Though its historic significance doesn’t receive due attention outside the city, the Rosewood Courts public housing complex in East Austin is the first federal housing project in the nation built for African Americans. Funded by the United States Housing Authority of the New Deal thanks to the famously tireless politicking of then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and completed in 1939, the segregated facility quickly grew with the help of additional federal grants from its original 60 units to 130 low-rent residences, joined by other race-specific East Austin housing projects including Santa Rita Courts for Mexican Americans and Chalmers Courts for whites.
But the trailblazing nature of Rosewood Courts, at the heart of a historically black district designed that way and actually sitting atop land formerly home to the city’s black-owned Emancipation Park — seized through eminent domain for the housing project’s development — sets the facility apart in its value to local history, state history, black history, architectural history, the history of the New Deal, and so on.
Beneath the incredible weight of this history, you’ll find a difficult contradiction. Rosewood Courts, though desegregated by the Civil Rights Act of 1968, remains a functioning public housing facility for low-income Austinites — and the present comfort of its residents sometimes stands at odds with the preservation of the 1939 buildings. Despite their attractive modernist design courtesy of local architecture legends Page & Southerland, the units lack central air conditioning, wheelchair accessibility, modern plumbing, and other obstacles to essential human dignity.
Although this condition is particularly unacceptable in the context of the vulnerable population it exists to serve, the degree to which Rosewood Courts must be modernized is inevitably in conversation with the question of how much the original facility must be preserved to maintain its considerable historic and architectural merit.
Since the issue encompasses East Austin’s segregated past, minority representation in civic affairs, historic preservation weighed against new development, and the expansion of affordable housing stock, the question of what to do with Rosewood Courts somehow resembles practically every debate over land use ever mounted in this city — an endless, infinitely self-similar discourse ranging in scale from the planning of an entire community all the way down to the future of a single home.
Even so, a unanimous 2018 decision by Austin City Council to preserve eight of the site’s most visible original buildings facing Chicon Street while redeveloping the rest of the 8.9-acre tract with modern and expanded residential capacity from the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) was the first sign of a seemingly viable compromise with many — though not all — of the facility’s preservation advocates. This month, HACA and its team of local design studio Nelsen Partners and residential developers Carleton Companies have given us a first glimpse of a potentially modernized facility with their concept known as Pathways at Rosewood Courts.
The project would construct 164 modern units at the site in its first phase, with “modern, energy efficient appliances and amenities” according to HACA’s development documents, which will “significantly improve the quality of life” for residents and provide more affordable housing by “moderately increasing density.” More critically, the project will protect the facility’s existing population:
All current residents of Pathways at Rosewood Courts in good standing will have the first right to return to the new community once built. During construction, residents will be temporarily relocated. HACA has assigned a team to assist residents with relocation needs before, during and after construction.
— Housing Authority of the City of Austin
In addition to its new income-restricted rental units and eight preserved buildings from the original 1939 project, the plan also includes “homeownership units” facing Poquito Street, which according to HACA will provide “affordable home ownership opportunities for first-time homebuyers.” A new green space, designed with input from the existing community and nearby residents, will be added at the northwest corner of the site. Here’s a map of its full renovated layout:
According to development documents for the project, HACA expects to submit an application for low income tax credits to the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs in March, with an anticipated state approval by July. After the credits are secured, temporary relocation of the facility’s residents can start this summer, with groundbreaking on the upgraded community expected by the fall. Assuming the project remains on its current schedule, Rosewood Courts will reopen and residents can return to their homes by the end of 2023.
Late last year, HACA released the above video outlining its needs and goals for the facility’s modernization. Though this development process is already in motion, the organization requests feedback and community engagement on their page for the project, specifically in the form of letters to local and state leaders showing support for the concept — a transformation they say will maintain the immense value of the site’s past while providing its present community a better way of life.
For more information on affordable housing at Rosewood Courts, click here.