New program could speed redevelopment of Fort Worth public housing sites

The Fort Worth Housing Authority is seeking to switch its 1,002 public housing units to a new federal program that would allow the authority to borrow against its properties and give tenants flexibility to move around to different public housing in the area.

The conversion, if approved by the federal Housing and Urban Development department, would give the Housing Authority new borrowing capacity it could use for the planned redevelopment of the Cavile Place housing project in Southeast Fort Worth and the likely, eventual redevelopment of the Butler Place housing project east of downtown, Housing Authority and city officials said.

But even if not approved, “we’re still committed to moving forward with (redevelopments of) Cavile and Butler,” Naomi Byrne, the Housing Authority president, said Tuesday.

The Housing Authority owns its public housing units under the current federal program it uses. Residents can’t transfer to other units within the area, and the Housing Authority can’t borrow against the properties.

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The Housing Authority plans to apply to HUD to switch to “rental assistance demonstration” units, a program HUD is expanding nationally this year to 185,000 potential public housing units from 60,000.

If approved by HUD, the Housing Authority would move to a long-term Section 8 contract with HUD.

The Housing Authority would still own the units, but would be able to borrow against that contract, and tenants can apply to move within the local area to other units. Tenants displaced by the redevelopment of Cavile and Butler, for example, could opt to move back to their old neighborhoods once redeveloped.

“It really gives the Housing Authority flexibility,” Byrne said in an interview after making a presentation Tuesday afternoon to the City Council.

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The rental assistance demonstration program has not been subject to the same Congressional budget cuts as the traditional program, so that should make Fort Worth’s public housing more stable, Byrne said.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to expand and leverage our dollars,” Mayor Betsy Price said.

Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino called the plan a “paradigm shift in how we offer public housing to our residents.”

The Housing Authority plans to make its application to HUD within the next 30-60 days, Byrne said. HUD could make its decision within 90-180 days. If the Housing Authority is awarded a units in the new “RAD” program, it would take about three years to convert the current housing units, Byrne said.

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New borrowing capacity allowed by the program will likely figure into financing for planned $112 million redevelopment of the 300-unit Cavile Place project and surrounding neighborhood, Byrne said. The Housing Authority and city’s Housing Finance Corp. are teaming up on that project, and their finance plan doesn’t include any borrowing against the property.

The borrowing capacity could also figure into the financing for the redevelopment of the 412-unit Butler Place, Byrne said.

The Housing Authority doesn’t have a redevelopment plan for Butler, but conversations have been spurred by HUD’s expansion of the rental assistance demonstration program, and Fort Worth school trustees’ decision earlier this year to convert the historic I.M. Terrell Elementary School up the hill from Butler to science, technology, engineering and math, and performing and visual arts high school academies, Byrne said.

At the time the school board approved the Terrell conversion, business leaders and school trustees said they believed that would help spur redevelopment of Butler and the area around it.

The Housing Authority plans to organize the community and extensively study the possibilities for a redeveloped Butler site, Byrne said.

BNSF, which owns railroad right of way adjacent to the site, will be a part of the talks, Byrne said. Business leaders have said a redeveloped Butler site would need better access into downtown and across the BNSF right of way.

Brian Dennison, the Housing Authority’s vice president of development and asset management, said it’s too early to determine how much potential leverage the Housing Authority could generate by being able to borrow against its properties.

“It’s to be determined,” he said.

The Housing Authority is moving through the initial pieces of the Cavile plan. Thursday, the Housing Authority board will vote on spending $278,000 to buy 31 vacant residential lots around Cavile from the city of Fort Worth.

The board also will vote on a resolution authorizing Byrne to execute agreements with potential developer partners Provident Realty Advisors, Carleton Development, Ltd., Miller Valentine Group, and Madhouse Development/Atlantic Pacific Communities on “as-needed basis.”

That could include Cavile, Butler Place or other projects, Dennison said.