Correspondence: Charles Urdy and Michael King

An exchange of letters on the ARA, affordable housing, and related matters

Point Austin
[edited only to avoid repetition of questions]

From: Michael King <mking@austinchronicle.com>

Sent: Monday, September 24, 2007 6:41 PM

To: Charles Urdy

Subject: Questions for Dr. Charles Urdy and ARA

Dear Dr. Urdy:

I'm working on a column in response to your open letter about the Chronicle and other matters, and I'm sorry we're not getting a chance to chat directly. Apparently you're annoyed at us, and perhaps even convinced that we're part of some campaign, to cite your words, that is "gathering momentum to disband ARA." I assure you that is not the case, and that we have no particular animus against ARA and its projects. The recent stories came to our attention in the course of related reporting, and we asked questions as we do on all such matters, and also received responses from ARA (Byron Marshall) and city officials responding to our questions.

But as you requested, I submit the following direct questions, for your responses. Some of these would have been quickly answered in conversation, but I follow your email request. If other sources at ARA can better answer certain questions (about documentation, for example), please direct my questions to them.

[See both questions and answers below]

If you need clarification or would prefer to answer in person or on the telephone, please let me know. The phone at my desk is XXX-XXXX. I would be glad to make any necessary arrangements to speak to you directly.

As I told Mr. Lyles, my working deadline is tomorrow afternoon.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Michael King, Ph.D.

News Editor

mking@austinchronicle.com


Subject: Questions for Dr. Charles Urdy and ARA

Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 13:50:19

From: Charles Urdy' <info@austinrev.org>

To: <mking@austinchronicle.com>

CC: Byron C. Marshall' <bmarshall@austinrev.org>

Dear Dr. King,

With all due respect to your deadline, it is my understanding that your first request for an interview was made on Friday at 4:45 pm. Since the ARA staff is small and currently working on a number of pressing deadline driven issues, no one has had time to gather the documentation you request.

For instance, 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.

In this instance it is my understanding that Ms. Reeves interviewed Byron Marshall but did not mention Ms. Archer at all. So, ARA's side of this unfortunate story was not included. Is this accurate, complete and unbiased reporting?

I respectfully suggest to you that you might consider putting this story on hold until you have a chance to come over here to see what ARA has accomplished, talk to some of our many supporters and look at source documents yourself. I understand that may not be possible but need you to understand that 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. While we took on this project, it is not nor has it ever been our primary mission. Our mission is to spur private investment along the commercial corridors of E.11th and 12th Streets while preserving and enhancing the ability of the businesses indigenous to the area to create wealth and jobs. I'll try to answer your questions as best I can.

MK: 1. You write that our reporting in the recent story by Kimberly Reeves was "inaccurate, biased and incomplete." However, your letter indicates only that we were perhaps too credulous of a couple of our sources on the story -- and you accuse those sources of misleading us (see below). I don't know why you believe we've followed a "pattern [of] bias" in our reporting on ARA, but if you can point to such bias, we would be glad to revisit it and if necessary correct it, wherever it occurred. Please explain briefly.

CU: See above.

MK: 2. You accuse us of "using" Sewah Archer as a "tactic" to attack ARA. (Later you accuse Archer of the reverse.) As it happens, this story did not begin with Sewah Archer, and our reporter only spoke to her in the course of speaking to several other people waiting for an ARA response on the homes in question. Why do you presume we somehow suborned Sewah Archer to tell her story?

CU: Ms. Reeves should have verified the facts of what she was being told by a disgruntled source. You don't have to "suborn" someone with a grudge to talk to you or to use them to support a (conscious or unconscious) bias. No one is more frustrated than we are about the stalled progress on getting people into their homes but if you talk to anyone who is already in one of the homes the organization has built or renovated, they would have to say that even with the delays (if they are being honest) that ARA staff has gone the extra mile to get them into their home.

MK: 3. You accuse Sewah Archer of the serious charge of attempting to falsify government documents by failing to disclose her marriage (and fluctuating income) until ARA staff "impressed upon her" the consequences of such a falsification. Since I received your letter, I have reviewed Archer's voluminous records of all her interactions with ARA, including detailed documentation of her husband's income over those years (sometimes month-by-month), all of which records were copied to ARA, are presumably on file there still, and reflect a complete and full record of any variation in her income or that of her husband.

I presume you have some supporting documentation or other support for your charge against Sewah Archer. Can you provide it, perhaps in summary form?

CU: 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.

MK: 4. You do not dispute that Archer "chose to invest money into the house to pay for upgrades" and say she was informed in writing that should the purchase not be completed, "she would forfeit those funds." Can you supply a copy of that notice to Archer?

CU: Her executed sales contract, which she had reviewed by her attorney prior to signing, was clear on this fact. Just as it was about what items would be returned to her in the event of a default. The latter were negotiated at her initiation.

