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As Fort Worth Housing Project Closes, Residents Wonder About Their Future

Christopher Connelly
Cavile Place Apartments houses 261 families in Fort Worth's Stop Six neighborhood.

A massive relocation project is underway in Fort Worth. The city's housing authority is in the process of moving the more than 700 residents of the Cavile Place apartments — a 65-year-old housing project in the neighborhood of Stop Six.

The relocation is part of a long-term plan to demolish and eventually replace the apartment complex.  It's a huge undertaking by Fort Worth Housing Solutions, and civil rights, fair housing and community advocates are closely monitoring the process, concerned that some residents may end up worse off after the move.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News

The residents, though, are not only moving out of a community they know, but they're moving from fixed public housing managed by the housing authority to a system of subsidized housing vouchers to help pay rent to private landlords.

Cavile Place’s 261 families, who have an average income of just over $9,200 per year, will be braving a tight rental housing market if they choose to stay in the Fort Worth area. It already has a shortage of over 40,000 rental units affordable to very low-income renters. Beyond that, the city’s rental market is marked by few landlords willing to rent to voucher holders.

"Moving can be traumatic for families"

"People are going to be faced with brute realities that it's really hard," for voucher holders in Fort Worth, says Caleb Roberts, the Northwest Texas co-director for the advocacy group Texas Housers. Roberts has helped set up meetings for Cavile residents to learn about their options and rights during the relocation.

Mary-Margaret Lemons, who heads Fort Worth Housing Solutions, says that even though worries about the relocation sometimes keep her up at night, she's confident the plan will make sure Cavile residents will have their needs met, and says the process can empower them to choose where they want to live.

"We are working with each family, based on their needs, to make sure that we're getting them relocated successfully," Lemons said.

The relocation plan provides caseworkers who will work one-on-one with residents to find housing, Lemons says. Fort Worth Housing Solutions will cover moving costs and help with security and utility deposits. While the plan calls for Cavile Place to be empty by the end of the year, the authority plans to hand out vouchers in small batches so as not to overwhelm the rental market. So far, just 14 families have been issued vouchers.

"There's no wrecking ball or demolition crew hired for Cavile," Lemons said. "So while we do want to get everybody moved in a timely manner, at the end of the day we want this to be successful for everybody, and we know moving can be traumatic for families."

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News

Lemons says the relocation could bring better housing, access to better schools and jobs, safer neighborhoods and other opportunities — but it’s also generated some skepticism and anxiety for residents.

Landlords "won't take people on public housing"

Shavina Ingram, who grew up in Cavile Place and moved back nine years ago after her mother died, says finding a new home for her family using a housing voucher feels intimidating. She worries landlords won't want to rent to her because she's coming from Stop Six — a part of Fort Worth that is considered the nucleus of Fort Worth's black community, but is also marked by higher poverty and crime rates.

"I'm scared to death," Ingram said, "because I'm disabled, I've got a few scratches on my background."

Betty Jackson, a retired security guard who's lived at Cavile Place for six years, says she's also worried about the transition. Known to everybody as Miss Betty, the widowed retiree says she's had time to start calling landlords to ask if they will rent to people who rely on housing vouchers. She worries how people with more on their plate will navigate the relocation.

"Oh yeah, it’s going to be hard, because a lot of [landlords] won’t take people who are on public housing," she said.

A 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that voucher holders faced major barriers. Only 1 in 30 advertised apartments in the city met eligibility requirements for voucher holders. Of those, 78% of landlords were unwilling to rent to voucher holders. That means just 7% of apartments for rent in Fort Worth had landlords who could and would rent to voucher holders, and some of those would only do so under limited conditions.

Those limited options are also concentrated in neighborhoods with higher poverty levels, says Roberts from Texas Housers. This limits the ability for Cavile Place's mostly African American residents to relocate to neighborhoods that offer greater opportunities.

"What does that mean for these residents, going from a place where you have a public housing and the government is helping you, to mostly having to fend for yourself in a market that doesn’t support you?" Roberts said. 

Fort Worth Housing Solutions admits it's a problem. "We do know that it’s challenging to get vouchers accepted,” said Mary-Margaret Lemons of the housing authority.

The city has been working to improve the situation by both cutting red tape for landlords who accept voucher holders and trying to reduce bias against the families with vouchers. The housing authority has also been buying and building more affordable housing to help meet the demand.

But, Lemons says, there are limits to what her agency can do "because, in Fort Worth and Texas, we don't have income discrimination laws that protect voucher holders."

The future of Cavile Place

The J.A. Cavile Apartments were built in 1954 in the city’s eastside Stop Six neighborhood, and the sprawling complex of red-brick buildings isn't in great shape. Fort Worth Housing Solutions estimated in 2018 that Cavile Place needs nearly $43 million in capital improvements. The agency receives $1.2 million annually from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for capital improvements across all of its properties.

For years, the city has been looking for ways to tear down the old apartments and build more up-to-date facilities on the site. Long-term, Fort Worth Housing Solutions has been working to make subsidized housing more available in neighborhoods across the city in an effort to “de-concentrate” poverty. Research shows low-income children fare better after moving out of high-poverty areas and into mixed-income neighborhoods.

Fort Worth Housing Solutions plans to apply for federal funding to redevelop Cavile Place after the demolition is complete. The redevelopment plan includes a mix of public and affordable market-rate rental units as well as space for retail, health and social services, a new library and community center.

Q Phillips, a Fort Worth school board member and co-founder of the eastside nonprofit Community Frontline, helped organize a community meeting for residents facing relocation. Residents heard from  advocates from civil rights, fair housing and legal aid groups.

"We hope the plan goes well, we really do anticipate it going so, but we just want to be proactive and make sure people are armed with proper information," Phillips said.

Shavina Ingram said after the meeting that she's choosing to focus on the long-term. She knows people on housing vouchers and says they have beautiful homes. Plus, she learned there are programs to help voucher holders become homeowners. As for the challenge of finding a landlord who'll take her voucher, she says it's important to be persistent and positive.

"You have to go out there and believe God and try. Everybody's not going to say no. Yeah, you’re going to get a couple no's, you know what I'm saying. But not everybody's going to say no," she said.

Outside the meeting at Christ The Risen King Bible Church, Pastor Rodney McIntosh chats with residents as they head home across the street to Cavile Place.

McIntosh once lived in Cavile Place and now ministers to many of its residents. He hopes that a positive attitude, plus help from city caseworkers and advocacy groups, will be enough to make sure that everyone leaving Cavile finds a good place to live. But he worries that it may not be enough to overcome the challenges of finding housing for low-income people in Fort Worth.

“[The housing authority] says we're going to make sure everybody is okay, but some people will slip through the cracks. And those people who slip through the cracks, where will they end up?" he asks.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.