Home of Hard Knocks
Picht said that giving incentives to luxury homebuilders while failing to provide sufficient working-class housing is ‘about as snobbish and elitist as you get.’ (Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer)
‘These evictions wouldn’t be happening if [tenants] had appropriate legal services.’
Eulice Butler and Ramona Utti at Stonegate Villas, where Butler is struggling to keep up with the rent. (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
‘We all feel like we are walking on thin ice.’
Gutierrez: ‘The housing authority doesn’t care about us.’ (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
‘RadioShack will have its Taj Mahal, but it will be surrounded by the racist history of this.’
Daniel: ‘If the city and the housing authority wanted it done, it would get done.’ (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
Quiroga: ‘Helping people makes you enemies at the Fort Worth Housing Authority.’ (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
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
Affordable housing in Fort Worth could get bulldozed by the “need” for high-dollar digs.
By PABLO LASTRA and JEFF PRINCE
Eviction wasn’t in Ruby Gutierrez’ plans. The former resident of Ripley Arnold and her three children had been guaranteed a place to live after the city sold the public housing project to RadioShack in 2001. When Gutierrez moved into Stonegate Villas in August 2002, it seemed a big step up from the spartan conditions at Ripley Arnold. “We thought it was wonderful,” she said of her new apartment near the Texas Christian University campus. “We had microwaves, a dishwasher. Me and my daughters were crying. ... We couldn’t believe it.”
Two years later, the apartment board kicked them out after the man Gutierrez had married and whose name she put on the lease of her apartment drove home drunk one night and hit several cars in the parking lot. Gutierrez was a model example of someone striving to get out of public housing. After moving to Stonegate, she had become the first displaced Ripley Arnold tenant to complete a self-sufficiency program. She had found a good job and was saving money to buy her own home.
Gutierrez appealed her eviction, saying that the apartment board hadn’t produced evidence of complaints within the complex. She admitted that her husband had a drinking problem but said he no longer lived there and was in therapy. She even told the apartment board she was willing to divorce him if only she could stay at Stonegate for a few more months, until she could make it on her own. The apartment board and the Fort Worth Housing Authority were unmoved. Gutierrez said the legal-aid lawyer who examined her case told her it wasn’t high priority and he was busy. The eviction cost Gutierrez a chance to qualify for a Habitat for Humanity home.
Now she is about to buy a home in a Northside neighborhood that scares her, but it’s all she can afford. “The housing authority doesn’t care about us,” she said.
As part of the agreement negotiated by Dallas civil rights attorney Mike Daniel, the mostly minority residents from Ripley Arnold were promised permanent housing in mixed-income neighborhoods — that is, mostly middle-class white communities. They were also promised support programs to help them attain self-sufficiency. At the meeting where the deal was announced, then-Mayor Kenneth Barr called the agreement unprecedented. Ramona Utti, who had emerged as the leader of the Ripley Arnold residents, told them, “We have been heard,” to a chorus of cheers.
More than three years later, Daniel, Utti, and other housing proponents say that the city of Fort Worth and the Housing Authority have failed to live up to promises they made back in 2001. Many Ripley Arnold residents are still in transitional housing because the city cannot find enough apartments in mixed-income neighborhoods. More than 90 families who had found permanent homes at complexes such as Stonegate are now gone. Utti and Daniel described their departures as evictions. “People are being evicted at way above normal rates,” Daniel said. “These evictions wouldn’t be happening if [the tenants] had appropriate legal services.”
The housing authority disputed the claim, saying that only 25 were evictions — 16 for drugs or other criminal offenses, eight for nonpayment of rent, and one for housekeeping violations — and that the other 68 moved voluntarily.
Complaints against housing authorities are nothing new. People surviving on government assistance are struggling in their lives and tend to hurl frustration at the agencies they deal with. Affordable housing is a volatile endeavor across the country, and universal agreement among tenants, neighbors, politicians, the business community, and housing officials is rare. A growing disparity between stagnant salaries and rising home costs is making it harder to afford a house. Tightening the noose further is a Bush administration intent on cutting housing benefits — the president’s proposed budget for 2006 could result in the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development losing a quarter of its $31 billion budget. So far, Congress has opposed the majority of these cuts.
