Birds chirp in the older, established trees that provide a canopy of green in the summer where Joyce Thomas lives in east Fort Worth. The homes feel miles away from the whizzing cars – despite her Woodhaven home sitting just off Interstate 30 near Randol Mill Road. 

“It’s very tranquil and serene,” Thomas said. “These are the communities that are resilient. We’re resilient.” 

But when Thomas leaves her well-established street of single-family homes and turns left onto Boca Raton Boulevard, she soon drives through a sea of apartment complexes dating back to the 1970s and ’80s. As she continues on, she sees a gaming room in a rundown stripmall. 

“That’s where we do have a little bit of a concern,” Thomas said. 

She’s hoping to attract more commercial developers to the neighborhood to help clear out some of the less-desirable businesses clinging to the strip malls. 

Thomas’ experience of east Fort Worth varies vastly with nearby neighborhoods, despite being just minutes away. Her neighborhood needs to tell its story better, highlighting the good, Thomas said. Other east Fort Worthians, however, have different explanations for stagnant development — and they vary widely.

Since the end of 2000, 10 new apartment complexes have been built in the heart of Fort Worth’s eastside — and many residents want to keep that construction stagnant. Neighborhood associations often vocally oppose proposals for new apartments or multifamily complexes, and city officials have frequently followed that lead.

The hilly terrain sets east Fort Worth apart from the rest of the city. But natural features aren’t the only difference between east Fort Worth and its neighbors to the west, north and south.

Like much of the eastside, Woodhaven generally lacks amenities such as neighborhood restaurants and retail stores for residents. Businesses have closed, including a Luby’s cafeteria, but T.D. Jakes and the Potter’s House still have a campus there. The neighborhood has a grocery store, an Albertsons.

Where Woodhaven differs is in the type of housing in the neighborhood. Woodhaven’s 22 apartment complexes are a relic of poor development practices that continue to echo through east Fort Worth. About 92% of homes are multi-family apartments or townhomes.

Woodhaven has often been held up as a cautionary tale of what happens to a neighborhood when you invite too many apartment complexes into a community. However, housing experts from Texas A&M and TCU assert that the area’s resistance to new multi-family developments could be hurting their chances of attracting commercial and retail developers looking for a large customer base. 

“If new development stimulates other new… then in areas that sort of stay stagnant, there is that risk of missing out on some of those kinds of new amenities,” said Kyle Walker, director of the Center for Urban Studies at TCU. 

Eastside residents are clear about what they want: diverse development that includes retail and sit-down restaurants. But despite the area’s population growth, those kinds of projects have failed to come to fruition. 

They’re on their way, said District 5 councilwoman Gyna Bivens, who represents a large swath of the eastside. The area has added thousands of homes since 2014. Now, it’s her job to represent the interests and views of the neighborhoods clamoring for commercial development. In her view, it’s imperative to not allow multifamily structures to be built on land that could someday become a commercial development. 

“It would be irresponsible on my part, and all stakeholders, to not do all we can to hold on to commercial property that’s available,” Bivens said. 

Dan Haase is a regular advocate for his Central Meadowbrook neighborhood and east Fort Worth. Over the decades, Haase has changed his perspective on multifamily developments. He now believes they are key to spurring more development in east Fort Worth. 

Central Meadowbrook is south of I-30, across from Woodhaven.

“We think we’re solving a problem by telling these apartment developers: ‘No, you can’t plant yourself here because we’ve already had all these bad experiences,’” Haase said. “And in reality, that’s just letting the bad guys continue to flourish because there’s no competition.”

That view differs from some of Haase’s neighbors, who are concerned that too much multifamily housing will increase traffic and crime – and decrease property values. 

“We don’t have a problem with development in our neighborhood at all,” James Hook, president of the John T. White Neighborhood Association, said. “We just can’t keep cramming in multifamily and not bringing the other other neighborhood necessities.”

John T. White is just across Loop 820 from Woodhaven. John T. White’s characteristic ranch land and large lots neighbor other single-family developments that serve as a buffer to Woodhaven’s apartment complexes. 