MK: 5. Since the eventual owner is the beneficiary of those upgrades, does it not seem reasonable to have included these costs in the purchase price of the home (as is standard in such transactions), so that Archer might have been reimbursed, at least to some degree?

CU: Not and keep the house affordable. The final price was raised to cover a portion of the costs that ARA incurred to install the items Ms. Archer said she would complete after she moved in. These historic homes cost far more than they can be sold for as affordable homes. They are also worth tens of thousands more than the buyers pay for them. We are not making money on these historic homes - if we're lucky we will break even. However, the buyers realize instant equity that they can capture by merely staying in the home for a period of time. In her case that affordability period was 10 years and the equity was over $50,000, plus any appreciation realized between purchase and sale.

Dr. King, ARA went far beyond what most other builders would have done for Sewah. We wanted her to have that house as much as she wanted it. If there was a way we could have reasonably reimbursed her more than we did, we would have. It is not ARA's fault that Ms. Archer is not in that home. She made a conscious and very personal decision to marry, a decision no one can judge. But, the decision had consequences. I would ask that you check with other builders and ask them what happens to a potential buyer's investment if they make upgrades (for which they have paid) and then is unable to consummate the deal.

MK: 6. You accuse Archer of "threatening retaliation" and of "convincing the Chronicle [to] cover her 'plight'" (somewhat in contradiction to your initial accusations against us). Can you document any "threats of retaliation"? I presume you do not believe Archer should not recount her version of her story to a reporter because it might not reflect well on ARA, even if ARA (e.g., Byron Marshall) was given ample opportunity to respond (as the article in question reflects)?

CU: Ms. Archer said, in a meeting we held to help resolve the issue, that she would go to "7 on Your Side" unless she got all of the money she was requesting, not just the additional amounts we were willing to consider because they brought value. It is her right to go to the press.

As for ARA having ample opportunity to respond, Mr. Marshall was never asked about Ms. Archer. He was asked about the delays in the project before the meeting with Ms. Archer ever took place.

MK: 7. Do you believe the transaction/renovation of Archer's potential home proceeded in a timely and efficient fashion? If not, why not?

CU: Once construction started, it moved as quickly as could be expected for a renovation project of this kind. The project was delayed in the beginning because of various city bureaucratic hurdles. Also, we were committed to using local craftsmen whenever possible as opposed to larger contractors. In some cases, Ms. Archer's desire to customize the house also resulted in a longer construction time.

MK: 8. You say "Clearly there are some members of the ARA board who have never had the community's best interests at heart?" Which members, and how has this antagonism to the community been manifested? Do you believe the board should be reconstituted, with new membership?

CU: Many of the positions on ARA's board were dictated by the City because certain groups were not in favor of our organization. So, rather than working on a board whose mission they supported, some members were antagonistic. I don't think it's helpful to name names in this context. They know who they are as do many members of our community. We are trying to work as best we can to carry out the mission of the organization.

Once again, I want to impress upon you the complexities of the issues you are reporting on, on such a tight deadline.

As I stated in my letter, Sewah Archer is like a member of my family and there is no interest in hurting her or exposing her situation any more than it has been. Continuing to fan the flames is not helpful to anyone.

If you are truly interested in reporting about what is important in this community, I would be happy to sit down with you and share the history, the hurt and the triumphs of this process. It's easy to tear someone down, Dr. King, and any cursory study of Austin's history will show that there is good cause to be wary of the press.

I answered your questions as best I could on such short notice but again, this is not about us not working diligently and competently to get people into their homes—we're doing that as best we can given the constraints we work under. The larger issue is overcoming the issues that are slowing down this and other projects on the corridors.


Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 15:55:42

From: Michael King <mking@austinchronicle.com>

To: 'Charles Urdy' <info@austinrev.org>

Dr. Urdy:

Thank you for your response.

Without entering into a controversy over mutual timing, I received from you your open letter (not addressed to the Chronicle although apparently already published, certainly widely distributed) late Thursday. I called Friday afternoon to arrange a conversation in which we could have addressed all these matters and anything else you might have wished to discuss. Late Monday your assistant asked me instead to submit questions in writing and you would respond last night, and I have this afternoon received your response.

Since your open letter is now widely disseminated, it seems curious that you now request that we "put this story on hold" until we review additional information about ARA. Perhaps that should have been a consideration before you published your open letter. (For the record, on Friday and again on Monday, I requested from your office a list -- unavailable on the ARA website -- of the current ARA board members. I have yet to receive it.)

In the specific instance of questions about documentation of the charges you made against Sewah Archer, I would have presumed you would not have made such claims if you did not have the documentation close at hand.

I'm happy to have your answers, and I will do what I can to acknowledge them as well as the charges in your open letter.

Thank you,

Michael King

News Editor

mking@austinchronicle.com

(512) 454-5766

(512) 458-6910 (fax)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Revitalization Authority, Charles Urdy, ARA, Sewah Archer, affordable housing

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