• Deep recesses provide shade to the individual balconies. - photo by Matthew Niemann

The Chalmers Courts housing project has provided homes for low-income Austinites since the Great Depression. An ongoing expansion will ensure a modicum of economic diversity through the current boom.

Architect Nelsen Partners
Client Housing Authority of the City of Austin; Carleton Companies
Developer and Contractor Carleton Companies
Civil Engineer Dunaway
Landscape Architect dwg.
Structural Engineer Connect Structural
MEP Engineer PHA Consulting Engineers
Sustainability Nelsen Partners

A leafy green courtyard stands empty, enclosed by weary-looking, one- and two-story semi-detached homes, each marked by unit number and a small, uninspiring pattern of tile. Flimsy back doors and concrete stoops facing into the courtyard are devoid of conversation and chatter. Most of these homes stand empty. One of the only signs that there are a few remaining residents in the old Chalmers Courts housing is a loaded provisional dumpster with a worn-out, old-fashioned patterned couch sticking out of it. 

It’s been 81 years since the first families moved into these modest accommodations on Chalmers Avenue, which offered a higher standard of living and hinted at the promise of a more prosperous future. Carved out from the southeast corner of what was once the Masontown neighborhood in Austin, the original collection of 86 concrete-block residences was one of the first low-rent housing communities of its kind to be built in the United States, under the steam of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Adjusted for inflation, a home in a sleepy, post-depression 1940’s Austin (population less than 100,000) would cost a working-class family, on average, the equivalent of $30,000. Today, a teacher or health care worker earning $38,000 a year has little hope of buying a home inside the city limits when Austin’s current median home price is over half a million dollars and climbing.

A unique government-led funding mechanism, put in place to funnel private investment to local agencies specifically for the purpose of constructing low-cost rental housing, led the fledgling Austin Housing Authority, now the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), to oversee the construction and management of 19 low-rent housing projects across Austin since 1937. When a recent Housing and Urban Development program presented HACA with the opportunity to redevelop and upgrade their aging housing stock by privatizing its assets and becoming the owner of the properties it manages, HACA jumped at the chance. 

They selected the design team of Nelsen Partners Architects and Carleton Companies, who, through careful planning and consideration, negotiated the redevelopment of Chalmers Courts’ existing 158 dilapidated units into 396 brand new rental apartments, ranging from one to four bedrooms, with space for sports courts, shared gardens, and multi-age playgrounds. Right from the very beginning, the team worked closely with existing residents, meeting regularly to listen to concerns, share ideas, and present proposals. 

The first step in the multi-phase development began in 2018, with HACA moving out of its on-site offices and community center, a complex of one- and two-story office buildings located one block south of Chalmers Courts. Once the site was cleared and rezoned from commercial to multifamily, it became available for the construction of Phase 1, Pathways at Chalmers Courts South, an 86-unit apartment building completed in 2020. The families of the original Chalmers Court residences were able to move into brand new homes right across the street, avoiding displacement and maintaining existing support networks within the community.

A tight rhythm of single- and double-wide windows, coupled with deep balconies, repeats across a crisply rendered facade grounded on a recessed base of warm brick that meets the sidewalk. The new four-story volume begins mid-block and wraps to the east, west, and south, forming a neat horseshoe around a shared courtyard, where landscaped Lueders stones terrace down to lushly vegetated rain gardens. Voices coming from the playground and benches under a number of preserved large oak trees on the southwest corner carry across the green lawn toward a single-point entry gate punctuated by a tall, brightly colored metal screen. The warm yellow panels climbing up across each level of the building’s open breezeway are perforated with a pattern that was inspired by the existing live oaks and selected by the new residents. Peering through the perforations from the fourth floor you can see clear across East Austin to the blue-glass high-rise towers springing up downtown. 

Originally reserved for whites only, Chalmers Courts segregated its residents from their Black and Mexican-American neighbors until it was made illegal in 1968. Today, application to Pathways at Chalmers Court South is restricted only by an income threshold: Households must be at 60 percent or below the area family median income to qualify. Fifty-five percent of residents are Black, 45 percent are Mexican, and there is a small but growing Middle Eastern population.

