Point Austin: Shoot the Messenger

The ARA strikes back

Point Austin
Charles Urdy is annoyed at us.

He's also annoyed at In Fact Daily, the Web-based city politics newsletter published by Jo Clifton, and at Kimberly Reeves, a news reporter who contributes regularly to both IFD and the Chronicle. The occasion is a Sept. 7 Chronicle story by Reeves ("The Dead End at Olive and Juniper"), which recounted the experiences of several would-be homeowners in their unsuccessful attempts to purchase homes on the near-Eastside, under a program managed by the Austin Revitalization Authority.

Former City Council Member Urdy (also a retired professor of chemistry who prefers to be known as "Dr. Urdy") is chairman of the board of the ARA; Urdy Plaza, an ARA project on East 11th, is named in his honor. On Sept. 20, under his signature, the ARA released an open letter ("ARA Sets the Record Straight," posted here), recounting Urdy's judgment of the Chronicle story: "[O]nce 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." Asked later to document this "pattern [of] bias," Urdy wrote, "I do not have in front of me all of the articles that the Chronicle has written about ARA over the years, but I can say that whenever I have read one, I could easily point out where the reporter got it wrong. Sometimes it was leaving out a critical fact or not digging far enough to find it. Sometimes it was failing to even talk to someone from ARA about the issue at hand. Seldom has the Chronicle featured ARA's accomplishments." Instead of accepting responsibility for any mistake, that has been the ARA refrain to every critic: "Why don't you talk about the good things ARA has done?"

Further on, Urdy expands his complaint. "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." By "Postmarks" name-calling standards, "liberal Austinites" is fairly mild – although the polarized racial coding ("liberal Austinites" vs. "our community") of Urdy's attack, first published in the Eastside Villager newspaper, is quite transparent. But Urdy's notion that we or IFD have some private agenda to undermine the ARA is both laughable and all in his head. On that score, I can second what IFD's Clifton posted last week: "We can say absolutely that we have no intentions toward ARA – one way or the other. We trust our reporters to simply tell it like it is and believe they strive to do so." That's what Kimberly Reeves did in her ARA story for the Chronicle, and in his letter, Urdy cites nothing of substance that was misreported.

Blame the Victim

Frankly, if Urdy and the ARA are mad at us, that's fine. We're used to ruffling the feathers of public agencies and officials, at City Hall, the Capitol, Capital Metro, LCRA, or wherever, and if they respond angrily or cite real errors, so be it. We shrug at the outrage and correct ourselves whenever necessary. It comes with the territory.

But Urdy's letter quickly leaps past the Chronicle to attack instead our sources on the ARA story, essentially calling them liars for daring to criticize the ARA. Reeves interviewed several neighborhood folks (representative of several more), who spoke about their extended frustration in trying to buy homes through ARA. Darien Ligarde and Stephanie Vil­lard waited 17 months for renovations to begin on their contracted home (still untouched), and specifically complained that ARA did not keep them informed of the reasons for the delay. Writes Urdy: "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." Asked about Urdy's claim, Ligarde laughed wryly and said, "Well, if keeping us apprised means we had to call incessantly to find out what was going on – to which we got no responses from ARA, only at long last from the real estate agent [Delcuze] at Commerce Bank – I guess they kept us apprised."

That's a relatively minor dispute. The bulk of Urdy's letter is devoted to a personal attack on another would-be homeowner, Sewah Archer, whom Urdy first identifies as "someone who is like a member of my own family." If this is how Urdy treats family members, I'm delighted we're not related. At some length, Urdy accuses Archer of lying about her dealings with ARA and even of trying to falsify government documents.

Archer had recounted to Reeves the elongated saga of her attempt to buy a Juniper Street house through the ARA, which began in 2003 and ended last year, when she was informed that because her 2005 family income had narrowly exceeded the federal guidelines, she was no longer eligible for the home (since sold to someone else). In the fall of 2005, while still waiting, like several of her neighbors, for the ARA to get its act together, Archer had married. A one-year spike in her artist husband's income had pushed them temporarily above the line, though he had since been laid off and was unemployed. (As an administrative assistant at UT, Archer's own income was well below the affordability guidelines.) She had already personally invested several thousand dollars in the renovations, and has forfeited nearly all of that money. (It's worth noting here that the Chronicle summary of this episode – that Archer had "moved to exclude her husband from the mortgage loan" – was imprecise; it was in fact the lending bank that instructed her, because he anticipated no substantial income in 2006, to list him as a "non-participating spouse," a status which in theory should have met the income guidelines.)

