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Banking New name, new game plan for affordable housing in Fort Worth

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Fort Worth Housing Solutions

Major Developments

• Conversion of all public housing units to the Rental Assistance Demonstration or RAD program

• Implementation of the Stop Six/Cavile Place transformation plan

• Redevelopment of Butler Place

• Development, construction of Airporter site

• Development, construction of transit-oriented development at South Main and Vickery streets

FWHS facts

• 660 market rate units

• More than 1,000 public housing units

• 2,600 affordable housing units

• 5,000 housing choice vouchers

Hunter Plaza looks new and modern, a far cry from the beaten-down public housing high-rise that closed five years ago.

At the opening on Feb. 24, the $29 million makeover had transformed the 11-story downtown building into a mix of public housing and regular rental units, as well as some retail space, for Fort Worth Housing Solutions.

Out of 114 one-bedroom and 50 two-bedroom apartments, 25 will be public housing, the rest market-value units for the organization. On the same day, the affordable housing organization itself underwent a transformation, trading out “Authority” for “Solutions” in its name.

The changes are separate, but related, notes Housing Solutions’ President Naomi W. Byrne.

“You’ve got a historic downtown building that has sat unused for several years, you’ve got retail and commercial space downtown and you’ve got entities that wouldn’t typically be working together to make it work,” she said.

Hunter Plaza once catered to some of the neediest residents in the community. After it was closed after an infestation of stubborn bedbugs, the decision was made to upgrade the property and transform Hunter Plaza into an affordable housing program. That mirrored the agency’s transition – and name change – to emphasize the acquisition, development and management of multi-family properties as a way to provide more affordable housing.

Housing Solutions had the support of the city and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. in the transformation, but was still seeking the final funding piece when a new federal program became available.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program transfers ownership of public housing units from the federal government to local housing authorities. That allows the housing authority to take out loans on those properties and shift some of the public housing units to other locations around the city. Housing Solutions took out $18.6 million in loans and state and federal tax credits for the Hunter Plaza remodel. The non-public housing units will generate revenue to pay off the loan.

“We’re then able to leverage those assets to private-equity lenders and we can use this to leverage other developments,” said Byrne.

It also diversifies the agency’s revenue stream, making the agency less vulnerable to the manic-depressive fluctuations of government funding.

“While we still administer federal programs, we’re not reliant on it to make sure our operations continue to prosper,” she said.

Housing Solutions received support for its RAD plans when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro paid a visit to Fort Worth in 2014, visiting converted RAD apartments at Fair Oaks. At the time, he was urging Congress to increase the number of units that can be transferred to the private sector from those federally subsidized. Congress later did that in the 2015 budget.

“It’s an example of our rental assistance demonstration or RAD program. With private sector dollars and our public sector dollars, we can get these units like these improved so residents can live in better units and that we can prevent them from going into disrepair or bringing some that are in disrepair into conditions that are habitable,” he said during that visit.

Hunter Plaza is just the beginning for the agency, said Byrne, who joined the agency in 2014 after several years’ experience with other housing authorities in Austin, Georgetown, Texarkana and Pittsburgh.

Other plans include conversion of all public housing units to the RAD program, implementation of the Stop Six/Cavile Place Transformation Plan, redevelopment of Butler Place, development of the former Airporter site and the ambitious plan for the development and construction of a transit-oriented development project at Vickery and South Main streets in partnership with the city, the Fort Worth Transit Authority and Near Southside Inc.

For that transit-oriented development project, Housing Solutions is finishing designs on what will be more than 230 apartments, a parking garage both below and above grade, possibly a boutique hotel and improved connections to downtown.

The agency is working with Bennett Benner Partners on the plans.

“I think we’re close to finishing the design and getting draft construction numbers, so we can see what our funding gap is,” said Byrne.

Ground could be broken as early as 2017, she said.

“Everyone’s excited about this project,” she said. “It’s a bigger project than ones we’ve done in the past, but it’s the next logical step.”

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