Feature: Wednesday, August 4, 2004
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McCloud; "Decades of benign neglect eroded trust."
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Lwis: ’We made communities here..."
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Dreams Diverted

HUD says money intended to rebuild a poor neighborhood has been misspent.

By BETTY BRINK

"When you put all your poor folks in one area, provide no jobs, take away the services that could help sustain them and their children, dumb down their schools and then stick them in houses that say, ’Look at me, I’m poor,’ what are you telling them? It’s real simple. You’re telling them your expectations for them are so low that there’s no use in even trying to dig themselves out.

"So," Shirley Lewis said, her voice suddenly tired, "they meet your expectations."

At first blush, Lewis, 58, and the century-old clapboard house where she works do not convey gloom. Her short, dark hair frames an unlined, still-youthful face brightened often by an easy smile. The yellow house with its high-pitched roof and gingerbread trim brightens its corner like a splash of sunshine on a murky pond. Still, there was a palpable weariness about the two. The old house sagged at the corners, under the weight of years and history. Shirley’s passion was as defiant as the starch in her crisp white blouse, but tiredness touched her voice and eyes.

On a recent hot summer evening, Lewis was at the conference table in the yellow house-cum-headquarters, talking to a visitor about the last eight years she and her husband Johnny have spent trying to bring decent housing and raised expectations to a neighborhood they’ve lived in for 30 years, better known today for its crime and blight than remembered for its rich history as a prosperous African-American economic and social center that thrived from the 1930s through the early ’50s. In 1996, the Lewises and a handful of other community activists formed the Near Southeast Community Development Corp., which Shirley Lewis now directs. It’s a nonprofit housing corporation dedicated to improving the Evans Avenue neighborhood that lies just a few blocks -- but economic continents -- away from Fort Worth’s revitalized downtown.

It’s not been easy, but to date, the corporation has restored or built, then sold, nine homes in the area and has three more in progress, with all work being done to match the architectural styles of the first half of the 20th Century, when Evans Avenue was in its glory days. Because of the nonprofit’s ability to underwrite closing costs and down payments and to tap into low-interest loan options available for the working poor or first time buyers, families who would never qualify under traditional methods are now homeowners.

For every gem they added to the neighborhood, however, the CDC leaders could see blocks of blight. The work seemed endless. Then, in 1998, it appeared that help had arrived. The city council designated 15 acres of the area as a special economic development zone called the Evans & Rosedale Business and Cultural District, named for the heart of the old neighborhood. By 2000, a community advisory committee working with the city’s planning department had developed a $14 million, three-year plan, funded mostly by federal grants and loans, to replace the district’s aging infrastructure, buy and demolish decaying properties, build a branch library, relocate the city health department to the area, clean up environmental hazards, and construct a public plaza on Evans Avenue that would commemorate the district’s history. A Neighborhood Enterprise Zone was also set up to give tax breaks to residential developers and businesses willing to invest in the area. The city rolled up its figurative sleeves and went to work, promising the feds that its economic incentives would shortly bring 100 jobs into the area.

Four years later, half the $14 million is gone, and the project is awash in scandal. The lovely public plaza was completed and dedicated in June this year. A few dilapidated, asbestos-laden houses have been demolished, some dangerously lead-contaminated soil has been hauled off and plans are in place for the construction of new city-owned facilities. But along the way, federal officials allege that the city has wasted at least half a million dollars on inflated property payments -- including many overpayments that directly benefited the real estate agent hired to oversee the property purchases. The government’s findings were based on a random sampling. A Fort Worth Weekly analysis of all of the transaction records shows the overpayments may total close to $1 million. The U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has accused the city of grossly mismanaging the Evans/Rosedale project, through a variety of improper actions, and is threatening to make the city pay back the excessive property prices from the city’s general fund.