Fort Worth compares favorably to other Texas cities in how it addresses affordable housing — although some might say that’s akin to being at the top of a very small hill. The city deserves some of the venom cast its way. The Fort Worth Housing Authority was involved in selling the Ripley Arnold public housing project to RadioShack, which then tore down 268 apartment units, killed a popular subway system, closed a free parking lot that serviced thousands of downtown motorists, and has avoided paying millions of dollars of property taxes on the land for three years. Meanwhile, many former Ripley Arnold residents are still waiting for permanent housing. A housing authority report states that more than 3,200 families are on housing assistance waiting lists (more than twice that amount were on waiting lists in April 2003 when the authority stopped adding names to the list, to give officials time to catch up).
“The Fort Worth Housing Authority has a kind of status quo policy, where they say ‘We’re not as bad as the other housing authorities, so we must be OK,’” said Deb Kroupa, a housing advocate with United Housing Program, a nonprofit that builds affordable homes.
Then there’s the city housing department and its not-for-profit offshoot, the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corp., which quietly bought land for an upscale retirement center against the neighborhood’s wishes. The same bunch is also accused of mismanaging money for a housing project on Evans Avenue and of sponsoring a $236,000 Woodhaven redevelopment plan that could remove several apartment complexes that currently provide affordable living to mostly minority tenants — despite the fact that one of the greatest demands in the city is for affordable rental housing. Only about 13 percent of rental units are affordable to extremely low-income households earning 30 percent of the median income or less. That means about 18,500 renter households are competing for 11,800 affordable units.
Meanwhile, city leaders are seeking to boost tax rolls by passing stricter residential building guidelines that would increase new home costs and make it more difficult for blue-collar families to own. A city study claimed that workforce homes weren’t generating enough property taxes to pay for the city services they require. At the same time, the city has been dishing out tax abatements like hard candy on Halloween to large corporations and giving incentives to developers to build luxury condos and residences, especially in the downtown area. “That’s about as snobbish and elitist as you get,” said city councilman Clyde Picht.
Add it all up, and some see a city that provides more lip service than love to its less-than-affluent residents. “I don’t think they want to empower us,” Utti said. “We’ve got to make it work one way or the other, or we’re going to have a huge problem with homelessness and crime going up.”
The red-brick Ripley Arnold apartments that for decades provided downtown public housing for poor families were torn down in a matter of weeks after the city and housing authority reached an agreement with the tenants and completed the sale. Negotiations had been sometimes tense, but tenants were impressed that the city and the housing authority bellied up to the bargaining table, listened, and offered tenants concessions such as moving expenses, computers, social services, and legal aid.
Three years later, tempers are strained. Promises haven’t been kept. Support services are a point of contention. “Our residents are falling through the cracks,” Utti said. “We have beautiful apartments, no doubt, but if we had adequate support services, we’d have a chance to become self-sufficient.”
Utti, who lives at Stonegate, continues to represent former tenants of Ripley Arnold. She also serves on the Fort Worth Housing Authority’s board of commissioners. The mayor appoints the five-member commission, and the law requires that a public housing resident fill one position. HUD sets guidelines and provides funding for the agency’s operation, which includes overseeing 1,225 public housing units and two mixed-income properties — Overton Park Townhomes and Stonegate Villas — that were partially funded through proceeds from the sale of Ripley Arnold to RadioShack for $20 million.
Utti says public housing in Fort Worth is better than in many cities and that she is “really enthused about working together with the Housing Authority.” Still, serving on the commission hasn’t much curbed her tongue. She has asked the housing authority for office space within apartment complexes, where residents can have easy access to support services such as day care, job training, and tutoring.
“We all have problems with transportation,” she said.
