What's Next for Rosewood?
The transformation of Rosewood Courts is the centerpiece of a larger neighborhood plan
The street is calm and quiet; a woman walks her dogs across her grassy lawn, a lady smiles and says, "Girrrrrl, you run too much." The branches of the hundred-year-old live oaks glow in the sunset, and a fat white Chihuahua runs to greet me. Rosewood Courts, as it currently stands, feels parklike and friendly.
But later this year, Rosewood's owner, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, will begin the next phase of transforming the property: demolishing and replacing most buildings with a new mixed-income development. Michael Gerber, HACA's president, will reveal a final site plan in September. HACA will then apply for a federal Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant, which has yielded up to $30 million for other recent recipients.
HACA and its co-grantee, the city of Austin (via the Austin Housing Finance Corporation) received a U.S. Housing and Urban Development planning grant to develop the Rosewood plan. Rebecca Giello, assistant director for Austin's housing department, says that $750,000 in federal funding was approved this month for the implementation phase. According to Gerber, HACA will also pursue some of the $65 million in affordable housing bonds approved by voters in 2013.
Also in September, Rosewood may be added to the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Texas Historical Commission. Rosewood has already been established as eligible, and since the redevelopment project would involve federal funds, the National Historic Preservation Act would require a THC review – but wouldn't mandate protection. Elizabeth Brummett, the THC's State Coordinator, met informally with HACA, and said, "We have told them that demolition, substantial demolition, will be an adverse effect." It will be the city of Austin, not HUD, that may end up wrangling over the details of Rosewood's future with the THC. (See "Whither Rosewood Courts?" Jan. 31.)
HACA reports a chronic lack of funding for public housing, and $25 million in unfunded capital needs. While other Austin providers house families living below the median family income, few offer units for families earning less than $22,500. Some HACA tenants pay only $25 a month for rent. HACA reports that annual capital funds from HUD have dropped from about $2.9 to $2.28 million since 2004, and must be distributed among their 18 public housing properties. Asked if funding cuts cause HACA to seek mixed-income projects to keep them afloat, Gerber said no, but acknowledged, "We do want parts of our operations to support others ... We want our properties to break even or make a little bit of money." HACA has an entrepreneurial subsidiary that manages five multifamily properties and a retail shopping center, but Gerber says those profits pay only for social services.
There are currently 8,098 families on HACA's public housing waiting list; the people at the top of the one-bedroom list have been there since 2000 (occasionally others rise to the top because of special conditions, such as a disability). In addition, a 2014 study commissioned by the city concludes that Austin needs another 48,000 rental units for people earning less than $25,000 a year.
Gerber says it's the condition of the housing and the well-being of Rosewood's residents that make the redevelopment project important. "Rosewood is a very good tornado shelter," he said, "but doesn't have good living conditions," and residents can't hang pictures on the brick walls. HACA studies have concluded that Rosewood does not represent "long-term physical and social viability," and the apartments have "severe physical and unit distress." He says he will commit to a "tight legal document," to ensure all current residents have the option to return to a unit on-site, or: "We won't do this project."
Edward G. Goetz, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, questions the benefits of public housing redevelopment for residents, especially people of color. In his 2014 book on the subject he wrote, "The research to date shows that the benefits for original residents are limited and inconsistent." His advice is to minimize demolition, redevelop in phases, and value tenants' rights to remain.
Frances Ferguson, a member of Austin's Affordable Housing Committee of the Bond Election Advisory Task Force, reviews project applications after they've been scored by AHFC staff. The city's scoring criteria are silent regarding treatment of historic sites, and do not mandate tenant relocation plans, although Ferguson and Elizabeth Mueller, also a committee member and UT housing scholar, think tenant displacement should be considered. Ferguson called Rosewood a "Rubik's cube" and said, "We are a city that desperately needs more affordable housing. That site happens to be very low density compared to the city at large. ... By bringing in tax-credit housing, you increase income to the site, and also bring workforce housing into the market that no developer will ever create." She finds HACA well run, and with respect to Rosewood redevelopment, she said, "We are going to need to do more of these. ... Rosewood is the first, but not the last."
Ruby Roa, a tenant advocate, arranged for me to meet a Rosewood resident. Taneka Perkins' unit is white-washed, bright, and very clean. She doesn't like her exposed pipes or the moldy caulk around her bathtub, and believes her asthma is worse in the apartment. She has lived at Rosewood since 2011, when her disability status kicked in and she moved up from No. 4,000 on the wait list. She had been waiting for seven years.
Asked how the tenants at Rosewood felt about the redevelopment plans, she said, "Some want to move on anyways, but some don't want to see any change." Asked whether she thought residents would be able to move back, she let her head drop. Eyes on her sneakers, she said she had a gut feeling, "There might be a catch to it. ... Some people might be able to come back but, I don't know if people will last." She said she'll believe the right-to-return promises when she sees them in writing, and only then.