HACA supports the most vulnerable Austinites currently living in poverty, including seniors, transitioning homeless, and single-parent families. It serves the needs of over 19,400 individuals daily through several programs and organizations, such as Helping the Needy and Disabled (HAND), Ascend Center for Learning, and Austin Pathways — a residential support program operating across all HACA-owned housing communities that promotes the education and welfare of low-income tenants in subsidized housing through services ranging from school supplies to wellness and nutrition classes.

“We’re so excited about being able to actually increase density and serve more families in need because we all know the affordability crisis is only getting worse in Austin,” says Sylvia Blanco, HACA’s chief operating officer.

The development team maximized the efficiencies in the project by putting forward an appeal to the city to include it in the Plaza Saltillo Transit Oriented Development zone, which is tied to the new red line train station stop and nearby commercial center. Height restrictions were increased, and setbacks typically required by the city’s development code were reduced, allowing for better use of the available land. Further efficiencies were tapped into following the approval in 2019 of the Affordability Unlocked ordinance, a development bonus program that waived parking minimums and neighborhood compatibility restrictions in favor of unit increases. 

Phase 2, Pathways at Chalmers Courts East was completed earlier this year on the site of the first vacated Chalmers Courts residences. All but two of the original 1930s structures were demolished to make way for 156 new units and shared amenities, including large meeting rooms and a computer resource center, which reinstating some of the community spaces lost from the HACA-vacated site and the Housing Authority’s ability to provide the community with local support. The two original buildings that were retained are located along Chicon Street and were restored to provide community services, medical offices, and a dental clinic for the entire neighborhood. 

“Our intention,” says Matthew Beaton, AIA, of Nelsen Partners, “was to leave those pretty well intact so that if you’re going down the east side of the Chalmers project, you would see [something] familiar within the neighborhood, a kind of recall to remember those forms that have been a part of people’s lives.”

Phase 3, Pathways at Chalmers Courts West, is set to begin construction later this year. To comply with City of Austin requirements for vertical mixed-use projects on a major street, it will  include a stretch of retail along the west edge. When completed, the development will have increased the total number of units from 86 to 398, 13 percent of which will go for market-rate. Overall, the new units are larger than the previous Chalmers Courts accommodations. 

“Things have to adapt and develop,” says Philip Crisara, AIA, of Nelsen Partners. “You can see that now this is an opportunity for more people to have that same benefit, an opportunity to not only create additional affordable housing, but deeply affordable housing in a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying.” 

The new Pathways at Chalmers Courts complex is a unique piece of public space-making in Austin, where shared community amenities connect directly to the street. The three corners of the east, west, and south blocks at the intersection of Chalmers Avenue and 3rd Street form the center for the new Pathways community. A new north-south greenway connecting to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway will eliminate vehicular access at Chalmers Avenue and enhance public pedestrian and bikes paths while allowing families to move safely between Chalmers East and Chalmers West. The largest heritage oak on the site shades an open wood deck and outdoor spill-out room for a corner multifunction space anchoring the east block’s all-brick building. This new public plaza and gathering space connects the greenway to an internal spine and east-west pedestrian activity corridor along 3rd Street leading to the adjacent neighborhood park and Zavala Elementary.

Part of the conditions of the newly available funding is a Land Use Restriction Agreement (LURA) maintaining the low-income requirement for at least two decades. After that period elapses, if there are no additional restrictions in the LURA, the owner organization can recapitalize the asset property and convert the units to market- rate rentals. However, such a change is not currently in HACA’s vision. In the words of Blanco: “HACA’s mission has always been to serve the most vulnerable families in our community, and so it would remain our mission beyond the 20-year period to continue to serve the Chalmers East and Chalmers West developments. Our mission is to maintain that affordability in perpetuity.”

Nkiru Gelles, Assoc. AIA, is a project designer at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin.

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