Serious pollution problems, including benzene-contaminated groundwater, remain. More than a dozen structures are still to be demolished. No entrepreneurs have been attracted to the enterprise zone and -- probably not coincidentally -- the city appears not to have made much of a dent in the problems of code enforcement, trash pickup, prostitution and the myriad woes caused by the hundreds of homeless people who fan out into the neighborhood from nearby shelters during the day. And the city’s request for $6 million more from HUD for small business development loans has fallen on dear ears. No way, agency officials said, will the city get any more money until some actual redevelopment is shown to be occurring from the money already allocated.

With most of what’s left of the federal funds targeted for the two public buildings, and with anticipated private redevelopment nothing more than a fond hope, the project could be busted before one new permanent job has been created or one new business opened. Long-suffering residents’ vision of a social and economic renaissance could be headed once again for the list of dreams deferred, there, as Langston Hughes wrote, to "stink like rotten meat."

The construction of I-35 in the 1960s divided the Near Southeast Side and shattered its vitality more than any other single factor, Ralph McCloud said. That’s the area where he grew up and that he now represents as a Fort Worth City council member. "But that happened all across the country when the interstates went up," McCloud said -- what was progress for many became regression for some. Communities were suddenly divided by barriers of concrete, traffic, noise, and pollution, and they became powerless. "It is part of what contributed to the decline of these once-thriving communities," he said.

After the interstate put Near Southeast out of sight and therefore out of mind for city leaders, other problems moved in. "Decades of benign neglect eroded trust, there was no one representing the poor, and so many of these communities were just not seen. People who could get out fled to the suburbs, slumlords bought up the old houses and then let them fall into decay, and drugs, alcohol, and crime followed," McCloud said. Many areas were rezoned for commercial uses, giving remaining homeowners less control over their surroundings. And then, as the city center was redeveloped, downtown leaders solved their problem with unsightly homeless people by relocating them to the edge of Near Southeast, and one homeless shelter and then another was built along Lancaster Avenue.

The Evans/Rosedale project aimed to change many of those things, mostly by getting rid of falling-down buildings and pollution, rebuilding the infrastructure, and drawing private investment by creating important public places. By 2002, a list had been put together of nearly 100 buildings that needed to be demolished -- because they were abandoned, dangerous, or simply stood in the way of redevelopment. With a $3.25 million federal anti-poverty grant in hand to cover purchase and demolition costs, the city contracted with local real estate agent Jim Austin to negotiate the best deals possible.

A year later, in late 2003, HUD auditors had plenty to say about those deals. Along with the nearly half-million in overpayments, they said, the city’s arrangement with Austin has raised a serious conflict of interest issue, the city wrongfully used its eminent domain powers in condemning private property for private redevelopment and that Con-Real, one of the three city-hired appraisers was using deeply flawed comparisons to establish fair market values -- a Walgreen’s and an Eckerd’s as comparable properties for setting the price on three different residences, for example. HUD said city representatives were improperly offering financial sweeteners to reluctant sellers and that prices paid for similar properties were inconsistent. And finally, in one absurd transaction, the city bought a piece of property from itself. Fort Worth paid $28,746 for a piece of property the federal auditors claim it already owned, probably from a tax foreclosure. To date, the city has not responded to HUD to explain the purchase.

The Weekly’s analysis of city records showed that the overpayments may be closer to $1 million, based on amounts received by sellers over and above the city’s own fair market appraisals -- and even those appraisals were often inflated, the auditors said. The city, for instance, paid a total of $90,000 for three small houses in the 1000 block of Missouri Street based on Con-Real’s appraisal of $30,000 each. The Tarrant Appraisal District valued them at $1,500 apiece.

In two transactions, the city paid almost $400,000 -- that is, $148,602 over its own market appraisals -- to two related companies even though the city and other local governments had liens on one of the properties for back taxes and fines totaling more than $100,000 since 1987. Rather than foreclose on the property as it could have done -- and as the owner suggested -- the city chose to buy the property outright.

Those two transactions alone put $24,000 in commissions into the pocket of Jim Austin, the local real estate agent who had the exclusive contract to broker all of the Evans/Rosedale projects for the city.

When Doug Rademaker, head of the city’s engineering and real property department, was asked why the city declined to foreclose on the property, he said he didn’t know. "I didn’t deal with any of these properties. Jim Austin did it all. ... The decision was probably based on Jim’s recommendation."

