew up in public housing in Wichita Falls. That public housing development was named Rosewood as well. (Brandon’s) goal is to be a firefighter. But in order to live and have a quality of life you have to live in a quality piece of property.
“I didn’t have to worry about the plumbing and all the other issues we deal with in Rosewood Courts here,” Richie said.
“So I’m here tonight to say please consider the proposal that we’ve put on the table to do the compromise and preserve the eight buildings,” he urged. “As an African American I understand the significance of this property. … I want to restore the property, preserve the eight buildings. But, most importantly, I want people like Brandon and others to be able to feel proud of the place they live in and go on to pursue their dreams.
“And maybe one day he’ll be a firefighter working for the city of Austin,” Richie said as Brandon held up his sign.
A few minutes after that, Fred McGhee, who heads Preserve Rosewood and wants more of the complex preserved, stood as one of the only two people to speak against the latest HACA plan. McGhee’s comments came after HACA officials and residents detailed the poor conditions at Rosewood Courts.
“Well,” McGhee told the commission, “that was certainly spirited. I can see the headline in tomorrow’s national press, although I hope it won’t be that: ‘Austin Historic Landmark Commission, which does not have a single black person on it, votes to demolish 70 percent of the most important African American historic site in Austin, during Black History Month.”
McGhee complained he’d been left out of the process, a process that has a long way to go (this is, after all, Austin city government).
“You have a simple charge,” McGhee told commissioners. “Follow the National Register (of Historic Places) rules and they specifically say the desires of the landowner or residents are not to be taken into consideration in anything that you do and the determinations that you render.”
McGhee said he supports redevelopment “within a context of historic preservation,” but not the HACA plan.
The commission voted 8-0 vote to recommend the historic district designation. Next stop is the Planning Commission on Tuesday en route to anticipated City Council action as early as March 22.
After that, the development plan faces the city approval process. And then, in what could be the hardest part, money has to be found. Richie told the Historic Landmark Commission that federal funding for public housing now is very difficult to come by.
Thanks are in order for folks who worked toward the compromise, including Preservation Austin, Mid Tex Mod and Laura Toups of Austin’s Urban Design Group. Toups served as facilitator in the process that led to the compromise.
Council Member Houston also deserves credit. To the consternation of some (hey, who held that mirror up in front of me?), Houston intervened in 2016 and slowed the process. Up to that point, she’d been critical of the efforts by HACA, which now sings her praises for her productive role in this contentious process.
In a letter to fellow council members, Houston spoke of “great strides” that had been made.
“As a result of the collaboration and cooperation of the ‘Rosewood Reboot,’ a preservation plan has been agreed upon by all interested parties who were willing to engage in constructive dialogue and negotiate an outcome that looks different than anyone imagined,” she wrote, praising “a preservation plan which allows us to honor the history of the built environment, the many Negroes who helped build the foundation of the city we call home, and meet the City of Austin’s need for an increase in the housing supply, rental and home ownership, in the heart of the fastest gentrified ZIP code in the city — 78702.”
The revised plan also is backed by Six Square, Austin’s African American cultural district, which, in a letter to the commission, praised the revised plan as “a great compromise that (will) ensure Rosewood Courts incorporates modern innovation while also respecting the rich, historic past of Rosewood.”
After the Historic Landmark Commission vote, Rosewood Courts residents on hand cheered and applauded.
“Y’all can celebrate outside,” chair Mary Galindo said by way of trying to move the meeting along.
Here’s hoping someday relatively soon they can celebrate inside better homes.