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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Past perfect: Businesswoman preserves historic Fort Worth properties

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Rent Historic Fort Worth


Alyssa Banta is back at the first property she bought about 10 years ago, a two-story, single-family-turned-duplex home just off the red bricks of Camp Bowie Boulevard on Fort Worth’s west side.

Banta is renovating the 1920-era house, one of several vintage residential buildings she owns and rents in two historic Fort Worth neighborhoods: the Fairmount National Historic District and the West Byers neighborhood where she’s updating her first purchase. She used to live upstairs.

“When I bought this place, I just saw it as a place to live. I never thought it would be the start of a business,” she said.

Banta is unabashedly “full-on Fort Worth proud,” in her words.

A professional photographer and owner of residential rental company Rent Historic Fort Worth, Banta grew up off Camp Bowie, the first-generation daughter of immigrant parents. Her father, a physician, settled here from his native Philippines (he’s half French), and her Mexican-born mother owned and operated a local travel agency and several retail stores, including a few at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Banta now is in charge of through a partnership with a management company. She could have followed the footsteps of either parent, but instead, Banta followed her passion for the arts.

“It was a good childhood for me and my three brothers. I was an artsy kid,” she said. “There was a big emphasis on doing, staying busy, achievement. No emphasis on partying, talking on the phone, watching TV at all. My dad instilled in us ‘don’t chase the money, chase the dream, chase the happiness,’ and that’s what I try to do. I’m good at it; I’m very successful.”

After graduating from Fort Worth Country Day School, Banta attended Austin College and majored in fine art and political science. She went on to the University of Texas at Austin and earned a master’s degree in anthropology.

She then picked up a camera and began a career as a freelance photographer and writer, primarily covering wars around the world. Her conflict assignments took her to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Based in New Delhi, she shot for the Smithsonian Magazine, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, the London Sunday Times, the Independent and the American Red Cross, to name a few.

She was in Kashmir on Sept. 11 when she heard the news.

“I was sleeping, or trying to,” she said. “I was jet lagged and was watching a show on TV where Bruce Willis was fighting terrorists in New York. I was so sleepy. Then they broke in with 9-11 and I thought it was fake at first, part of the show. The news kept going though. I called a friend in New Delhi and he told me it was true. I called another friend who said it was true. I went back to New Delhi, got a visa for Pakistan and within a day was in Pakistan.”

Banta soon returned to Fort Worth and bought the house she’s presently restoring, living upstairs and renting the downstairs apartment. Work assignments then found her in East and West Africa.

“One day I said, ‘This has to stop.’ I was cooked. I decided I needed a break,” she said.

She’s still taking a respite from her years as a war photographer.

“My photography is a part of me and the wars are a part of me. It was interesting but I don’t want to talk about all that,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a different place now. From nothing I’ve created this business. I’m so surprised that I’ve created a business. Instead of being a perpetual bohemian I actually have a business.”

Therapy, one house at a time

After coming back to her hometown Banta landed some corporate jobs that allowed her to buy one property, then the next and the next. All the houses are about a century old and derelict until Banta and the local tradesmen and craftsmen she hires rescue them from the brink and restore them, often using upcycled materials. Officially launched in 2011, Rent Historic Fort Worth (www.renthistoricfortworth.com) now has six multifamily buildings, with 20 doors and 32 tenants. Leases are standard 12-month leases; prices are not quoted until a lease is up. The company offers studio apartments, and one-, two- and three-bedroom spaces. The buildings remain 100 percent occupied.

“It’s a very creative process,” Banta said. “I buy these buildings when they are torn up and then with these hands – and some local workers’ – get them turned around. They’re beautiful, they really are. I’m so surprised at myself for doing this. I didn’t have a business plan. It just keeps rolling. It’s become a sound business. I never thought of doing this. I thought of it as a hobby, or therapy really, for all the conflict photography I had done.”

Banta says she buys only properties she would live in.

“I’ve lived all over the world,” she said. “I’m interested in interesting places, different spaces with character, close to town, historic. I don’t want these places torn down. They’re all historic. I’d like to keep them around. This is historic Fort Worth. Once they’re knocked down they don’t come back. They’re gone.”

The business owner is sworn to the idea that Fort Worth should stay as Fort Worth as possible, and that businesses remain locally owned.

“What makes Fort Worth is that it’s Fort Worth. I’m a big mom and pop, small business supporter. I will go out of my way to shop or eat in a mom and pop business,” Banta said. “The second all that goes away then this becomes Any Town, USA, and I don’t want it to become Any Town, USA. I want it to stay Fort Worth. The only way that can happen is if small business is able to work.”

Just as she tries to hire tradesmen from the neighborhood first, Banta makes an effort to keep her rents affordable.

“Rents are going crazy now in Fort Worth,” she said. “I’m the landlord who tries to keep it down. I know people don’t make what they make in New York City. This is Fort Worth. So I try to keep them affordable so that I have a great selection of people, too. I’ve created this village of tenants who are all interesting, artsy, all going places.”

Reasonably priced properties, “quirky places with awesome bones” she can buy, restore and rent remain on Banta’s shopping list. The next property is currently on the horizon.

“I’m always looking. A building has to be in the right location and it has to be at the right price. Not much scares me. I’ve purchased some properties that were about to be bulldozed. It’s all doable. It takes patience,” she said. “Fort Worth’s a good place to live. Hopefully, there’ll be a few historically relevant places from the turn of the century left. That’s my business plan.

“It’s been interesting building the company on my own,” she continued, “making my way, figuring it out as I went, being the one and only pointing it in its direction and growing it. I’m proud of Rent Historic Fort Worth and happy to have built it. I love that I have a very successful business here in the town I grew up in.”

Another new project is underway. Banta is working on a coffee table book for Arcadia Publishing about women ranchers in Texas. She’s traversing the state photographing and chronicling the lives of women who own and work ranches. The book is expected to be available next fall.

“It’s been an interesting life. It’s just a varied and interesting life. I’m 49 and I’ve squeezed a lot in and I’ll continue to,” Banta said. “I don’t have a plan to conquer real estate on the west side. I just happen to really like this. It’s another artistic expression for me, redoing these houses. I will continue to get properties just as I will continue to make photographs. I love both of them very, very much and I’m successful at both of them.”

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