Guest Blog: Blackland Affordable Housing

Posted on July 4th, 2011

As Serve Austin Sunday approaches, we asked one of our partners, Blackland Community Development to write a guest blog. These folks are amazing, and have a mission and heart that we all can learn from. Take the time, to read our blog from the Blackland CEO, Dr. Bo Mcarver
The historic Blackland Neighborhood is east of the University of Texas between Manor Road and MLK Blvd. has been the site of many housing struggles. Prior to the 1928 Austin Master Plan that segregated the city and displaced people of color to the east side, the area was made up of Swedish cotton farms which were subdivided in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, the older Swedish homes were surrounded by many modest bungalows built by young black families. In the Blackland Neighborhood, however, those homes were consistently threatened by annexation by the University of Texas -- the 1928 Austin Master Plan called for eastward expansion by UT.

The sixth UT annexation in 1980 was met by stiff neighborhood resistance and the development of a strong neighborhood association and non-profit. After a 12-year struggle in the press, the university agreed on a permanent line at Leona Street and divested 16 houses and eight vacant lots it had purchased to the Blackland CDC. The houses were rehabilitated with a combination of HUD grants and volunteer labor. Because homeless organizations helped the neighborhood during the struggle, nine of the units were designated for homeless families. The Blackland CDC is the only neighborhood-based nonprofit in Texas for host homeless families. Since the inception of the transitional program in 1994, 161 struggling families have been helped as of June, 2011.
The vacant lots, which constituted scars left from the battle, were finally filled in 2008 with the help of UT departments that donated the School of Architecture’s 2005 Solar Decathlon House while the Office of Campus Land Development donated three conventional houses. Volunteers worked for two years to bring the Harden-Solar Duplex at 1701 in 2008.

The Solar “SNAP” House, so named because it was made up of four, modular compartments, was donated on the premise that surplus energy from the 8.5 kW solar array would be used by other rental units nearby. That concept was threatened, however, when it was discovered that Texas’ energy deregulation laws did not allow transport of energy across lot lines. At the advice of architect, Joel Martinez, the Blackland CDC solved the problem by legally combining the adjacent lots into one tract; then building a 15-foot breezeway between the solar house and the Harden House (named for its former owner, Minnie Harden). The result was a very strange-looking duplex -- but it is legal to share energy from the Solar House to both units. Dedicated in August, 2008, the Harden-Solar Duplex at 1701 East 22nd has since been home to several families. The SNAP House has been occupied by former UT architect students who have helped “debug” some of the technical problems in the design
The same approach is now being used to convert a bungalow at 1902 East 22nd into a “community conservatory” where Blackland residents can quilt, can vegetables, talk gardening and meet. That facility will be the center piece of an eight-unit multifamily development that will feature raised-bed gardens for persons with disabilities and restoration of a 9,000 gallon underground Swedish cistern that will be used to harvest water from nearby roofs. “Fannie Mae Stewart Village” is actually an ongoing part of the Blackland CDC’s work that began in 1984 when it acquired a lot at 1904 East 22nd from an African-American maid, Fannie Mae Stewart. Mrs. Stewart survived in her retirement by renting an adjacent house at 1900 but that house was condemned by the city in 1986. The neighborhood organized volunteers and garnered donations of materials to bring the house up to city codes. Among the volunteers who worked on the house for eight months were John Henneberger and Karen Paup, now co-directors of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Services. John and Karen helped start the Blackland CDC and managed its first project in 1985 that brought 11 housing units online.

Today, the Blackland CDC has 47 units that it rents to households earning less than 60 percent of the average for Austin; the actual rents for the units are far less than that at 34 percent MFI.
Although available land for more development is scarce, it is anticipated that another 15 units can be developed in the near future by infilling existing properties. With almost 25 percent of the single-family housing in the neighborhood, the non-profit offsets some of the gentrification that characterizes neighborhoods near downtown. The effort helps fulfill a motto adopted by the Blackland Neighborhood in 1984, “The dream starts here…” That dream was Martin Luther King’s dream of a community of diverse people living together in peace and harmony.

Bo McCarver, Ph.D., Chair Blackland CDC

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