The fate of a proposed affordable housing project in the often-neglected Las Vegas Trail neighborhood is in doubt, after Tarrant County officials said they will likely claw back $11.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for the project.
The county originally set aside $32.5 million for affordable housing as a general collaboration with Fort Worth, which has contributed about $26 million to fight homelessness. The county previously hoped to use those funds to build 254 units of affordable housing in areas of need. Now, that number has likely been cut by 55 – all from the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood.
“The county has not gone back on any word, because there was never any word given,” Precinct 4 County Commissioner Manny Ramirez said. The project would have been located in Ramirez’s precinct.
Three of the four previously authorized housing projects are moving forward for a vote by the county commissioners, according to a Feb. 28 meeting agenda. But the fourth, the Las Vegas Trail project, isn’t listed on the agenda.
A 2017 Star-Telegram investigation of the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood uncovered a community devastated by crime and poverty – and long ignored by city and county leaders. Cheap motels and crumbling apartments littered the area, filled with drugs, weapons and illicit activity. Since the 2017 investigation, city and county leaders and community members have worked together to funnel much-needed resources into Las Vegas Trail, including the addition of a community center.
Six years later, the area’s crime rate decreased by 22%. However, advocates say there is more work to be done in the area to reduce poverty and crime rates.
“A stable and productive life starts with being housed,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “Everything else flows from that.”
County re-evaluating ARPA spending
Anticipated county funding for Las Vegas Trail might not be on the table anymore.
The county is re-evaluating the LVT proposal, even as it fulfills its commitment to the other housing projects, county administrator G. K. Maenius said. The county generally doesn’t fully fund projects like this, Maenius said, which made the LVT development an outlier — the other three projects also have financial support from the city of Fort Worth.
Unallocated funding is being examined for potential use in a new project — the county’s law enforcement training academy — among other items, Maenius said.
Lauren King, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, said it’s disingenuous for the county to characterize itself as the only investor in the development.
“It’s like they’re solely looking at this one project. They are not looking at the big picture,” King said.
While Fort Worth is not directly funding the construction of the housing development, the city has invested a significant amount of federal and city funds in the revitalization of the Las Vegas Trail area. In a statement, Mayor Mattie Parker said the city has committed more than $26 million toward permanent supportive housing in recent years.
“Our kids deserve bold investments to ensure they can grow, learn, and be successful in our city,” Parker said. “Tarrant County has been a strong partner in these efforts, and I’m committed to working with the Commissioners Court to make these homes a reality.”
The $19.9 million in COVID relief funds – also known as the American Rescue Plan Act – that were initially planned for affordable housing are just about 5% of the county’s total federal allocation. The county received $408 million through the act.
At least 154 households in Las Vegas Trail applied for COVID-19 rental assistance, but that money has now run out. In the meantime, family homelessness continues to rise, King said.
About 31% of Las Vegas Trail residents live below the poverty level. The average household income in the area is about $31,000, less than half of the city’s average household income.
The city recently invested $3.5 million into Las Vegas Trail through its Neighborhood Improvement Program. It’s one-time funding for infrastructure projects such as streetscaping, lighting, sidewalks, crosswalks and street restriping.
LVTRise, a nonprofit organization based in the Las Vegas Trail community center, supports the community’s food bank and provides other services such as career counseling and legal aid.
The city is also leasing land to Child Care Associates for $1 on a 30-year term for an early child care center on the LVTRise campus, to be run by Child Care Associates. The program is set to serve about 100 children through the free Head Start program.
The commissioners court approved about $45 million to fund efforts to expand child care in the county.
This latest move by the commissioners court is frustrating and puts the planned housing development at risk of being abandoned, King said. She had hoped the county would be a partner in addressing homelessness moving forward when it approved its ARPA budget, which included $32.5 million for housing.
“A budget is a moral document, and that shows you what’s important to them,” King said.
By reallocating funds, it is clear that this court has other priorities, she said.
Ramirez instead characterized it as making sure funding priorities lined up with the priorities of the county commissioners.
“It’s basically gifting a capital asset to a nonprofit, that’s literally putting a $10 million-$15 million asset on a nonprofit’s books,” he said. “And we’re doing that with tax dollars.”
Commissioners prioritize law enforcement training academy
With affordable housing on the back burner, county commissioners are set to focus their sights — and dollars — on law enforcement efforts.
The commissioners court signaled plans earlier this month to build a $45 million law enforcement training academy. The academy would primarily serve the sheriff’s department, but would also be available to constables and other peace officers the county employs.
Currently, county peace officers train in a variety of different buildings.
Ramirez described the current training building as “horrendous,” and that it’s common sense for the county to invest those ARPA dollars into a new facility.
“If we want a world-class sheriff’s office, we have to provide world-class training,” Ramirez said. “I envision our sheriff’s office becoming a regional hub where we can help out our smaller municipalities in training. We can actually bring people from the outside and show them a model of how we train and be the best.”
Ramirez argued that the academy would not only help with recruitment and retention but funding it through this pool of dollars would save taxpayers’ money.
“If we can provide capital improvements that will lessen the need for Tarrant County general fund dollars, we can lower property tax,” Ramirez, a former police officer, said.
Long term, Brooks said the affordable housing project was primed to save taxpayer dollars.
“Growing our base of taxpayers depends on housing our citizens,” Brooks said. “Because once they become housed, they become employed and once they become employed they begin to support their families. Then they begin to pay the tax burden that funds all the services the county provides. It’s a no brainer.”
There are 261 job vacancies in the sheriff’s department right now, Ramirez said, and a training academy would act as a recruiting tool and incentive for people to come to Tarrant County.
Ramirez, Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes, and County Judge Tim O’Hare all expressed support for the law enforcement academy at the Feb. 7 meeting. In an interview with the Fort Worth Report on Feb. 27, Ramirez said the Las Vegas Trail and academy projects are not related.
“They’re completely separate. So when I say I think we’ve identified $40 million to $45 million, maybe $50 million — that is totally outside of any of that project,” Ramirez said.
New funding plans differ from previous framework
The county took a slow and steady approach to distributing money from the American Rescue Plan Act. After conducting a community needs survey, the county produced a detailed list of priorities for the funds.
Brooks pointed to the county’s needs survey during the discussion of the law enforcement academy, and emphasized the work the county had already put into prioritizing where the federal funding should go.
“To take that needs assessment and now throw it in the trash just because some members of the court have changed, seems folly to me,” Brooks said.
On the campaign trail, O’Hare told the Report he would consider using ARPA funds for tax relief. O’Hare did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ARPA framework approved by commissioners helps the county communicate its plans, but it also makes it easier to report its spending to the U.S. Treasury, which oversees the program, Kristen Camareno, assistant county administrator, previously told the Report.
While the framework helps the county guide its allocations, it is not required under federal guidelines. In fact, there are few restrictions on how the federal money can be used. However, the county does face deadlines — December 2024 to commit the funds to a contract, and it has until December 2026 to fully spend the funds.
The framework has four categories of funding: Improve public health, strengthen the community, prepare for the future and revitalize the economy. The Las Vegas Trail project allowed the county to leverage investments from other entities, a stated goal of the previous commissioners court, former County Judge Glen Whitley said.
“I would hate to see them do that,” Whitley said of cutting the Las Vegas Trail project. “I think affordable housing is something that we need on a lot of different levels.”
In Ramirez’s view, the new county commissioners court didn’t commit to any projects with Fort Worth or the nonprofits working in Las Vegas Trail. The decision is not a violation of any agreement, he said.
“So it’s not a part of a grand master plan for revitalization of any area,” he said. “Literally, it showed up in a request for bid.”
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