Forty years ago, a few young architects in Austin riled a righteous sense of injustice in John Henneberger, and it still drives him today.
Henneberger is a champion of fair housing in Texas, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation Fellow who has lately used his platform to plead his case to a new cohort of young architects, reminding them of their responsibility to help end neighborhood segregation. Through his work with community development corporations and as co-founder of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, Henneberger partners with architects to help low-income communities of color fight for fair housing.
Back in 1974, Henneberger was a student at the University of Texas, watching as new development swiftly remade Clarksville, an African-American community in West Austin established by freed slaves. The streets were dirt and the drainage was poor, but Clarksville’s vibrant community and its proximity to downtown made it an enticing spot for wealthy new Austinites. Renters were displaced and rising property taxes chased old homeowners away, and while the new residents in big houses were easy to blame, the primary agents of gentrification preceded them.
“The damn first people who came into Clarksville, they were architects who could not see the harm,” Henneberger says. “They could never … understand the impact of building box after box of $90,000 houses and tearing down affordable rental housing.” They took care to build homes respectful of the neighborhood’s historic style, but tore apart its human fabric in the process. Henneberger helped organize a community development group in Clarksville, which stopped the city’s plans to clear blocks of homes for an east-west expressway, but failed to prevent displacement from rising home prices.
Five years later, the city announced plans to level homes in the Guadalupe neighborhood, east of downtown near the French Legation. Politicians imagined clearing a grand urban park around the legation, demolishing blighted homes and pushing out Hispanic and African-American residents in the process. Guadalupe residents first tried protesting at City Hall, then turned to a young architect in their neighborhood. Tom Hatch, FAIA, lived and worked in an old house a block east of the legation, and had an interest in low-income housing. He had helped design a $30,000 house to stem the gentrification of Clarksville and was dismayed to learn residents couldn’t even secure loans to build one. Affordable housing, he learned, was no solo job. Hatch enlisted Henneberger to help his neighbors organize. They surveyed residents in homes that could be targeted for demolition, developed a list of priorities — wheelchair ramps, new roofs, and bathroom repairs — and pitched the city on a new plan. Instead of tearing down Guadalupe, they’d fix up the homes around the legation and keep the community in place. With city funding, the group bought vacant lots and built low-cost rental homes for people in the community.
Since then, Hatch has gone on to make affordable housing a central part of his practice, Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects. “If you’re interested in improving the health of a community,” Hatch says, “tend to the less fortunate, and it’ll be a healthier community.”
What struck Henneberger most about Hatch’s role in Guadalupe was how he put his skills at the community’s disposal.
“The architect helped people get a voice on the future of their lives and their community in a way that they couldn’t have done otherwise,” he says. “It wasn’t that the architect was this magic sole-practitioner problem-solver; it’s just that the architect accepted a role to engage at the table with that community.”
Henneberger hopes that’s an example that can inspire a new generation of civic-minded architects, and over the last two years, he’s been sharing his vision in speeches to The University of Texas School of Architecture graduates, the National Association of Collegiate Planners Conference, and the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
An architect is both artist and technician, but Henneberger says there’s a more fundamental role built into the job, too: They are citizens first, responsible for the well-being and equity of the community in which they work. Alongside the builder, banker, and realtor, Henneberger says, only the architect represents the greater society when a new space is planned. “I think the architect has an ethical and a moral mandate to bring those issues to that table and make sure they’re discussed,” he says.
“You’re not going to let them build a building that’s going to fall down because it would be unethical to do, and it would get them in trouble in the long run,” Henneberger says. “I want to suggest that in the same way, it’s unethical, and it’s going to get them into trouble in the long run, for people to be doing things which don’t take down walls of economic and racial inequality.”
Patrick Michels is a writer based in Austin.