Metropolis: Wednesday, September 1, 2004
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Wanda Conlin, Peggy Terrell, Raymond Carr, and Jack White are fighting a “no poor people allowed” housing project.
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
Whitecaps on White Lake

Eastsiders are battling their own council rep over an upper-income housing project.

By BETTY BRINK

“Public housing for the rich” is what some White Lake Hills residents are calling the latest imbroglio stirred up by their council member Becky Haskin — and they’re mad as hell about it.

Nearly 100 of Haskin’s constituents recently lodged an official misconduct complaint against her, based on her involvement in the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation’s decision to spend $285,000 to purchase 22 acres of land abutting White Lake. Haskin and the city staff have proposed an upscale retirement village on the lake that the nonprofit Housing Finance Corp. would build and then run “in partnership with a private developer,” according to Jerome Walker, director of the city’s housing department and overseer of the finance corporation. Promotional material put out by the city calls it “the White Lake Experience,” and promises seniors “a unique blend of resort-like living overlooking White Lake with a breathtaking view of downtown Fort Worth.” What it doesn’t say is that such cushy living would be made possible by a nonprofit housing corporation that is supposed to be dedicated to developing affordable single-family housing in the inner city.

When neighborhood residents found the whole thing smelly and voted “no” on the project at a public meeting on May 27, they claim Haskin not only reneged on her promise to kill the whole deal but also violated the city charter prohibition against council members giving direct orders to anyone on the city staff other than the city manager.

They cite as proof a June 8 e-mail Haskin sent to Walker instructing him to “move forward to purchase the property” in order to hold it “until the community embraces the concept” or until it could be sold “for a profit.” And there’s the June 9 e-mail from then-Assistant City Manger Reid Rector (at the time in charge of the housing department) to Raymond Carr, vice president of the White Lake Hills Neighborhood Association. “I ran into Becky [Haskin] earlier this afternoon and it is her opinion that we should move forward with the purchase of this property,” he wrote. (Rector has since been moved out of the city manager’s office to the budget department.)

“Our trust was betrayed,” said Peggy Terrell, president of the White Hills Neighborhood Association, whose group filed the misconduct complaint in July.

Haskin denied that any such complaint had been filed against her. “That information is just wrong,” she said, and would offer no other comment. City Attorney David Yett confirmed that an official misconduct complaint had been filed but seemed uncertain as to its status, saying that former city manager Gary Jackson found the charge to have “no merit.” However, Yett also acknowledged that the decision about whether such a complaint had merit was up to the city council, not the city manager.

To the neighborhood group, the involvement of the city’s housing corporation itself is even more suspect than Haskin’s actions. A 2003 city council resolution that named the mayor and council members as the board of the housing finance entity also stated that the nonprofit corporation had been created in 1979 “for the purpose of financing the cost of residential ownership and development of single-family dwellings for persons of low and moderate income.” The corporation’s “general purpose and guidelines” state that its money — which comes primarily from federal grants and loans — is to be spent to develop “quality affordable workforce housing ... in the Central City and target areas.” (Calls and e-mails from Fort Worth Weekly to Mayor Mike Moncrief and council member Ralph McCloud, who is listed as the president of the corporation, were not returned.)

What the finance corporation and Haskin proposed back in May for the acres surrounding the old lake didn’t come close to those stated aims, said Carr, an engineer who once worked for the city. The project would be “a clear violation of the nonprofit corporation’s purpose and bylaws,” he said. “It wasn’t single-family, it wasn’t in the central city, and it sure wasn’t for ‘low-income’ or even ‘moderate-income’ seniors.” Carr, who has lived on the lake for two decades, questioned the site for another reason. “Only about seven of those 22 acres are suitable for development,” he said. “Basically, the city paid more than a quarter of a million dollars for seven acres.”

In presenting the project to the community, Haskin and the city staff described it as a high-dollar “gated community” for seniors that would include a 12-story, 204-unit apartment building and 22 “cabanas” scattered along the lakeshore, along with amenities such as a beauty shop, swimming pool, fishing docks, restaurant, hiking paths, and a gym. No one under 55 would be allowed to live there. The units would rent for $800 to $2,000 a month.

The plan explicitly stated that no low-income residents would be allowed.

“Is this or is this not public housing for the rich?” long-time White Lake Hills resident Jack White asked during a public meeting of the neighborhood association’s board. In a letter to the Greater Meadowbrook News, resident Donald Goodman raised the specter of a discrimination lawsuit against the city “if someone who was not a senior or was eligible for rent assistance wanted to live there.” The citizens were further puzzled when they found that Walker had signed the sale papers without first getting approval from the finance corporation’s board.

