Fort Worth Housing Solutions names interim president as contract for Byrne not renewed

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Fort Worth Housing Solutions’ board of commissioners named Mary-Margaret Lemons as interim president of the organization at a meeting May 4 after allowing a contract with the previous president to expire without renewal.

The board decided at its April 27 meeting to let the three year contract with Naomi W. Byrne expire. Following that meeting, one member of the five-member board resigned.

An executive search firm will be utilized to seek out candidates for the position.

“We are proud of the accomplishments and progress made in the last three years under Ms. Byrne’s leadership,” said Terri Attaway, chairperson of the board of commissioners in a news release. “We have a solid strategic plan, which includes working with all of our stakeholders to continue providing affordable housing in Fort Worth.”

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Byrne, hired to be president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions (FWHS) – formerly the Fort Worth Housing Authority – to much fanfare in 2014, was abruptly told at the April 27 meeting that her three-year contract would not be extended.

She was up for annual review on the contract, which was scheduled to end May 31. The move caught her by surprise and also surprised some who work to end homelessness in Fort Worth and to at least some members of the commission.

As president of FWHS, Byrne oversaw operation of about 1,000 public housing units, nearly 3,000 affordable housing units, 655 market-rate units and more than 6,300 housing vouchers.

Byrne thought that the commissioners were finishing up her annual performance review in preparation for contract renegotiations.

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“After informing me of their decision to not renew my contract, the board relieved me of my duties effectively immediately, though they did agree to pay me through the end of my current contract,” she said May 4.

Board members did not give a reason for not renewing her contract.

The FWHS website says that the board is governed by a five-member board of commissioners appointed by the mayor for two-year terms. “The commissioners are not compensated and the board is not a political entity,” the website says.

Commissioner Mark Presswood, vice chair of the board, resigned after the announcement. He confirmed his resignation, but declined further comment. Presswood is president of Panther Real Estate Solutions in Fort Worth.

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Otis Thornton, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, said he was “stunned” by the action. TCHC serves as the HUD-recognized lead agency for the Fort Worth/Arlington/Tarrant County Continuum of Care effort to end homelessness.

Byrne has more than 20 years of experience in the affordable housing industry. She came to Fort Worth from the Housing Authority of the city of Pittsburgh, where she was chief operating officer. She began her career in the housing industry at the Housing Authority of the city of Austin and has been executive director of the housing authorities in Texarkana and Georgetown.

Byrne said she was told that the decision was made after consulting with senior staff at the housing authority, officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fort Worth city officials and “stakeholders in the community.”

“But I am not aware of who they spoke to specifically nor did they inform me of who they spoke to,” she said.

Thornton was not consulted, he said, and to his knowledge neither were others in the homelessness services community.

Plans to develop affordable housing in some areas of Fort Worth have met with neighborhood resistance, but Byrne said she was not sure whether that may have played into the decision.

“There has been some concern in the community about various multi-family development projects FWHS was undertaking in different council districts, especially in areas known as ‘high opportunity areas’ – locations with good schools, low poverty and high wages – but the board directed staff to continue to move forward with those and other projects,” she said.

Affordable housing issues were raised in several of the Fort Worth City Council races to be decided Saturday.

“Housing authorities both help to prevent and end homelessness through the operation of affordable and subsidized housing programs,” Thornton said. “Fort Worth Housing Solutions has been ahead of the curve in both leveraging private sector capital to convert public housing units through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and developing the affordable housing stock the city so desperately needs.”

In March, FWHS chose Atlanta-based Columbia Residential to oversee the redevelopment of Butler Place near downtown. Columbia is also involved with real estate developer Happy Baggett in housing at Renaissance Square at U.S. 287 and Berry Street in southeast Fort Worth. Also under redevelopment is Cavile Place, on the city’s east side.

At Renaissance Square, about a third of the 142 units will be available to FWHS clients, a third under a rental assistance program and a third at full market-value prices.

“I can only hope that these projects continue to move forward, as they not only benefit the residents of those two properties but Fort Worth as a whole” Byrne said. “FWHS has an excellent group of employees and partners such as the city of Fort Worth, DFWI (Downtown Fort Worth Inc.), FWISD and many others that are committed to the expansion of affordable housing opportunities for low to moderate income families in Fort Worth and the redevelopment of both Butler and Stop Six.”

Thornton echoes that.

“Concentrations of poverty don’t work,” Thornton said. “The relocation of Ripley Arnold residents was no more disruptive than Y2K. Strangers are scary, neighbors are not. I hope FWHS will continue to develop the sort of high-quality properties that foster positive social bonds and regional economics.”

Thornton said the operation of FWHS under Byrne was professional and focused. “Like her predecessor, Barbara Holston, she was poised and expected professionalism and productivity,” he said.

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.

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