- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
Dating back to the late 19th century (disclosure: columnist exaggeration), I’ve been giving you play-by-play coverage of the ongoing effort to replace East Austin’s historic/outdated Rosewood Courts public housing complex with something more appropriate for current and future residents.
You know, like with central air and other no-longer-new-fangled amenities.
Today, let’s look at what’s next now that the Austin City Council has given its blessing to the revised plan for the important historic preservation piece of the Rosewood Courts puzzle.
Under the updated plan for the outdated complex, eight of the 25 existing 1930s vintage buildings will be accurately restored on the outside and modernly updated on the inside. A previous plan included preserving only six buildings.
The new historic preservation plan, devised in a lengthy and impressively cooperative community effort, seems to have almost everybody happy, though not the folks with Preserve Rosewood.
Now we move on to what could be even more difficult phases, including one you’ve perhaps dealt with in projects with which you’ve been involved: How’s this going to be paid for?
According to Michael Gerber, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, the immediate next steps are designing the project and getting city approval of the design. This actually is a redesign from a previous plan that included the previous historic component. Despite its name, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin is not a city agency. Any construction it does must get city approval.
“Now that we’ve got the historic preservation component identified and know what we’re going to do there, we need to figure out what we can do and what the residents need and want for the remainder of their property, and what the community wants,” Gerber said. “That’s going to take some time and some degree of community engagement.”
So, community, please engage when the opportunity presents itself. Rosewood Courts now has 124 units. The goal is 200 rental units and 10 to 15 single-family homes, detached or otherwise, that include an ownership component.
HACA is aware that public housing means different things for different residents. For some, it can be a temporary situation for people who need to get their lives stabilized.
“For many people, we hope they’ll move on,” Gerber said. “They’ll get the job training and health and education services they need and will be able to move somewhere having achieved greater self-sufficiency in the property.”
Public housing also is vital, he noted, for some older residents and some with disabilities “who are going to be folks who are with us for the long term. And that’s fine. But we still want the housing to be empowering for them and help them to be as self-sufficient as they’re able to be.”
So how does this ambitious project get financed? The answer has become something of a moving target as time has passed since HACA got the original federal grant, through the Choice Neighborhoods program, to study project feasibility.
The changes include who lives in the Rosewood Courts neighborhood and who lives in the White House.
“It’s exciting,” Gerber said, “but we’re going to have to figure out how to work the financing.”
Possible sources of funding have, to some extent, dried up. This all started under the Choice Neighborhoods program, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development effort that provided the Rosewood effort an initial $300,000 planning grant in 2012. That grant carried the possibility of more significant funding. But that was then, this is now, and things have changed in the federal government.
“The Choice Neighborhoods program continues to cling to life,” Gerber said. “We don’t know what will be there over the next year to two years and if Congress will continue to fund the program. We certainly hope so. And, if so, we will consider that as a funding option.
“Suffice to say, the cuts in Washington are real and we are not expecting there will be federal financing tools, other than the low-income housing tax credits, that will be meaningfully available to us,” Gerber said.
And there’s this:
“East Austin has changed pretty significantly in the five years since we got that Choice Neighborhoods planning grant,” Gerber said. “We’re also not sure we’re going to be competitive. In order to compete for that program, it’s based off of the amount of blight in the community, the amount of poverty in the community, the amount of crime in the community.
“And, frankly, the area around Rosewood has dramatically changed and may not meet those thresholds any longer,” he said. “So we may in fact be locked out of that program. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the neighborhood has gotten better for our residents as well.”
But it sure could be a bad thing relative to funding for the Rosewood Courts project. This is where you overlay your personal feelings about the positives and negatives of what’s commonly known as gentrification, a fact of life in the neighborhood around Rosewood Courts, which is near Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street.
If all goes well (and does all ever go well?), five years seems a reasonable timetable for completion of the project, Gerber said. There are lots of moving parts in what’s foreseen as a project in phases. The money portion remains to be divined, though it’s sure to include seeking low-income tax credits through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Those credits are sold to institutional investors who’d provide the funding for the Rosewood Courts project.
Stay tuned. And stay involved.