“I didn’t need approval,” Walker told Fort Worth Weekly during a lengthy telephone interview. The funds used to purchase the property, he said, came from a pot of more than $1 million in interest money generated by an endowment fund set up 15 years ago with “restructured debt” money from mortgage revenue bonds the city had issued for first-time home buyers but never used. A few years ago the board, under then-Mayor Ken Barr, gave Walker carte blanche to spend the money “as needed,” he said. If the retirement village never comes to fruition, “the corporation will keep the property in a land bank and sell it for a profit.” When asked if any of the housing entity’s money has ever been used before for a high-end development, Walker said it had not.

Asked why the finance corporation took on the project in the first place, Walker said he was approached by Eastside real estate developer Weldon Ward, who was working as the broker for the lake’s owner, Perry Financial Corporation out of Houston. “They wanted to sell, and Weldon brought the land to our attention.” Walker told Haskin about it, he said, “as a courtesy.” The idea for the “White Lake Hills Experience” came from the housing staff, he said. “It was not the brainchild of Mrs. Haskin.”

Walker doesn’t see the upscale project as running counter to the financing corporation’s purpose. “Our challenge in the central city is to provide affordable housing for all incomes,” he said. The White Lake property “seemed appropriate for a high-income senior development, something the city also is in need of.”

Walker had a harder time explaining the e-mail he got from Haskin after the May 27 community meeting, where the neighbors believed they had put the kibosh on the project. Haskin wrote to Walker, “While things didn’t go as I had hoped [with the neighbors] I feel that the land purchase is a good financial investment. ... Therefore, I would ask that staff move forward to purchase the property before the deadline on the 11th of June. ... I have committed to the community that the [retirement project] will not move forward ... until the community embraces the concept.” And she added that in any event, the property could always be sold later for a profit.

“Becky’s words to Jerome seemed clear that she was giving him an order to buy the property,” Terrell said. “That is a clear violation of the charter.” Chapter V, section 5 of the Fort Worth city charter governing the rules of conduct of the council and the city staff reads in part, “[N]either the council nor any member thereof shall give order to any of the subordinates of the city manager in said departments, either publicly or privately. ... Willful violation ... shall constitute official misconduct and shall authorize the council by a vote of two-thirds [following an investigation, a hearing and a finding of guilt] ... to expel the offending member.”

Walker said he interpreted the e-mail as simply indicating Haskin’s approval for what the finance corporation had already planned to do — an equally troubling statement to Terrell.

Documents received by the Weekly under an open records request show that the White Lake transaction was all but a done deal by the time the residents had their meeting. The day before, on May 26, an “owner title policy commitment in the amount of $285,000” from the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation to Perry Financial had been signed by Walker in the office of Alamo Title Company on Hulen Street. Closing documents were issued to both parties on that date. That information was not revealed at the neighborhood meeting, Walker said.

Terrell, told of the sale date by the Weekly, was outraged. “Everyone lied to us. [Haskin and the city staff members] were specifically asked that night if the city had bought the land yet, and we were told ‘no.’”

Nor were residents told that night that the city had already spent close to $40,000 on architects, market studies, and environmental reports among other preliminary expenses for the project. The only thing that hadn’t been nailed down was a private developer willing to partner with the city on the project.

The complaint against Haskin was signed by 88 White Lake Hills residents, some of whom were once the five-term councilwoman’s most ardent backers. Most are long-time residents of the middle-class neighborhood, one of the East Side’s oldest and most stable communities. The area is also known at city hall for its political activism and civic involvement, led mostly by members of its neighborhood association, founded in 1977. That year, Jack White led a successful effort to save the lake from a now-deceased developer’s efforts to fill it in. “We’ve been at this [saving the lake] a long time,” he said.

While Haskin still has her supporters, many in the White Lake Hills neighborhood say she has become a liability. There is serious talk about supporting an opponent if she chooses to run for a sixth term in 2005. So far no names have surfaced. “Becky has lost her bearings,” said Wanda Conlin, publisher of the Greater Meadowbrook News and a former supporter. “She is more and more involved in things that should be left to the staff and forgetting that she is there, by law, to set policy and let the city manager carry it out. This latest thing with Jerome Walker is just one more example.”

Haskin calls such opponents the CAVE people. “They are the Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” she told the Weekly in an earlier interview.

In the meantime, the 22 acres that are now off the city’s tax rolls are up for sale. So far, there have been no takers. l


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