Take Eulice Butler, for example. The 78-year-old had lived at Ripley Arnold for 20 years, where he says he never missed a month of rent. Butler suffers from chronic back pain and lost a leg when a car hit him at age 7. Butler, who now uses a scooter to get around, said he didn’t think he would have a problem paying rent at his new apartment at Stonegate. He planned to supplement his Social Security check by shining neighbors’ shoes. One day when he got on the bus so he could go to the housing authority’s offices downtown, the bus damaged his scooter.
“I had no way to get around,” he said. “I had to stay in my apartment for four months.”
Butler’s shoeshine business went unattended during that time, and now he’s having trouble paying his bills. “This situation keeps me stressed out,” he said. “But I’m not going to give up. I’ve come this far and I’m taking it home.”
Bo McCarver runs a nonprofit organization working with low-income housing residents in Austin. He has been following the Ripley Arnold tenants and said that so far the move hasn’t worked for them.
“The residents say they feel safer than at Ripley Arnold, but they have no sense of community,” he said. At Ripley Arnold the residents had a centralized location with easy access to good schools, jobs, and daycare, but that is no longer the case — a situation that public housing advocates predicted at the time.
An Austin affordable housing expert called Fort Worth the “poster city” for tearing down public housing and then having trouble creating enough replacement units, mainly because of opposition from the white-collar communities. “It’s my understanding that the city and the housing authority have really been dragging their feet in assisting people who were moved out of the Ripley Arnold development into scattered site mixed-income housing in other neighborhoods,” said John Henneberger, who is co-director of Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. “They have done a poor job of providing the type of training, assistance, and counseling that those families need in moving off to those new neighborhoods. There has been a fairly high number of people getting evicted or removed from the public housing program.”
Utti becomes visibly emotional when she talks about how hard some of the residents must work to afford their new apartments. As part of the agreement, residents pay no more for their apartments than they did at Ripley Arnold, but many are still having trouble paying rent and bills and putting food on the table. A stroll through the complex reveals that some tenants place plastic over their windows rather than turning on the heat, to reduce utility bills. In many cases, the former Ripley Arnold tenants feel they are under constant scrutiny at their new apartment complex, which public housing residents share with urban professionals and college students.
“We all feel like we’re walking on thin ice,” she said. “I think the idea is to make us blend in, but our problems remain the same [even in a new setting]. We’re one step away from being homeless.”
The evictions also trouble Utti. She called the Housing Authority’s figure of 25 evictions “suspect,” noting that if the other tenants left under favorable circumstances their stories would be publicized.
Cheryl Quiroga, who headed the residents’ association at the Butler Place public housing apartments just east of downtown, was recently evicted. Quiroga’s daughter, Tina, lived with her father most of the time, but in the summers she stayed with her mother at Butler. The housing authority discovered Tina had been working when she was with her father and considered it as unreported income on Quiroga’s part, even though Tina wasn’t on the lease. Quiroga said she tried explaining this to housing authority officials to no avail. She said that cases like hers and Ruby Gutierrez’ are common in public housing.
“It’s not an unusual story,” she said. “They find little bitty things, and they use them against you.”
When Quiroga lived at Butler, she was ticketed for trash that other people left in her yard at night, resulting in a 30-day eviction notice, she said. In the end, she was evicted for her daughter’s unreported income. She said that after being kicked out of Butler, she lived out of her car until she found a cheap duplex to rent in the Polytechnic neighborhood. The duplex was broken into through the roof, and the burglars “stole everything, and I mean everything,” she said.
Quiroga thinks that she was targeted for eviction at Butler because she was a resident leader. “Helping people makes you enemies at the Fort Worth Housing Authority,” she said. “Managers don’t like you — if they think that you give residents too much information about their options, they can make your life a nightmare.”
Gutierrez was also serving on the Ripley Arnold residents’ board. She said residents are afraid that they will also be evicted if they speak up. “I was on the board and I was evicted,” she said. “The other residents now think, ‘Well how can she help me? Look what happened to her.’”