Founder of the National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame, Austin got a six percent commission on property transactions -- but not on foreclosures, Rademaker said. He had worked for the city on previous projects, negotiating the deal that brought a Minyard’s store into a depressed Poly neighborhood that has proven to be a successful investment for the grocery chain. Calls to the city manager’s office and the city attorney asking for information on the details of Austin’s hiring for the Evans project have not been returned.

Rademaker said that he did not oversee Austin, even though his department was the one that recommended each of the property buys to the city council for approval. "Our office was asked to acquire the properties," he said, but his office was not in charge of the federal funds that actually paid for the purchases. Those were handled by the city’s grant’s management division in charge of the Community Development Block Grant fund where the $3.25 million from HUD was deposited, according to Rademaker. That office, he said, worked with Austin and approved the purchases that went through Rademaker’s department. Calls from the Weekly to that office’s supervisor, Deidra Emerson, have not been returned.

In fact, several of the deals Austin arranged on the Evans project appear questionable. When he was first hired in the early part of 2000 and handed the list of properties the city wanted him to buy, Austin bought four of them himself for $30,000 from Jack Morris, who had bought the properties only two weeks before. Austin then negotiated their sale to the city in May 2000 for $40,000. And even though county real estate records show Austin to be the last owner of the properties prior to their being sold to the city, the city’s records list Morris as the seller. (Austin has not returned phone calls asking for comment.)

Some of the payments Austin negotiated were wildly excessive. R. T. Thomas, owner of Low Cost Tire on Rosedale, was paid $219,500 for property that was appraised by the city at $125,000. Rudolph Wilkinson got $30,188 for a house on the South Freeway valued at $8,500. In the case of three small houses on Missouri Street, the city indeed paid only the appraised value, a total of $90,000. But according to the Tarrant Appraisal District, the properties had only been worth $4,500.

Jim Swindell, the owner of Big D Brake & Clutch, doesn’t have a lot of nice memories from his dealings with the city. But he couldn’t argue with the price he was offered for his property. He owns one of the businesses displaced by the city to clear the way for development in the Evans/Rosedale district. "I didn’t think it was fair for me to move just so they could put another business in there, but I did," he said. When he was approached by Jim Austin, "I felt I didn’t have any choice but to sell."

His brake shop, a large warehouse type building shop at the corner of East Terrell Street and the I-35 service road, employed 15 people and had been operating since 1978. He also owned four adjacent lots, which he had bought in 2000. "Crack houses. I bought ’em to shut ’em down," he said, and then demolished them when the city said they couldn’t be repaired. If he’d known at the time he bought them that the houses were already on the city’s list to be purchased and torn down, he would not have purchased them, he said.

But in January 2002, Austin offered him a deal that was "just too good to turn down." He was paid $250,000 for the same property that city appraiser Jeff Tillman valued at $112,000 and Tarrant County taxing district pegged at $98,000. Swindell was also paid $40,000 for moving expenses.

A few years earlier, when his father-in-law Glenn Worley died, Swindell had inherited National Brake & Clutch, a business a few blocks away on Evans that had been shut down for years. Swindell also inherited the company’s property tax liabilities amounting to almost $100,000. When Austin came knocking, Swindell was ready to get rid of that one.

"I told him to just foreclose on it and take it for the back taxes," Swindell said.

Austin told him that it couldn’t be done that way. It would take too long and the city was in a hurry to buy, the agent said. The city’s appraiser had the property valued at $117,800, but Austin offered $125,000. When the taxes and other city fines outstanding on the property were deducted, Swindell had $6,000 and a cleared tax debt.

{Even after the deal was closed, Swindell said he continued to hear from Austin. First the broker tried to sell him a piece of property he owned as a new location for the brake shop. Swindell said no. When he did find the place he wanted on MLK Freeway, the agent handling the deal for the seller was Austin. Swindell paid $200,000 for his new shop, he said. Austin got six percent.)

