Worse Than the Tornado?
Jim Airs wants his Linwood properties to be developed to their ‘greatest potential.’ (Photo by Scott Latham)
Elena and Jesse Sandoval have lived in Linwood since the 1940s and have no desire to leave. (Photo by Scott Latham)
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
Money might be a bigger threat than Mother Nature for Linwood.
By ANNA CAMP
Mary Byrd has seen her community face — and overcome — its share of devastation and turmoil, and she’s not giving up this time.
“I’ll fight to the end,” said Byrd, a resident of Fort Worth’s Linwood neighborhood, just north of West 7th Street near downtown. She has nervously watched the landscape around her home and community of 55 years transform. First, the area was hit with a tornado in 2000 that destroyed some of the modest homes and duplexes and severely damaged many others. Now the neighborhood faces another transformation, one that some residents are just as opposed to.
This time, the threat isn’t street crime or storms, but real estate speculators with money in their hands and sales contracts in their pockets — like those who several times approached Byrd’s gardener while she was at work. She’s never listed her home for sale, and Byrd said the amounts the buyers were offering were insulting.
In the last few months, the redevelopment of the historic Montgomery Ward building on Linwood’s eastern edge has launched major alterations to the area and created quite a stir among Byrd and many of her neighbors. The huge building is being renovated into stores, offices, and residential spaces. Just north of that, a Super Target is due to be completed by the end of the year on part of the old Ward’s property, with restaurants and more businesses to come.
Those projects, along with redevelopment in the Cultural District just to the west and new apartments and a hotel along West 7th, have combined to turn Linwood’s small lots into hot properties. Byrd and other residents fear that the developers and speculators who are swarming in to buy up properties will also snatch away their way of life. The residents love their neighborhood’s accessibility and proximity to downtown, and they rely on the services that downtown provides. Such advantages also make the neighborhood attractive to developers. In fact, the changeover in property ownership has already begun, and several developers own more than one house there.
When the tornado smashed through Linwood in 2000, city officials focused first on downtown and left Linwood for a time to fend for itself, although the larger Fort Worth community rallied and found help for the neighborhood. This time around, support from city hall seems just as uncertain. In fact, some city officials say they are downright excited that Linwood may get turned into something else.
Community development manager Christine Maguire said flatly that redevelopment of the neighborhood is unavoidable. “It will not be possible to keep the Linwood area the same,” she said. Maguire said older areas such as Linwood are great locations for redevelopment, and she’s elated about the construction going on. “It’s really bringing back to life this area,” she said. “We’re ecstatic.”
So are investors like Jim Airs, who owns 14 properties in the Linwood area, almost an entire block of houses. “There are some sentimental people in Linwood that want things to stay the way they are,” but those residents will soon be outnumbered by developers and investors like him, he said. Already, five people own more than 100 lots in the area, he said. Not surprisingly, he’s eager for redevelopment. “I would like my property to reach its highest and greatest potential,” he said.
Byrd and others don’t intend to give in so easily. They feel there’s plenty of vibrant life already in their neighborhood. Linwood’s the only place she calls home, Byrd said. “No one’s going to take this away from me.”
Still, if people — including former rental property owners who were happy to make a profit — sell willingly, there’s a real question about what city hall could do, even if officials there were willing to side with home owners. Many of the lots are already zoned for multi-family development, so condo and apartment builders, in many cases, wouldn’t even have to get zoning changes.
Affordable housing advocate John Henneberger of Austin said that, in situations like that facing Linwood, “low-income people usually lose all across the board.” Linwood residents have to realize that organized, collective action is the only thing that will save their neighborhood, he said. Residents need the city council’s help to direct redevelopment into areas they can accept, he said.
City manager Charles Boswell said he wasn’t aware of the controversy in Linwood. But, he added, “It’s certainly not our intention to do anything that’s harmful to the residents.”
Wendy Davis, who represents Linwood on the city council, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story. However, several area residents said Davis has told them she supports their desires to improve Linwood and that she was surprised to hear, at a recent neighborhood meeting, about the pressure from developers to get residents to sell their homes.
Her council colleague Becky Haskin, whose Woodhaven neighborhood is experiencing its own redevelopment tensions and pressures, said she doesn’t see anything wrong with what’s happening in Linwood. On the question of lower-income and minority residents being pushed out, she said, “I don’t see that as a problem. Many are renters, and they can’t be guaranteed that they can stay.” On the other hand, she said, homeowners who want to stay can do so — they can’t be forced to sell.
If city hall can’t or won’t help Linwood, legislation might. This spring, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin pushed through a bill that would allow creation of “homestead preservation districts” and provide other incentives to try to help lower-income neighborhoods survive when they come under redevelopment pressure. The bill passed both houses of the legislature, but is still on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk awaiting his signature. Unfortunately, even if Perry signs it, the bill applies only to East Austin. Affordable housing advocates would like to see similar legislation passed covering other cities.
