After years of negotiation, renovations begin on Austin’s oldest publicly owned homes
Alexis Henderson stands in the kitchen of her former home at Rosewood Courts in East Austin. The place is abandoned now, save for a couple items. A rag on the stairwell. A video game decal on the bedroom wall.
Henderson points up at a thick pipe in the wall, above where a stove used to be.
“They had to knock a hole in there in order to fix the pipe,” she said, remembering how she had to live with the hole while the pipe was repaired.
“That’s the problem that people don’t understand," she said. "Because [the walls are] made of brick you can’t just be like, ‘Oh we’re gonna go in there.’ Bricks — you have to knock it down.”
Now, the whole place is getting knocked down.
After years of negotiating and planning, politicians and residents of Austin’s oldest public housing complex ceremoniously shoveled dirt Thursday morning to signal the start of a massive renovation that will result in brand-new affordable homes.
“This is for the families that will come after us,” said Steve Whichard, who has been a resident at Rosewood Courts for more than a decade. “Instead of it just being a roof over our heads, it will be a place we are proud to call home and feel comfortable inviting people over.”
Opened in 1939, Rosewood Courts was one of the first public housing complexes for Black residents in the country. Then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson helped secure funding from a New Deal program to build the one-story, barracks-style homes on Chicon and Poquito streets. The hope was to ensure safe housing for low-income families, who are required to pay about a third of their income toward rent.
But more than half a century later, residents of Rosewood Courts complained of poor living conditions: bug infestations, drafty windows and rooms so small they felt like jail cells.
“What was originally created to offer a better quality of life for families has become obsolete and in desperate need of revitalization,” Sylvia Blanco, chief operating officer at the Housing Authority of Austin, said in 2017.
Contractors for the authority plan to build 184 new homes. Most of those will be spread across three four-story buildings, while 20 homes will be restored inside eight of the original buildings. Blanco said the homes will include modern amenities residents have not had, such as ceiling fans and dishwashers.
The move comes as rents in Austin have risen at unprecedented rates over the past two years. Housing owned and operated by a public housing authority, such as HACA, allows families earning low incomes a chance to remain in the city.
“We can celebrate this, but this celebration should not breed complacency,” Congressman-elect Greg Casar said Thursday morning. He recalled walking around Rosewood with residents to see the conditions briefly after beginning his first term as an Austin City Council member in 2015.
“Instead it can show us what is possible if we don’t give up, because too many are continuing to be priced out of this city," he said.
Blanco said all the residents have moved out of Rosewood and have been offered housing at other authority-owned buildings. The authority estimates construction will take about two years, after which the residents will be able to move back.