After becoming the first of the displaced Ripley Arnold residents to complete a self-sufficiency program, Gutierrez found a job with the city health department, where she has been working for two years. Prior to being evicted from Stonegate, Gutierrez was close to moving out of public housing and into a Habitat for Humanity home, but her application was denied once she was evicted. Habitat for Humanity policy requires applicants to have established a permanent address for a year before they qualify for a home. Now Gutierrez is planning to buy a house on the North Side. In the meantime she is living with her husband, whom she didn’t divorce, and her daughters in a rented house.
“The house we’re buying is not as nice as the one we would have gotten with Habitat for Humanity,” she said. “The children don’t like the school and there’s lots of gangs. I’m scared about the safety, but it’s better than being in public housing where nobody cares about you.”
McCarver said residents are under constant scrutiny at their new apartments.
“Residents live in fear, not like they’re tenants in a normal situation where they know they pay their rent and get services from the landlord,” he said. “They feel like the behavior of family members or anyone around them can result in their eviction because of one-strike rules.”
Meanwhile, the city still hasn’t found permanent replacement housing for the 268 units that were lost at Ripley Arnold. According to the housing authority’s web site, as of November, 159 permanent public housing apartments had been provided three years after the original agreement, leaving 109 temporary apartments still needing to be replaced by permanent ones. The temporary apartments are mostly located in neighborhoods that don’t fit the city’s definition of mixed-income and racially diverse.
Mike Daniel, the civil rights attorney, said the housing authority is trying to stretch the temporary apartments into permanent ones because it’s having trouble finding, building, or buying permanent replacements in mixed-income neighborhoods, and that the city is “totally screwing around on support services.”
Daniel said the evictions of residents shouldn’t be happening. Instead, he said, a city that made idealistic promises to quell disquiet isn’t living up to the bargain now that RadioShack is finished and Ripley Arnold tenants are out of sight and mind.
“If the city and the housing authority wanted it done, it would get done,” he said. “All that is left for them is the pain of putting public housing in white areas and the pain of providing social services. The fun is gone. They got what they wanted, and now they have to pay the bill. Their assumption is that they can get out of it for some time.”
McCarver said that the housing authority will not try hard to find permanent apartments for Ripley Arnold residents as long as homeowners in the areas fight them.
“There were energetic protests at Stonegate,” he said. “Homeowners said they were afraid for their property values and so on, but it was just plain old racism underneath. RadioShack will have its Taj Mahal, but it will be surrounded by the racist history of this.”
Kroupa, with the United Housing Program, said the city fumbled the Ripley Arnold situation. “What the Housing Authority did with the Ripley Arnold tenants was horrible,” she said. “It’s not surprising or new for housing authorities to make all kinds of promises when they want to relocate people from valuable land. I came from Los Angeles, and it was like a time warp to the Dark Ages. There isn’t a socially conscious mindset in Dallas or Fort Worth about these things.”
Daniel is not ruling out legal action against the city, but he said he has to wait until the neglect of tenants reaches a point where courts can’t ignore it any longer.
“You get one shot at this,” he said. “There is a strong feeling among judges that ‘those people’ are lucky to get anything. If you’re poor and black and receiving government assistance, the courts won’t do anything until the situation is so gross and abusive that it threatens the interest of one or more white-controlled institutions.”
Housing authority executive director Barbara Holston said critics are exaggerating not only the number of evictions, but the overall scope of the problems faced by former Ripley Arnold tenants. She is aware that a letter was sent to Mayor Mike Moncrief asking for an investigation into the 93 alleged evictions and canceled leases, but isn’t aware of any current investigations by the city or by HUD. She said she welcomes any scrutiny. A HUD official said the agency is not investigating the housing authority.
Contrary to the opinion of Utti, Daniel, and others, Holston said many support services are provided on site to public housing tenants. Job training and child care require travel, but free transportation is usually available to access them, she said. Utti wants an on-site office at the apartment complexes where tenants can go to find out about services.
As for evicting resident leaders at public housing, Holston said it’s not uncommon for resident leaders to break the rules of their leases, just like anybody else. “It’s unfortunate that anyone would think the housing authority is vindictive enough to evict someone because we don’t like the way they part their hair,” she said. “I can assure you that when we evict somebody we do it because we have to.”
