Candace Valenzuela is no stranger to the hardship of finding safe and affordable housing. After fleeing a violent housing situation, her family lived in a homeless shelter for a bit before finding a stable home.
Her past experience dealing with homelessness made sense when the opportunity came for her to become the Region 6 administrator for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, which includes Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
“Where I felt at home was with HUD,” Valenzuela said. “I feel acutely the pressure that people feel. I know why people are frustrated.”
Now, Valenzuela and her team are hoping to work with city and county organizations to address the growing demand for affordable housing in North Texas and the rest of the region.
Before becoming the region 6 administrator, Valenzuela ran for the U.S. House District 24 in 2020 as the Democratic nominee against Republican-nominee Beth Van Duyne, who previously held the regional administrator position. Before running for Congress, she served as a school board member for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD from 2017 to 2019, when she stepped down to run for Congress.
Just one month since being sworn in, Valenzuela said she’s already seen remarkable work completed in Fort Worth that could serve as an example of a community-driven project, while visiting historic Stop Six in southeast Fort Worth on May 5 with the Fort Worth Housing Solutions.
The work done in that neighborhood is “the absolute model of what we would want to start to see in other communities,” Valenzuela said.
“We want our programs to have that community-driven element to it so that those funds are used in a way that is again useful for the people actually living there,” she said.
In 2010, HUD began its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative program to use public and private dollars in support of local strategies to help struggling neighborhoods with “distressed or HUD-assisted housing.” That program was put in place in Stop Six.
The Fort Worth Housing Solutions received a $35 million grant in April 2020 to begin putting in place the program’s findings in Stop Six. The grant is expected to leverage $345 million in investment over eight years to transform the southeast neighborhood.
Mary-Margaret Lemons, president of the Fort Worth Housing Solutions, said the organization has always enjoyed a working relationship with HUD’s regional team and will continue working with them on future initiatives.
“The work is not easy, quick or inexpensive, but it’s the right thing to do for our communities, especially the communities that have been overlooked for decades, as far as infrastructure and investment,” Lemons said.
Valenzuela and her staff are still exploring other neighborhoods where a similar project could be applied.
“HUD is looking for a way to build sustainable communities. It’s imperative that people don’t just have places to live, but those are places where they can work, places where they can thrive,” she said.
The rapid demand for housing has placed a strain on organizations and associations tasked with helping individuals and families with finding affordable housing. That demand trickles down from homeowners all the way to homeless individuals seeking rental assistance, Valenzuela said.
“Unless you are incredibly wealthy, there are not a lot of folks who aren’t feeling the pinch of the housing situation, across the country and in the region. Whether they’re talking about property taxes or the cost of living, I think that there is a lot that we can discuss about what it means to have a robust housing supply and what it means to plan for the future of our community,” Valenzuela said.
On May 4, HUD awarded an additional 23 Emergency Housing Vouchers to the Tarrant County Housing Assistance Office to help individuals and families find stable and safe housing as “a testament to the program’s success in quickly housing at-risk individuals and families,” Valenzuela said in the news release.
James McClinton is Tarrant County Community Development and Housing Department’s director. He said the county’s aggressive programs are key in ensuring people are quickly housed and stay housed.
“That is an extreme challenge nationwide. The DFW area is no exception. It’s always a challenge to find units,” McClinton said.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker are also set to sign on HUD’s House America program on May 23. House America is a partnership between federal and local governments to help re-house individuals experiencing homelessness through a housing-first approach.
The program will use investments from the American Rescue Plan Act. Nationally, the agency is hoping to re-house 100,000 households between Sept. 20, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2022.
Tarrant County Homeless Coalition Executive Director Lauren King said the organization is trying to re-house 2,200 households in 2022. At the end of April 2022, they housed around 521 households.
“My thought factor was just, if we’re gonna join it, we should join it as a community, not just as Fort Worth is doing this, or Arlington is doing this,” King said. “We need to join it as a whole, as the coalition so that we have a shared vision as a community.”
The new position as regional administrator and the local partnerships is an opportunity for Valenzuela to give back.
“I think we have an investment in the republic,” she said. “If (the people) understand that I’m invested in them, I’m invested in their families and I’m invested in the preservation of this country as a country that stands for the American dream, then I’ve always had a path forward with just about anybody.”
Fort Worth Report fellow Sandra Sadek may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.