The Dead End at Olive and Juniper
Homeowners languish while ARA and city shrug
Many young newlyweds dream of owning their first home, with a sweet little yard full of begonias, a white picket fence, and a set of friendly neighbors. For Darien Ligarde and Stephanie Villard, married only four years and just beginning their careers, that first home, they thought, was not just a fantasy. Their dream house – a gray, fixer-upper, Thirties-style clapboard bungalow on a little hill, across from a park – sits off Olive Street in East Austin.
The white picket fence was missing around the home's tiny yard, and the neighboring empty houses on the street sagged a bit, but when Ligarde and Villard first saw the house at 909 Olive back in March of 2006, they didn't see those challenges. They saw only potential.
"I had just got out of school and was working as a general contractor. My wife, Stephanie, is a grad student at UT, still three or four years off from her Ph.D. in linguistics," Ligarde said. "It seemed like we had rented forever, and normally on the Eastside. With its proximity to UT and the fact it was affordable – this house seemed perfect for us," Ligarde said.
And "affordability" is just how the Austin Revitalization Authority sold the idea of the 18-home Juniper-Olive Historic District housing project. Here was one of the city's historic African-American neighborhoods in decline – only a mile east of the state Capitol – that would soon be restored with the help of federal dollars to the city and its nonprofit agent in this endeavor – the Austin Revitalization Authority.
The neighborhood was intended to be a prototype for the kind of economical housing that city leaders could generate in the inner city.
Some lots on Olive Street were cleared, and houses were built from the ground up; other existing homes were rehabilitated. When the project began, the average mortgage on these homes was expected to be in the $120s. That seemed feasible, as many of the properties were on the tax rolls at no more than $40,000. Buyers were scrutinized to confirm they made no more than 80% of the city's median family income in order to qualify for the combination of loans.
Ligarde and Villard, eager to move from their cramped apartment, completed the lengthy application form, qualified for the income guidelines, and submitted the first of two deposit checks totaling $1,000. They were even discussing plans for an addition of another bedroom.
"We were really kind of vetted during the application process," Ligarde said. "We had to fill out a pretty long application, prove that we did qualify financially. I guess a lot of people who weren't 'low-income' were trying to get these houses, so they were pretty careful who they were even going to put in the pot to qualify." At the time, Ligarde said, three months seemed like an awfully long time to wait to move into their new home.
Seventeen months later, Ligarde and Villard continue to wait. Little did the couple know that it would be months – or even years – before the renovation of their home would be completed. To this day, they're uncertain what to do – or even whether their uncashed deposit check is still valid to hold the house – and they don't know whether they'll ever see the inside of their promised home.
By Austin standards, Ligarde and Villard's protests of their situation have been mild. One would make a phone call to the broker; the other would send an e-mail to a city staff member. Eventually, someone would reply and tell the couple to be patient, that the ARA had hit another roadblock, and that construction would soon resume.
Sewah Archer did not endure so quietly. An Eastside activist and board member of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, Archer is no shrinking violet. Although she grew up in Phoenix, Archer comes from a long line of civic-minded members of East Austin's African-American community.
Her great aunt, Jeffrey Lott, was head librarian at the Carver Branch Library. Her great uncle, Jerome C. Lott (Jeffrey's husband), was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Her grandfather, "Fessor" Warren, was a cook at Brackenridge Hospital, a waiter at the Driskill Hotel, and proprietor of Warren's Place, a Sixties-era barbecue and beer joint on Comal Street. An East Austin elementary school is named after her cousin Mary Jane Sims, who taught at the Olive Street School (now Lott Park), just around the corner from the house Archer was slated to buy. "My folks are the people that ARA was supposed to be keeping in the community," Archer said.
So when Archer ran into a roadblock when it came time to move into her new home at 1002 Juniper, she got angry. Archer organized a group of buyers who were approved by the ARA to purchase the houses on Juniper Street. They called themselves the "Juniper 5."
"I got to know all the buyers, so we could all try to collectively bargain," Archer said. "But everybody was scared – really fearful – that we wouldn't get these houses if we threatened them."
This was back in 2003. So the potential buyers signed their reservation agreements and waited. In the meantime, Archer took an active part in the rehabilitation of her house. When construction began on the first house on Olive, she'd visit the job site and review the contractors' work. She purchased long-leaf pine for her addition because the architect recommended it. She even moved in her grandmother's claw-foot bathtub.
Archer was determined to remain in her job as an administrative assistant at UT – she didn't want any doubts when it came to the ARA's income guidelines. The one thing she wasn't willing to reschedule was her marriage – she got hitched just as the renovation of her house began, in August 2005.
But when construction was completed in April 2006, Archer was told she and her husband – an artist who hadn't worked in six months – were simply too wealthy to move into the house. Archer even moved to exclude her husband from the mortgage loan, to no avail.
Archer estimates she has sunk $8,600 into her Juniper home, little of which she expects to recover. What makes her angrier, though, is the fact that the wait-and-see game with the ARA left the Juniper 5 with few alternatives. By the time houses were completed, home prices and interest rates had skyrocketed. "They squandered such a major opportunity to get people into these homes when they could actually afford them," Archer said. "I call it a pure lack of performance on ARA's part."
Living in Limbo
For Ligarde and Villard, the delays seemed at first frustrating but bearable; then, as time went on, a bit odd. Villard said she was much more suspicious than her husband, wondering whether something had really gone wrong with the process.
The ARA told the couple that once the city hands over the deed to the property to the ARA, renovations would take four to six months. So far, the deed remains still in the city's hands. The couple attempted to sign a contract on the house in January, but ARA's Executive Director Byron Marshall returned the document without his signature.