In all, the city paid $2.9 million for properties that, according to fair market values, should only have cost $1.8 million. Austin made at least $100,000 on the deals. Out of $3.25 million in funding the city got from HUD for property acquisitions in the district, only $350,000 remains. What’s more, many of the buildings on those properties still have not been demolished -- work that also was supposed to have been paid for out of that fund.

Shirley Lewis, whose corporation recently bought two homes on Evans Avenue for less than $4,000 each at a tax sale, was stunned when told what the city paid for many of the old houses. "I know what shape most of them were in," she said. "They weren’t worth anything. ... And why didn’t they just foreclose on that one with a tax lien? It makes you wonder just what is going on."

Political activist Wendell "Buck" Cass, who has lived in the area for most of his 50 years, figures he knows what is going on. "I’ve been looking at this same stuff for 40 years. ... Somebody got some money, but it wasn’t any of the poor folks," he said. "We’re just black Indians on another kind of reservation, and the Indian agents are stealing our money again. And they ain’t all white."

The National Brake and Clutch deal was "one of the issues we studied and is one of the properties that concerns us," said John Davis, of HUD’s district office in Fort Worth. Davis, HUD regional director Katie Worsham and Jim Johnson, HUD deputy director for economic development, answered questions from the Weekly in a conference call. All three said the city has to show documentation that Jim Austin had no conflict of interest and did not profit improperly from the transactions he negotiated. The city has not done so and "we don’t know if the city is still using Mr. Austin," Johnson said. Austin, Davis said, "has caused us very serious concerns."

Most of the issues of mismanagement and wasted funds raised by the auditors "have not been resolved," Worsham said. "Our intention is to work with the city," she said, not to derail the project. Still the HUD reps said there would be no more money put into the Evans revitalization effort until questions are answered and real progress at private redevelopment can be shown.

Johnson said that the city has enough money to complete the project without the extra $6 million requested for small-business loans.

Davis said that, because Evans Avenue was conceived as primarily a commercial development, HUD officials were concerned to learn that the city had used its eminent domain powers to condemn almost two dozen of the approximately 100 properties purchased. Texas law, he said, allows condemnation to be used only when land is being purchased for public purposes, but the Evans/Rosedale plan calls for that land to be used for private businesses. This issue, he said, is keeping in limbo at least 22 condemned properties worth a total of about $777,000. It can only be resolved, he said, by a ruling from the Texas attorney general’s office. "In this case, only the city can ask for such a ruling," he said, and to date it has not done so.

Johnson said HUD is also concerned that Fort Worth is behind schedule on the entire project. "They tell us this is still a project they intend to complete," he said.

Despite the overspending that could eventually diminish the scope of the Evans/Rosedale project, the city has been making progress in getting rid of the area’s worst eyesores. In demolishing the 16 buildings removed so far, the city has not only cleaned up the neighborhood’s appearance, but its health as well. About $300,000 -- half in grant money, half from the city’s Brownfields fund -- have been spent to remove lead contaminated soil and loose, friable asbestos from those properties.

@body:Only a couple of structures with dangerous levels of asbestos remain, according to Kathryn Hansen of the city’s environmental department, who’s been overseeing the environmental side of the Evans/Rosedale project. Those pale in comparison, however, to the danger remaining at 924 Evans Ave. -- danger that’s still there not because of city foot-dragging, but because residents haven’t let go of a place near to their hearts.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Lucille Smith operated a bakery and cafÈ there, and her pies were legendary throughout the city. Her name can still be seen in fading letters on the front wall, but there’s not much else left today of the old building that doubled as a home and eatery. It’s on the city’s historical register and the residents want it saved. That is causing a special problem for Hansen. The old house not only is structurally unsound, but its yard holds the highest concentration of lead in the area 24,000 milligrams per kilogram, compared to the EPA legal limit of 500 mg/kg. Concentrations almost that high were found at one house on Missouri Street, and levels much lower than that but still dangerous were found at other locations. At those other addresses, however, the contaminated soil and other materials have been removed.