She agrees that affordable housing is in short supply and that many families need help. “Lower-income working and non-working families have a difficult to impossible time affording rents without housing assistance,” Holston said. “The result is that many families either live in substandard housing, are paying rents above what they can afford, or are homeless.”
And the future doesn’t look rosy. “Voucher cuts already in effect for 2005 and those proposed for 2006 will affect our ability to serve the same number of families at current subsidy levels,” she said. “The funding cuts require the FWHA to identify alternatives to providing the necessary services and maintaining the programs and, in some instances, reducing service levels.”
The business of providing affordable housing is fraught with perplexities that frequently create damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenarios. For instance, tenants appreciate rules that govern behavior at public housing sites and yet complain when people such as Gutierrez and Quiroga are kicked out for breaking those rules.
Utti talks passionately about relying more on local volunteerism and faith-based initiatives, and she laments that some of the government housing programs are not working well enough to help clients reach self-sufficiency. “Too many people are remaining in public housing and Section 8 through their lifetimes,” she said. “We cannot depend on government funding for everything.”
That’s the same argument offered by President Bush, who is seeking to cut about $1.5 billion from federal housing assistance because programs aren’t leading to self-sufficiency. He has pushed for faith-based initiatives since being elected five years ago. When it was pointed out to Utti that she was espousing ideologies almost identical to what Bush has been pushing, she seemed surprised. “I hate to think I’m agreeing with the president,” she said, citing his eagerness to cut benefits. The nonprofit organization run by Utti, the Trinity Valley Pioneers Community Development Corporation, is funded by a Catholic charity.
Despite their transgressions, city leaders and housing officials have hardly turned a blind eye to supplying housing assistance. In 2003, Fort Worth was ranked as the most affordable housing market of all Texas’ major cities, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. The city’s median income is about $60,300 a year for a family of four, meaning 66 percent of Fort Worth households could qualify to buy a home, compared to 53 percent of households nationally. The city’s median house price of $95,700 is below the state level of about $125,000, and well below Dallas’ median house price of $138,900.
In recent years the city has spent more than $6 million in assembling land and building more than 100 affordable single-family homes; issued $9.7 million in tax exempt mortgage revenue bonds to develop a 160-unit senior development; provided almost $3 million in federal subsidies to help 350 lower-income households become first-time homeowners; and recently approved $3.2 million to help redevelop the Riverside Village Apartments into 232 single-family homes. The help is needed since statistics from HUD and the city show there are thousands more low-income households than there are affordable apartments and homes available.
About half of the city’s housing stock was built prior to 1970, which means older homes are available — often in need of repairs but also with cheaper sales prices.
Fort Worth also wants to keep its wealthier residents and is making efforts to attract developers of upscale housing. Indeed, according to Fort Worth’s master plan, high-end housing is in shorter supply than affordable housing. Only a third of the city’s houses cost more than $120,000 — the second-lowest percentage among the state’s six largest cities. People seeking high-end homes are more likely to migrate to the suburbs, while people seeking affordable housing are more likely to stay. For several years, Arlington has found itself in a similar battle to stiffen housing guidelines, making it more expensive to build a house, generating more property taxes, and encouraging big spenders to stay in town. Arlington city leaders have been accused by some of elitism and applauded by others for trying to boost taxes and shoo away poor folks.
Critics blast those efforts as exclusionary, even though high-end housing ultimately generates more taxes, which in turn compensates to some degree for the lower taxes generated by more affordable housing.
“The city’s policies generally support the development of affordable housing, and any objective observer would see that Fort Worth does more to promote affordable housing than do most communities in our region,” said Fernando Costa, the city’s director of planning. “At the same time, if you were to ask a representative sample of home builders and neighborhood leaders, you would probably receive contrasting opinions about how much the city is doing toward that end.”
While the city is seeking to maintain a diverse housing stock, few will dispute that affordable apartments and houses continue to be in short supply.