Archer told Reeves her story primarily as an example of how the delays and what she called the ARA's "pure lack of performance" had left her and her neighbors without homes and without recourse. The ARA might have simply responded – as CEO Byron Marshall in fact did when questioned by Reeves – that the delays and other problems were largely a consequence of changes in city policy as well as financing difficulties that are out of the ARA's hands.

Instead, Urdy accuses Archer of initially concealing her marital status from ARA and then attempting to falsify government documents. In Urdy's words: "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." Those are serious charges, and after receiving a copy of Urdy's letter, I spoke at length with Archer about her circumstances.

I reviewed voluminous and detailed records of her yearly income and that of her husband – sometimes month-to-month – most or all of it on file with the ARA. She says she informed the ARA both of her marital status and the change in her income in a timely fashion and that there was never any discussion at all of falsifying documents of any kind. When she read Urdy's letter last week, she says his accusations – from a longtime family friend whom she trusted implicitly when she first decided to work with the ARA – made her sick to her stomach, and she left work that day to begin assembling the documents, which, in my opinion, prove him wrong.

Who's Lying?

Charles Urdy declined to speak to me directly about his letter, instead asking that I submit questions by e-mail. I did so, asking him (among other things) if he could document his charges against Archer. This was his response: "Ms. Archer was well aware of the income requirements set by the federal government at the time she signed the sales contract. It is unlikely that she was unaware of her intent to marry at the time she signed the contract. It was her responsibility to let us know of a change in her situation if it potentially made her ineligible to purchase a home. The organization had not been officially informed of Ms. Archer's marriage until it was time to sign the re-qualification papers just prior to closing in the summer of 2006. She submitted 'the detailed documentation' after inform­ing staff of her marriage. It would have been better to make the information known early so that if there was a way to help her we could have done so, just as we have with several other buyers whose circumstances changed." This is all well and good, but it does not respond to my actual question.

In his e-mail, Urdy's earlier claims in his open letter – that Archer was lying and that she attempted to falsify government documents – have mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps he no longer believes these things. Or perhaps he should have checked ARA records before he accused her of attempting to defraud the ARA and the federal government.

I'm certainly aware that there is a great deal of brackish water flowing under this particular bridge, and I have no eagerness to get in the middle of a very bitter dispute among formerly close friends. But if Charles Urdy and the ARA cannot produce convincing evidence of their public charges against Sewah Archer, they had better move to make similarly public amends, and quickly.

Check Yourself

In his e-mail, Urdy complains that reporter Reeves did not explicitly ask Marshall about Archer's experience with the ARA, and that is unfortunately true – Reeves tells me they spoke only "in general terms" about the project delays, and Marshall's responses were understandably and suitably general. But that was also because – as Urdy wrote emphatically to me –"This controversy is really not about Ms. Archer. It is about the huge unmet need for affordable housing, who is responsible for providing that housing, and why it has taken so long for ARA to receive the land and resources it needs to complete this project that it was asked to take on."

I wholeheartedly agree with Urdy on that issue. But it is Urdy and the ARA, in their published open letter, who have tried to make Sewah Archer the focus of this discussion – not Archer nor the Chronicle and In Fact Daily nor Kimberly Reeves. Angry that Archer had the courage (or gall, as they see it) to criticize them publicly, Urdy and the ARA accuse her of betraying her Eastside "community" – as Urdy puts it, foolishly letting "other people set us one against the other and lose everything in the confusion." On that charge, he and his colleagues at ARA need to take a serious and long look in the mirror.

The ARA's record on affordable housing is currently under close scrutiny by the Urban Renewal Board, city staff, and the City Council. For the record, the city's answers to Reeves' questions – which amounted to, "We're working on it" – were even less responsive than Marshall's. There is apparently plenty of blame to go around, and I truly have no position on whether the ARA should be allowed to continue this project it has thus far mostly bungled or if the city should seek another arrangement. But I do fervently believe that striking out in a personal attack at someone whose only crime is to tell her story should have been unworthy of Dr. Charles Urdy, Byron Marshall, and their colleagues at the ARA.

The complete text of Charles Urdy's responses to my questions about this matter are posted below in the sidebar "Correspondence: Charles Urdy and Michael King."

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Charles Urdy, Kimberly Reeves, Austin Revitalization Authority, Sewah Archer, Byron Marshall, In Fact Daily

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