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Public Housing Residents Plan for Relocation

By Suzanne Sprague

FORT WORTH – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: By all accounts, the 268 apartments that make up the Ripley Arnold housing complex are showing their age. After 60 years on the northern edge of downtown Fort Worth, the two-story brick boxes have become tired-looking and worn. But the complex is still a comfortable home for Ramona Utti.

Ramona Utti, Ripley Arnold Resident: It's very peaceful. We're well-protected. Police are constantly cruising the area. I don't know another place in Fort Worth or anywhere that I'd rather be living other than right here. And this is really strange considering it's low-income housing. Sometimes I can't believe that I'm saying this, but this is how I feel and this is how many other people feel.

Sprague: But Utti's days at Ripley Arnold may be numbered. Amid applause from the downtown development community, the Fort Worth Housing Authority has proposed selling the complex to the Tandy Corporation for $20 million and using the proceeds to build new, mixed income housing at other sites throughout the city.

Barbara Holston, Executive Director, Fort Worth Housing Authority: The compelling reason for doing that is to deliver to the residents of Fort Worth a better quality housing that is still a low-income, subsidized public housing. That's the motivation.

Sprague: Barbara Holston is the Housing Authority's executive director. She describes Ripley Arnold as obsolete and inadequate.

Holston: It's not so bad that it's uninhabitable, but when you talk to the residents who live there who would like housing where they can fit their furniture into the rooms, then we do understand how seriously deficient it is.

Sprague: Other cities like Dallas and Chicago are also deconcentrating poverty with smaller complexes that combine subsidized and market rate apartments. But Ramona Utti is among those Ripley Arnold residents who believe it's really a cover-up for phasing out low-income housing.

Utti: It's nice to have a new apartment. Everything brand new and sparkling and clean and shiny, things like that. But number one, I don't think that we would ever see those new complexes with this plan that the Fort Worth Housing Authority is proposing.

Sprague: Here's the problem: the Housing Authority hasn't built these new complexes yet. It hasn't even found a place to build them. And, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Housing Authority's $20 million budget falls almost $15 million short of construction costs. But Barbara Holston disputes HUD's claim. She says the federal government's projected costs are inflated.

Holston: The $34 million figure that they're using is what HUD calls total development costs. Those total development costs are much higher than the actual costs for construction in this market.

Sprague: The Housing Authority has asked the federal government to help pay for new public housing in Fort Worth. HUD said no four times, because even though Ripley Arnold is deteriorating, it isn't as bad as complexes in other cities. So the bottom line for Ramona Utti and her neighbors is the uncertainty of winding up in temporary apartments while the housing authority finds the money.

Utti: We're going to be lost. We'll be misplaced. Not relocated. We'll be totally misplaced.

Sprague: That makes attorney Mike Daniel, who is advising a group of Ripley Arnold residents, question the Housing Authority's motivation.

Mike Daniel, Attorney: What the city and the Housing Authority want to do is basically make a present of the land to Tandy and then try and scrape around and dig up the money and locations to replace the housing as an afterthought.

Sprague: Daniel was the lead attorney in the landmark Walker suit, which forced the Dallas Housing Authority to desegregate, beginning in the 1990s. He says Fort Worth's public housing now ranks far below what you'll find in Dallas.

Daniel: The Dallas Housing Authority has been making a legitimate effort to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing in a desegregated fashion for the last 10 years. The Fort Worth Housing Authority hasn't even started.

Sprague: Why?

Daniel: 'Cause no one has sued them to make them do it. That's why.

Sprague: Professor Paul Geisel at the University of Texas at Arlington's Urban Affairs Department agrees.

Paul Geisel, Professor and Dean, School of Urban and Public Affairs, University of Texas at Arlington: By not having suits and not having conflict and by not having turmoil on their board, and not being viewed particularly by the public or the press, they've kind of just maintained; and the result is if you just maintain, your properties get older.

Sprague: But ironically, says Geisel, as Ripley Arnold has deteriorated, its value has skyrocketed. Sundance Square, Bass Hall, high-rent apartments - all the makings of downtown Fort Worth's rejuvenation - are within walking distance of the complex.

Geisel: You're going to see it all over the country, and it's happening because many of these housing authorities are sitting on properties which in the redeveloping urban development that we're seeing in the United States, they're seeing their property worth a fortune.

Utti: And I suppose this is the economic reason why people want us out of here so badly.

Sprague: Ramona Utti feels like city leaders don't think she's worthy of living in downtown Fort Worth anymore because she's a public housing resident.

Utti: This is the general mind frame of the big downtown developers. They want us out of here, at any cost.

Sprague: Utti would like improvements made at Ripley Arnold so the residents can stay there and take part in the downtown revitalization. But at a recent city council meeting, the Housing Authority's Ramon Guajardo, who's been hired to manage the transition, said that's too expensive.

Ramon Guajardo, Fort Worth Housing Authority: The design makes the redevelopment or redesign cost prohibitive. There are concrete floors, concrete ceilings. There are tile walls with plaster on them. So to renovate on-site plus the amenities that were requested by the residents far exceed the cost that it would take to build new units.

Sprague: Guajardo also said the Housing Authority would pay for the Ripley Arnold residents' moving expenses and give them at least three months notice before they're forced to leave. But nothing he's said has allayed the fears of Ripley Arnold residents. They are waiting for HUD to decide whether the Housing Authority may tear down the complex. And if that permission is granted, most observers believe a lengthy legal fight will follow. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.