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ARA Sets the Record Straight

Urdy imageAustin, Texas - September 20, 2007.  If you happened to pick up and read the Austin Chronicle a couple of weeks ago, you may have noticed that once again their reporting on the Austin Revitalization Authority was inaccurate, biased and incomplete. In fact, their coverage of ARA activities since the organization's inception has largely followed a pattern of applying faulty reporting to support their bias that ARA is not serving the community.

            What concerns me is that instead of writing a story using well researched facts, the Chronicle and In Fact Daily reporter Kimberly Reeves chose the tried-and-true method of using a disgruntled member of the community to attack ARA. What saddens me is that the person who fell for this tactic is someone who is like a member of my own family, Sewah Archer.


            The gist of the story is this; Sewah was on track to buy an historical home at 1002 Juniper Street. When she told the ARA board that she was interested in purchasing the property, we were very pleased. As she rightly noted in her interview with the Chronicle, people like her - with her family's long and varied ties to the area - are the folks that ARA is supposed to be keeping in the community.


Although Sewah's mother is a long-standing member of our board, it was determined that there were no conflicts of interest and we proceeded with the renovation. Sewah didn't get her house, not because of any incompetence on the part of ARA as she claims but because of choices that she very consciously made.


            The whole point of the historic Juniper-Olive project is to keep the homes affordable, ideally so that African Americans with traditional ties to East Austin can afford to purchase homes in the area. Because the project receives federal money and because anyone who buys a home in the area is getting tens of thousands of dollars in instant equity, there are strict income guidelines that HUD says the City of Austin and ARA must enforce. As a single woman, Sewah pre-qualified for the house but then she chose to get married, which raised her household income above the guidelines.


            The entire ARA board respects her decision and wishes her well, but Sewah knew that if she married before she closed on her house it would change her status. She chose not to disclose that information. It was only after staff impressed upon her the penalties of signing false information on government documents that she officially admitted that her status had changed.


Throughout the entire process ARA staff including President and CEO Byron Marshall gave Sewah many hours of personal attention and guidance, helping overcome roadblocks and working with her to customize the house. After she defaulted on her contract, Mr. Marshall tried to help Sewah find a way to purchase the house anyway, but the guidelines are clear and could not be changed. Sewah chose to invest money into the house to pay for upgrades and was informed in writing that - should the purchase not be completed for any reason - she would forfeit those funds. ARA refunded more than we had to, given the agreement she signed. Sewah was understandably upset; she is not the only person to make a costly decision.  That does not justify her blaming ARA.


She threatened retaliation, convinced the Chronicle that they should cover her "plight" and recently urged the Urban Renewal Board to dissolve ARA.  She even told the URB that the ARA had a "bad' board of directors! I take exception to this. Clearly there are some members of the ARA board who have never had the community's best interests at heart, but Larry Jackson, Rev. Sterling Lands, Stella Roland, Vera Givens and others are longstanding, committed community activists.


As for her calling ARA's President and CEO Byron Marshall incompetent, that doesn't even deserve to be dignified by a defense. His national and international reputation is well documented. Anyone who takes the time to talk to Byron knows his heart lies with the community. We're very lucky and frankly amazed that he hasn't accepted one of the many lucrative job offers he's received since taking over the organization.


 The Chronicle article also mentioned a married couple, Darien Ligarde and Stephanie Villard, who haven't yet been able to purchase a home. The issue is that the City has yet to transfer the house to ARA so that we can begin the renovation. The couple told the Chronicle that ARA had not kept them apprised of the situation. That is also not true. ARA's real estate agent Sue Delcuze, as well as City staffers, told them that there was nothing that could be done until the City transferred the property.  


For some reason, the Chronicle and In Fact Daily seem to be focusing on gathering the momentum to disband ARA. Well, we've faced opposition from several factions in the past, especially liberal Austinites who believe that ARA is not capable of redeveloping the area in which most of its board members live, work, own businesses and attend church.


We're just as frustrated as everyone else that progress has stalled. More frustrated, in fact, because ARA has invested money in the area that we cannot recoup to complete other projects until the City releases the land and funds it has promised.


All of this brings us to a wider issue. It's not that the ARA board - which represents all of the surrounding neighborhoods, many of the business and churches and some of the area non-profits - doesn't make mistakes. We are a small non-profit with a dedicated, but overworked staff so sometimes we don't have time to communicate as well as we'd like with the community. We're working on doing a better job on that so look to hear more from us. We've always said that East Austin was going to be developed, there is no stopping that, nor would we want to. Our goal is and always has been, that the people who come from the neighborhood and who have traditional ties to the community are the ones who should guide its growth. Certainly, they should benefit from it.


ARA brought long delayed infrastructure improvements to E. 11th Street; assisted thriving businesses like Ms. B's Creole Restaurant, Style Rite Beauty Salon, and the Bydee Gallery in moving into its new buildings; helped to create the stunning art wall created by local black artists John Yancey and Reji Thomas (one of the most photographed public art pieces in Austin); and produced new and renovated historic homes in the Juniper-Olive Historic District. When you think of all that has been accomplished in the corridor it only makes sense to support the organization.

           After all, ARA is us. Though we may disagree with one another, when you look at the larger picture, it would be foolish to let other people set us one against the other and lose everything in the confusion.
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Dr. Charles E. Urdy
Chair, ARA Board of Directors
About the Austin Revitalization Authority. The Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) is the East End community working to restore the cultural and economic viability of our neighborhoods. We are a private, non-profit community development corporation whose board of directors mirrors our community. The mission of the Austin Revitalization Authority is to respect the people, institutions, cultures and history of the East End; help to restore a sense of hope and pride in the East End community; and revitalize the area's commercial, residential and social components in a manner that promotes diversity, stability and prosperity. For more information about ARA and our programs, visit our website at

The City of Austin and the Austin Revitalization Authority are committed to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. Reasonable modifications and equal access to communications will be provided upon request. Please call 974-3100 (voice) or 974-3102 (TDD) for assistance. This project is made possible by funding from HUD through the City of Austin.

Austin Revitalization Authority
Dr. Charles E. Urdy, Chair, ARA Board
Austin Revitalization Authority
Byron C. Mashall, Pres. & CEO