FORT WORTH -- Fifty-four homes built this year by a city-private partnership in the Historic Southside neighborhood are almost all leased.
Tenants leased four last week, and four remain. Demand for the three- and four-bedroom, two-story frame homes -- rented to families for up to $1,080 monthly under affordable housing rules -- is the latest encouraging sign in the piece-by-piece revitalization of the low-income central city neighborhood, officials say.
"Community revitalization has to have a housing component, and it has to have an economic development component," said Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, whose district contains the neighborhood.
The neighborhood, once known as Terrell Heights, had a grand opening last week on the $10.5 million Terrell Homes project, a partnership of the city Housing Finance Corp. and NRP Group of San Antonio. Mayor Betsy Price, state Sen. Wendy Davis and former Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks attended.
On Friday, Historic Southside cut the ribbon on a 7-Eleven. Earlier this year, it celebrated a new Jack in the Box. Both are milestones for the neighborhood, which is bounded by Interstate 35W on the west, East Vickery Boulevard on the north, Riverside Drive on the east and East Rosedale Street on the south.
The city in recent years has built the pedestrian-friendly Evans Avenue plaza, a new library branch and the Hazel Harvey Peace Center for Neighborhoods.
Next year, the Housing Finance Corp. plans to build the first two to four of 11 homes that it will sell to buyers qualifying under the affordable housing rules.
Nearby, across I-35W from Historic Southside, a Wal-Mart Supercenter is set to open next year, employing 300 and anchoring the big Renaissance Square development.
"The city has made a significant investment, and we have private developers who are starting to make a significant investment in the community," Gray said. "Now you're seeing the fruits of everyone's labor."
The city-NRP partnership emerged from the recession, buying the lots from a group whose redevelopment plans stalled and building the homes on nine streets with help from federal money and $2.5 million in tax credits purchased by Comerica Bank.
Leasing of the homes, which range up to 1,575 square feet, started two months ago. Tenants qualify based on income and family size and don't have to requalify to renew. Rents can rise or fall annually, based on trends in median household income. Tenants cannot sublet.
Tenants who rent for 15 straight years will be eligible to buy the homes for the remaining debt, estimated at an average of $32,000 per home, or $1.7 million for the project.
The partnership may also offer a refurbishment package to be built in to a higher sale price, said Jay Chapa, Fort Worth's housing and economic development director.
The homes come with fully equipped kitchens, ceiling fans, walk-in closets and garages.
"I would be stunned if these houses weren't worth $150,000 in 15 years," said Daniel Markson, NRP's senior vice president of development.
The Housing Finance Corp. has 11 lots under contract to buy in the neighborhood, and an architect is working on designs, Chapa said.
The homes will cost $75 to $80 per square foot to build, and the agency will build them as they sell, he said.
"The idea is to just sell them at cost, to get the market going there," he said.
"We think the price point is going to be $90,000, $100,000."
Gray likes the lure of immediate ownership.
"We have to look at ownership right now, as opposed to down the road," she said. "It has to be a mixture for us to be truly successful."
The partnership planned to build a second phase of up to 30 more lease homes in Historic Southside, but it shelved that after a lawsuit by a Dallas group against the Texas Housing Department forced the agency to rewrite its rules for dispensing tax credits.
The lawsuit alleged that the old rules effectively kept poor people in historically low-income neighborhoods, and it said the rules should be rewritten to encourage affordable housing developments in higher-income neighborhoods.
"If the Terrell Homes application had been submitted under the [new] rules, it would never have been awarded," said Ramon Guajardo, an affordable-housing consultant and retired Fort Worth assistant city manager.
The new rules are in place for 2013, and Markson and Chapa hope to lobby for changes in 2014.
Guajardo said Fort Worth needs more affordable housing in various neighborhoods, not just poor ones.
"But I think the change that has been put into place for the next year goes from one extreme to the other," he said. "And the answer is somewhere in between."
'Money adds up'
Susan Jackson, 42, and her 10-year-old son are among Terrell Homes' newest tenants, moving from the Carver Heights neighborhood and leasing a three-bedroom for about $900 per month.
Two years ago, Jackson lost her job as a home health aide and her home to foreclosure.
Her unemployment benefits have run out, and she's just started a business, offering to assist elderly clients and give them baths.
Through fliers and posts on Craigslist, she secured her first two clients for the $30 service in the last week, one in Arlington, the other in Colleyville.
"That money adds up," Jackson said.
"I'm trying to not even think about" the rent, she said. "God has been so good to me."
Al Piper, president of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association, said he hopes the new families improve the neighborhood schools and spur reinvestment by other homeowners.
"As parents that move into the community get more involved in the schools, that will facilitate better education for all," Piper said.