Perry has until June 19 to sign or veto the bill; if he does neither by then, it becomes law without his signature.
Rodriguez introduced the bill because he saw the same thing happening to stable, lower-income minority neighborhoods in East Austin that’s happening in Linwood. His legislation would give Austin the tools to preserve the affordable housing in that district, which is threatened by gentrification. Ultimately, it would help low-income families achieve home ownership through nonprofit land trusts.
In fact, the same pattern of redevelopment is threatening affordable housing in close-in neighborhoods in many Texas cities. Henneberger, director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said Texas cities have not been effective in addressing these issues, leaving low-income residents and renters with few options for staying in stable, affordable neighborhoods like Linwood. “This is a very hot issue right now,” Henneberger said.
Until the huge tornado ripped a path across it, Linwood was used to flying under the city hall radar. For years, many homeowners in the 1940s-vintage neighborhood held their properties under “contracts for deed,” a much-abused type of sales contract under which the buyers do not hold title until the final payment is made and do not build up equity ownership. Without titles to their homes, those residents found out after the storm that they had no access to federal emergency loans. And when they started trying to get insurance companies to pay for repairs, many found that the supposed policies they’d been paying on — through the contract holder — had never been purchased or that insurance companies had already paid settlements to the contract holders, who had no intention of passing the money along to be used for repairs. Others found that money they had paid toward property taxes had not been passed on to the government and that years of back taxes were owed.
However, the larger Fort Worth community responded. Volunteer groups arrived to help repair the houses, and local attorneys stepped in to help with legal battles. The neighborhood actually grew stronger and more cohesive in that battle to survive — and now many say they’re bonding once again to keep intact the Linwood many of them have called home for decades.
“We’re a very tight-knit community,” Byrd said. When the inevitable Texas storms pass through, she said, she can expect a knock at her front door afterward from a concerned neighbor. When she can’t twist the lever on her water heater, she knows whom she can call down the street for help. Byrd herself keeps a watchful eye on an elderly neighbor.
Linwood’s neighborhood association has strengthened and meeting attendance has sharply increased since the development around the neighborhood began about a year ago, and residents have begun taking their complaints to city council members.
Association president Jesse Sandoval said he thinks if the neighbors work together, they can have a say in the future of Linwood. The developers “want change, and that’s why we’re fighting,” Sandoval said. “We’re trying to get everybody to stick together to win this thing.”
Byrd agrees with Sandoval that Linwood residents have the ability and the will to fight. “Many developers thought, ‘Oh, this is just a low-income group of people,’” Byrd said. “They thought they could just snowball us. Well, they can’t.”
The association wants the area’s badly potholed streets to be patched, and their neighborhood to be protected from the influx of traffic drawn by the Montgomery Ward and SuperTarget projects. City officials said the traffic problem has been studied and plans made to direct increased traffic away from Linwood.
Tarrant Appraisal District records show that Linwood includes a mix of different residential zones, some of which already allow for apartments of up to three stories.
Multi-story condominium homes are not the kind of change Byrd is willing to accept. “I don’t want some god-awful, ugly, skinny condo next door,” she said.
Sandoval agrees. He said he’s been approached by phone, by mail, and in person about selling his property, and he will continue to turn down the offers. He’s fighting to keep developers from building anything other than affordable single-family homes in the area. The last thing he wants, he said, is a high-rise condominium looming over his house.
Airs, on the other hand, sees the issue as an economic one. He said that a huge opportunity will be missed if Linwood is not redeveloped and is simply kept the way it is.
Linwood now is an ethnically diverse neighborhood, with many Hispanics, some whites, and a sprinkling of other groups represented. Longtime residents and recent immigrants to the U.S. built a stable, if somewhat hodgepodge neighborhood. “We come from very different cultures,” Byrd said. “But we’ve all warmed up to one another really well.”
Maguire, the community development manager, said that, with recent developments and those that are still to come, “it will be difficult to keep the ethnic mix” in Linwood.
Henneberger said dispersal of stable communities like Linwood is one of the worst effects of gentrification. “The social costs are just as bad as the financial costs of situations like this,” he said. After the redevelopments begin, “the low-income people are then spread out and segregated.”
Byrd said she and her neighbors have worked hard to create and maintain their neighborhood. “We’ve had prostitutes, gangs, outdoor cantinas, and shootings in [Linwood] the past, but thanks to the residents and the community, it has improved,” she said. And they’ll continue to fight off aggressive developers, she added.
“I don’t want to sell. I’m not going to sell,” Byrd said. “What has been improved, we’ve done it ourselves. We’ve paid our dues, now we’d like to be left alone.”
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