In 2005, the city of Fort Worth awarded Stop Six a Model Block Grant of $1.2 million, half of this federal funding available for improving housing, while the other half could contribute to community-development projects. This money was a combination of two grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnership Grant (HOME).
With the help of homeowners, neighborhood association members started using the funds to rehabilitate old houses: fixing dilapidated fences, rebuilding and painting exterior panels, and improving structural safety and livability. Association members planned to use the rest of the money to restore other historic structures in the vicinity.
But before all of the work was completed, there was an unexpected complication: The block grant funding suddenly stopped, and the remaining $800,000 went missing.
After discovering the money had vanished, Blair began e-mailing the city for an explanation. When that proved to be fruitless, she and several neighborhood association members attended a City Council meeting to find out what happened.
During the meeting, Blair recalled, the president of Historic Carver Heights’ Neighborhood Association disputed the City Council’s assertion that the money was transferred to her district –– Historic Carver Heights is another historically black neighborhood that had received its own Model Block Grant.
Carver Heights’ Torchy White accused the council of “lying,” Blair recalled, adding that she has never learned from Bivens where the money went.
Bivens, when asked for her take on the matter, said the funds did not go missing, but she referred further inquiries to the Department for Planning and Development and to the city’s communications director.
Accounting records obtained by the Weekly show that as of March 1, 2016, $740,367.98 of Stop Six’s grant funds were earmarked. This means that, based on HUD guidelines, the funds were slated to be “encumbered or expanded” within seven years or else be returned to HUD.
However, the documents accompanied by the Model Block Funding Chart, an informal report to City Council and compiled by City Manager David Cook, do not detail the exact dates for each occasion the funds were to be used and did not show any funds being used after 2010.
The Stop Six funds, according to records obtained by the Weekly, were then combined with the earmarked balance of $709,578.28 from the South Hemphill Heights Model Block project and used for the Columbia at Renaissance Square development project in District 8 (Highland Hills, West Meadowbrook, and parts of Morningside).
The Columbia project, a low-income housing complex by Columbia Residential of Atlanta, made news in 2014 when the proposed complex on Renaissance Square in southeast Fort Worth was denied tax credits, halting development. That was after the project was awarded its own $1.2 million grant that same year from the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation, a residential development arm of the city comprising nine city councilmembers and a Texas housing finance corporation.
That HFC later reduced its grant for Columbia to $700,000.
While the HOME and CDBG funds, which make up Stop Six: Sunrise Edition’s Model Block Grant, are originally from HUD, an e-mailed response from the HUD Office of Community Planning and Development said the $1.2 million Model Block Grant was not itself a HUD grant. Since the Model Block Program was a city program, grant money was awarded to the city, whose councilmembers could then use the funds however they liked.
“As a recipient of CDBG and HOME funds, the City of Fort Worth determines the activities it will fund and the areas in which it will undertake them,” said HUD Regional Public Affairs Officer Patricia Campbell in an e-mail. “It does so based upon local needs and priorities, which can change over the years. It is not uncommon for a city to deobligate funds from one activity and reallocate them to another that is higher on the priority list.”
All further inquires were directed back to the city.
Transferring the remaining funds from Stop Six and South Hemphill Heights allowed city councilmembers to use funds they believed were going unused, said Aubrey Thagard, director of city’s Neighborhood Services department. Though the Stop Six grant had not reached the seven-year deadline, Thagard said the city felt funds were not showing sufficient expansion by 2011.
“There were instances in which funds were not expanded in a timely fashion,” he said, “and, accordingly, to avoid the risk of having to repay or forfeit those funds, that’s why we repurposed those funds for other eligible activities and projects.”
Thagard noted these funding changes were made before he joined Neighborhood Services.
Housing Development Manager Avis Chaisson added that all grant money repurposed to the Columbia was allocated to that project –– meaning that funds could not be used on other activities. When Columbia received the necessary tax credits in 2015 due to increased public interest in the project, Chaisson said they knew the project was ready to move forward.
“There’s still three model blocks that have money left in them,” Chaisson said. “So, even though we substituted or moved the money over to Columbia, it’s HOME money, so it’s allocated to that project.”
Columbia at Renaissance Square is still in the works, Thagard said, and construction is likely to take place in a few months. In the meantime, the Model Block Grant money was used to pay for the land.
“Now [Columbia Residential is] working towards closing on all of their financing,” Chaisson said.
Stop Six’s Model Block Grant is not dead yet, Thagard said. There is not yet a plan in place for returning the money to Stop Six, but he said the city is figuring out its approach, so grant money can go back to funding community development in the area. That will require the city to find current funds to “make applicable toward programs,” he said.
Councilmember Bivens will likely act as liaison between the city and locals, Thagard said.
“Obviously,” he said, “the neighborhood association and other stakeholders will be involved in that process, but we will retain the responsibility for ensuring those projects get implemented.”
With Bivens’ assertion that Stop Six is in need of redevelopment, some Stop Six residents expressed concern that extensive redevelopment may ultimately lead to gentrification. Though Blair said some areas may benefit from “some gentrification,” the trends she’s seen at the city level have left her uneasy about the future of Stop Six residents.
“To create a balance in a community, you need some form of gentrification –– you do,” she said. “But now I don’t know what [Bivens] wants to do. So I don’t know what will occur.”
However, Bivens argues that the opposite is true: that gentrification will occur if the historic designation is not removed, since foreclosed properties can be purchased by anyone at minimal cost.
Bivens, during her discussions with locals during community meetings, said she heard many people talk about their vision for improving the area. These folks often overlooked the realities of the poverty, lack of retail activity, and neighborhood demographics, she said.
“I’ve heard people in some of the neighborhoods say, ‘Well, I’d like to see a Starbucks here,’ ” she said, “and I can tell you, Starbucks is not coming to Stop Six.”
She said it is easy for locals to get caught up in their fantasies about district improvements, but it should not get in the way of the facts.
“It’s OK to dream, but you have to respect the knowledge of experts,” she said.
Bivens said she wants people to come to Stop Six and have a sense of community –– something she said the area has not seen in years. She believes Stop Six residents just need a push in the right direction.
“I don’t want to see another 10 years of blight,” she said.
Blair said that she and other association members were upset when they learned their councilmember was working to unravel their four years of advocacy, their fight for Stop Six: Sunrise Edition’s historic designation.
Blair argued that Stop Six would not have needed improvement had the city played an active role in code enforcement and crime prevention from the start.
“There is blight, but it didn’t happen overnight,” she said.