Because of the neighbors adamant refusal to allow the old bakery to be touched until there’s a decision made on how to preserve the site, Hansen has not been able to find a diplomatic way to get the lead out. "The city can order the house demolished," she said, "but we want to work with the community." City documents hold out no hope for the house’s salvation. It was so unsafe that asbestos removal workers refused to enter it, and the city’s building inspector ruled it was too structurally unsound to allow for safe removal of asbestos. So it sits, the building as dangerous as the soil around it, and still attracting homeless people and kids.

There are also other pollutants still threatening the Evans/Rosedale area, Hansen said. High levels of benzene have been found in the groundwater in some tests, along with other petroleum byproducts.

"I think about all of the children who have played in these yards," Shirley Lewis said, "and it is just another reminder of what we allowed to let happen to the children of the poor."

Eight years after the Lewises began what Ralph McCloud calls their "dedicated and unselfish work," six yeas after the Evans/Rosedale project was inaugurated, the Near Southeast is still light-years away from economic recovery. Officially, unemployment hovers around 8 percent (although the Lewises say it is much higher) and more than 30 percent of its families live below the poverty level.

Drive up or down any side street and the neglect by the city is obvious, from code compliance enforcement to trash pickup. Piles of debris are so high at some corners that they block views. And on corners like Evans and Irma, drug dealers and prostitutes still openly ply their trades, even at 10 in the morning. By the 1970s, Wendell Cass said, the corner of Evans and Rosedale was known as "the end of the line for the brothers and the sisters. Gamblers, drug dealers, prostitutes and their pimps became the new entrepreneurs, replacing the barbershops and grocery stores."

Because of the proximity of homeless shelters on East Lancaster, groups of homeless men and women wander into the neighborhood at first light when the shelters put them out for the day and stay until dusk when the shelters open for the night. They pee in yards, curl up to sleep on the porches of abandoned houses, and hang out at the cheap liquor stores.

In the northeast corner of the neighborhood, north of Rosedale and just west of I-35, a modest beachhead of progress has been made. Amid dilapidated houses and vacant, weed-filled lots, CDC’s sparkling rehabs and the well-kept older homes owned by the few long-time residents, stand out. They are joined by a spattering of small homes built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers and some tract-type houses built by developer Choice Homes, Inc. Shirley Lewis doesn’t particularly like either the Habitat or the Choice homes, but at least the Habitat buyers have stayed and enriched the neighborhood, she said, while families come and go in the Choice Homes. "These are not what we envision for this area," she said.

She is a hands-on director, working side by side with builders, often insisting on amenities that contractors in low-income neighborhoods don’t often get asked for. In a house with a spread of living-room windows, "I told the builder to put a window seat for kids to have a place to daydream, read, and for reflection. After a minute, he said, ’Okay, but can I make it a storage bin too so that it has a practical purpose?’" Shirley laughed. "I thought daydreaming was practical enough, but I said sure."

At city hall, Lewis has a kindred spirit in planning director Fernando Costa, who has made the mixed-used development idea known as "urban village" a household word in Fort Worth. Costa said that the corner of Evans and Rosedale is targeted to become an urban village on the order of the ones that are turning the Near Southside into a bustling, pedestrian-friendly area of small shops, cafes, new and rehabilitated apartments and houses all in keeping with or complimenting the area’s 1940s prosperity.

It is a back-to-the-future concept that Costa said is "very possible" for the Near Southeast Side, but one that will take time. "It didn’t get into this shape overnight," he pointed out. "I like to cite Sundance Square as an example. It took more than 20 years to reach the level of development that is there now. This is what people have to understand, and not give up." But, he warned, "the Evans and Rosedale project will never be successful unless the neighborhoods [surrounding the economic development district] are successful."

A small strip of the area just between I-35 and Evans, is in the Southside Tax Increment Financing district, or Southside TIF, and the area will benefit from that inclusion, Costa said. Many believe that the old Southside and the Near Southeast Side are exactly the kinds of neighborhoods that should benefit from that tax-incentive program started 30 years ago to stimulate redevelopment in blighted inner-city neighborhoods.