Homebuilders decried the city’s proposals last year to change new home construction guidelines to require masonry façades, more square footage, and other criteria that would add to the cost of home ownership. Among those spearheading the effort was City Councilwoman Becky Haskin, who regularly tackles neighborhood issues and seems to speak most passionately for well-to-do families in brick homes with pristine St. Augustine lawns. The Greater Fort Worth Builders Association commissioned a study that characterized the city’s study as “severely flawed.”
Housing officials who have traditionally focused on affordable housing issues are delving into more upscale developments to help Fort Worth balance its housing stock and provide housing for people of all incomes. As a result, they’ve been accused of selling out to the rich and turning their backs on the poor. An example occurred near White Lake Hills, when Haskin and the city’s housing department, led by Jerome Walker, planned to purchase 22 acres of land (at a whopping price of $285,000) near White Lake and build an upscale retirement village. Critics dubbed the project “public housing for the rich.”
Neighborhood residents voted against the project at a public hearing attended by Haskin, who agreed to curtail the project. Yet later she encouraged Walker to buy the land and hold it until public opinion changed. Walker is in perhaps a peculiar situation — heading the housing department for a city that wants to increase the cost of homes and also overseeing the nonprofit Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation, which was created to finance the cost of residential ownership for people of low and moderate income. Walker’s attempt to finance an upscale retirement village was seen as an insult by affordable housing advocates.
Much of the housing department’s funding comes from low-income housing programs, but that doesn’t mean that the housing department’s only focus is affordable housing, Walker said. The department’s policy is to promote housing for all residents. “We’re about providing quality market rate and affordable housing so we can have economic integration,” he said. “We would rather be seen as facilitators for organizations involved in neighborhood redevelopment.”
Mayor Moncrief’s response to the letter from the Ripley Arnold alumni — or other questions raised by this story — is unknown since he didn’t return phone calls requesting comment. City council members Wendy Davis, Ralph McCloud, Haskin, and John Stevenson also did not respond to requests for comments.
City housing Director Jerome Walker said the White Lake property that was purchased by the housing department’s finance corporation is being held for future development opportunity, although the city “has no plans to serve as developer of this site,” he said.
Walker’s department has also been involved in another overpayment controversy involving affordable housing, this one on the neighborhood revitalization project along Evans Avenue.
In 1998, the city council designated 15 acres as a special economic development zone called the Evans & Rosedale Business and Cultural District. A community advisory committee and the city’s planning department developed a $14 million, three-year plan, funded mostly by federal grants and loans, to revitalize the area. Tax breaks were offered to residential developers and businesses willing to invest in the area. Now more than half the money is gone, yet progress has been minimal, and federal officials have accused the city of mismanagement and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars by overpaying for property — including overpayments that padded the pocket of the real estate agent hired to oversee purchases. The project is still waiting for new businesses to come to the neighborhood, and HUD is investigating.
“HUD is continuing to work with the city of Fort Worth in resolving whatever findings or problems had been isolated as a part of one of our operational reviews,” said HUD spokesman Steve Brewer.
A HUD audit estimated that $1.2 million may have been mismanaged. The city disagrees with that assessment and is responding to HUD’s concerns. “That may be what they ask for, but we’re trying to clear all that up and I think we are going to clear all that up,” said Assistant City Manager Dale Fisseler. The city has consulted with Washington D.C. attorneys who specialize in responding to HUD audits.
Meanwhile, the housing department, housing authority, nonprofit organizations, grassroots community groups, and others continue the seemingly never-ending mission of providing affordable residences that are within grasp of the city’s large number of struggling families.
“It’s hard to say that there is enough affordable housing,” Costa said. “If there were, we wouldn’t have homeless people. We wouldn’t have people spending disproportionate amounts of their income on housing and related expenses. It’s hard to say that any major city has enough affordable housing. But we can say that we have a large proportion of the affordable housing within our region and that we are continuing to work toward meeting the affordable housing needs of the community.”
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