Still hopeful, the couple occasionally drove up and down Olive Street, even as recently as a month ago. But the silence from ARA has grown deafening. Now, eight months after their attempt to complete the contract, the couple has all but given up on ever moving into their new home. "We kept driving by the house and the other houses on the street, looking for construction, some sign that something was going on," Villard says – "but nothing."
Marshall acknowledged that the renovation of at least six historical cottages has been delayed. He said that's mainly because city staff decided to make some policy changes on how to proceed with the renovations. "They are working now on giving us documents to transfer the property, but we don't have them yet, and they haven't been transferred," Marshall said. "They agreed to give us the money about a year ago, then they decided to change the way the program is set up. Their plan, at this point, is to take their new policy to council on Sept. 27."
That's why potential homeowners remain in limbo, he says, and why Marshall never signed that construction contract Ligarde and Villard signed in the ARA offices in January. ARA didn't yet own the property, and Marshall couldn't bind the agency to renovating it.
There's also a financing issue. Marshall said ARA is using two lines of credit on residential development. One line of credit, for demolition and construction of new homes, was secured. The other, used for redevelopment and rehabilitation of existing homes, was unsecured. That creditor wants ARA to refinance its existing loans so that ARA can pay down unsecured debt, Marshall told the Urban Renewal Board during a recent update on the residential development. The Juniper-Olive project started with 18 houses. A total of seven – built from the ground up – have been completed and sold. The remaining homes are historic rehabilitation projects. To make those rehabs work, with their higher market value, the city will provide a $60,000 per-unit subsidy, Marshall said, adding that completion could be as long as two years away.
Big Plans, Small Execution
Over at the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, Margaret Shaw says she understands the would-be homeowners' frustration but that the city is trying to uncouple the renovations from other aspects of the 11th and 12th streets redevelopment plan.
In 1997, when the redevelopment plan was formulated, the city's purchase of the houses and neighboring commercial property and residential tracts was bundled together in an orderly plan intended to be fiscally prudent. To make things work, one tract would need to be redeveloped and then sold to produce the income to renovate the next tract and then the next tract and the next and so on. The initial phase of mixed-use development, however, would take years to get under way.
Then the East Austin market exploded. Property values spiked. Home prices escalated. Suddenly the city's affordable deal wasn't so affordable. Why it's taken the city this long to rethink its plan is anyone's guess.
"We've spent the last year trying to unbundle these projects, to try to free things up," says Shaw, who adds that the ARA is still making progress on homeownership. "A number of the houses have been sold, and we've had great successes with commercial property like the Street-Jones building and all the corridor infrastructure. There have been achievements," Shaw said.
The Street-Jones and Snell buildings are part of Eleven East, the ARA's biggest accomplishment to date. The mixed-use project consists of three buildings and two garages near the Arnold Bakery and the historic Victory Grill. The city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office remains the single biggest tenant of a project built for commercial purposes. But other upstairs tenants include ESPN Radio, Door Number 3 ad agency, and BiGAUSTIN, a nonprofit business resource outfit. Downstairs tenants include Ms. B's Authentic Creole Cuisine and a community art gallery. At a recent meeting of the Urban Renewal Board, Marshall said 100% of both buildings' first floors are leased by small, local retail groups, with 15% set aside for minority-owned businesses.
The important thing to remember, Shaw said, is that the market has changed course. "We're no longer trying to incentivize development," she said. "We're also trying to preserve the affordable housing in a traditional and culturally rich neighborhood that's changing very quickly. We want to assure affordability while preserving existing businesses on the corridor as well."
Rudy Williams, president of OCEAN, the planning group for Central East Austin neighborhoods, takes strong issue with Shaw's assertion. He'd prefer to see the city preserve what it has rather than populate 11th and 12th streets with condos, lofts, and boutique businesses that cater to higher-income residents. "I'm not impressed. I don't believe that the effort ARA has made has done much to really foster the establishment of small minority business in the 11th and 12th street NCCD," Williams said, referring to both corridors' Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, or neighborhood plan. "This is not just about revitalization but, preferably, making sure the people who live here can stay here. Instead, I think it's going to have the opposite effect."
In a recent meeting with ARA's leadership, Archer said Marshall operated as though he were a newcomer to the business of residential redevelopment. But Williams doesn't lay blame at Marshall's feet. "I don't think you can blame one individual. It's the dynamics and the policies of the city, the county, and the school district that they've had for the past 50 years," Williams said. "What the city and ARA should do is really and truly invest in this community and find ways to sustain a neighborhood that's existed and survived a lot of negativity and racism. I just don't think the policies that we have now – or at least for the last 20 to 50 years, have focused in on that."
What Williams doesn't want is another First Ward. Williams, who comes from Houston, saw his old near-Downtown neighborhood plowed under and gentrified in the name of redevelopment. Williams doesn't want East Austin torn down just so yuppies can see the skyline. "You look at the First Ward, right behind Downtown, and it's a bunch of cottages and shotgun shacks and small rental houses," Williams said. "Now they've flattened the neighborhood and replaced it with condos and lofts. I'm just hoping and praying that the policies that we implement here don't have the same effect. You go into the big cities like Houston and Dallas, and you see these inner-city neighborhoods that are being eaten up by gentrification."
How the city of Austin's grand plan affects the relatively modest, frustrated hopes of those standing in line to claim their promised homes in the Juniper-Olive neighborhood remains unclear. In the meantime, Ligarde and Villard continue to wait for their dream home. Informed of the city's explanation for the latest circumstances, Ligarde said the real frustration – whether it's the fault of the city or the ARA – is the lack of communication.
"It really wouldn't have seemed so bad if someone had just let us know," he said.