About a year ago, Robert Sturns, from the city’s economic and community development department took on the job of overseeing the Evans/Rosedale project. He said that the city is seriously considering creating a TIF to cover more of the neighborhood, so that more funds can be funneled into the area’s infrastructure and public spaces, he said.

"That’s an idea that is long overdue," Wendell Cass said. "If there was ever an area that fits the definition of ’blight,’ this is it."

Costa acknowledged that the homeless shelters nearby pose problems that other parts of the city do not have to deal with, even though the homeless are the "entire community’s problem," he said. Mayor Mike Moncrief has set up a community task force aimed at solving the homeless crisis. Costa is a member. What must not be done, he said, is to "push those folks out of sight again" or barricade them off from the larger community. "They need a continuum of care," from halfway houses that can provide for the mentally-ill among them, low-cost, subsidized living quarters, even for those who cannot hold jobs, accessible health care and jobs, jobs, jobs.

And no, he said, the troubles with HUD will not derail the project in his estimation. The city must address the charges HUD has leveled, he said, "but this community, from the residents to the mayor and city council are committed to make Evans happen."

Sturns was even more adamant. "This project is not dead at all," he said. Two major developments -- a large new building to house the Samblee branch library and a $7 million Fort Worth Public Health Center -- are about to be put out for bid. Both are to be located in a complex on Evans that will also include the Tommy Tucker Building, one of the area’s most historic remaining structures. It started life almost 80 years ago as the first Catholic school in the city for African-American children; Sturns said it is structurally sound and eventually will be restored. "These two large public facilities, we hope, will begin to generate the foot traffic the area needs to make small businesses take an interest in the area," he said.

Sturns is working with consultants who have been successful in turning around similar neighborhoods in other cities. The Fort Worth plan will be patterned closely after the 18th and Vine revitalized district in Kansas City where a once-depressed black community has been turned into a history-filled tourist destination, home to jazz clubs, jazz museums, and a Negro Baseball Museum. Its success has lifted the boats of the whole area, Sturns said.

Still, even as the city’s marketing consultants have spread the word around the country that the city is offering generous help to developers willing to invest in the Evans/Rosedale project, no major business or even any small ones have picked up the bait.

Ralph McCloud was one of the movers and shakers behind the Evans/Rosedale project and chaired the advisory committee that put together the plan for it. He wants to see zoning rollbacks to remove the industrial tag on much on the area, and the addition of more social services and better schools in his old neighborhood.

The city, he said, must take a page from the Lewis’s book and begin saving the neighborhood’s old houses a block or even a house at a time, while maintaining the area’s historical integrity and providing financial help for new buyers. There is nothing more powerful for a neighborhood’s healthy growth than ownership, he said.

McCloud sees that pride of ownership now, he said, on the faces of the young people who are coming to the plaza and streetscape on Evans and getting an understanding of the richness of their history for the first time. The plaza, initially a dream of Shirley Lewis that was quickly embraced by the community, is the single most visible success of the Evans/Rosedale project. The plaza is a walking history tour of the area. Marble insets in a two-block-long sidewalk are inscribed with the pictures and words of the community’s most revered residents. In them, kids can read of early educators like Isaiah M. Terrell, who established the city’s "first free school for Negroes" in 1882; and Lillian B. Horace, who as dean of girls at I.M. Terrell pioneered the school’s journalism and drama departments. They can read the words of blues legend T-Bone Walker who played for blacks and whites alike at the Jim Hotel on Evans, "Let your hair down baby, let’s have a ball -- cause when you ain’t happy, life ain’t no fun at all." And they can learn of the martyrs like Fred Rouse who was beaten and lynched in 1921 by a mob of striking workers outside a meatpacking plant in Fort Worth for crossing their picket lines.

Shirley Lewis goes to the plaza when she gets discouraged about such setbacks to her dream as the HUD scandal. She goes there, she said, for comfort and reflection and to be reminded of how long the struggle has been for blacks in America, and how many have triumphed.

"This neighborhood grew out of slavery," she said. "We made communities here, based on the fact that we were the best of the best, the strong who survived that dark time. ...We will survive this."



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