Multifamily stalls in eastside after 20th century boom

Clarita Porter, who has lived in Woodhaven for decades and was recently nominated for neighbor of the year, said most people have the wrong idea about Woodhaven. Renters are important and valued members of the Woodhaven community, Porter said. 

“It just makes me feel very, very proud to be in my community,” Porter said. “New teachers in the area need apartments. Our librarians, who are just starting out, also have apartments here.” 

Most of the apartments in east Fort Worth have been around for 40 or 50 years, according to research Haase conducted using maps and data from the Tarrant Appraisal District. 

The data Haase put together is not an exhaustive accounting of apartments in east Fort Worth, he admits. 

The area he surveys is bound by Texas 121 and U.S. 287, stopping before the Mosier Valley area near Euless, where several additional apartments fall into Fort Worth’s boundaries. More apartments are east of Texas 360, in Fort Worth’s CentrePort development, which includes a Trinity Railway Express station.

The point of his research is to get a better understanding of what kind of housing is actually available in his area of east Fort Worth, Haase said. 

“Out of that came a realization we really have zero new or newer market rate apartments anywhere in east Fort Worth,” Haase said. 

Data from other sources backs up Haase’s assertion. While apartments have boomed elsewhere in Fort Worth over the past five years, the eastside has seen a much smaller increase in the number of new multi-family housing permits approved. 

Data from CoStar Group, which provides real estate data and analytics, shows that the eastside has been largely left out of Fort Worth’s booming apartment market since 2000. 

Generally, apartment developers respond to market pressure, Adam Perdue, a research economist with the Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center. As land values go up, developers want to economize on expensive land by increasing the density of housing developments. 

“East Fort Worth seems to struggle compared with the rest of the metroplex, Bill Kitchens, director of Market Analytics at CoStar Group, said. He attributed the lack of interest from developers to demographics and few economic anchors such as an entertainment district or destination retail. 

Along with considering demographics and amenities, developers depend on coordination with neighborhood groups. When neighborhoods work with developers, outcomes are often better for everyone involved. Megan Lasch, president of O-SDA Industries, which focuses on affordable multifamily housing, said. 

“It takes two to tango,” Lasch said. “I mean, it really does take understanding from both sides to be able to get to a resolution.”  

Lasch recently built Sunset at Fash Place, affordable housing for seniors in the heart of the Meadowbrook neighborhood. Haase’s neighborhood was skeptical of the project at first, but ended up supporting it. 

“The leadership of that neighborhood group was able to pause and listen and learn and form a partnership,” Lasch said. 

Woodhaven is not what it used to be decades ago, when neighbors were concerned about rising crime rates. Through beautification efforts and community programming, the neighborhood feels safer and more unified than ever before, Porter said. 

Residents are still hoping to attract a better mix of development, Thomas said, including those sit-down restaurants and retail that is also highly prized in other areas of east Fort Worth.

“What will it take to get that development here?” Thomas asked. 

Decisions and demographics shape development

Zoning changes for multifamily developments proposed in the eastside since 2017 have been marginally less successful compared with other areas of the city. 

Of the 14 multifamily projects proposed in the eastside since 2017, about 57% were denied or withdrawn. In far south Fort Worth, out of 19 proposed multifamily projects, about 42% of projects were denied or withdrawn. 

East Fort Worth is the only section of the city where over half of the proposed multifamily developments were denied or withdrawn.

There has been opposition since the 1990s to multifamily housing that doesn’t fit with neighboring communities, Bivens said. 

“You have to respect what people want,” Bivens said. “People can be impatient about what we do on the eastside. But until they live in this geographic area, I don’t think their voice should supersede that of the people who live here.”

Developers base their decisions on a steady diet of  demographics and the amenities already available in that neighborhood, said Walker, the TCU expert. 

For decades, east Fort Worth residents have been fighting against a perception problem among developers and other Fort Worth residents, Hook said. 

“There are miles of shopping centers in north Fort Worth,” Hook said. “There’s no reason why this area shouldn’t develop in that way. But it’s been stigmatized.  Developers do not want to put their money in —  it all comes down to demographics.”

Thomas and Porter know that stigma all too well. They also struggle to get developers to see Woodhaven through their eyes. The pair lives in a different neighborhood than Haase and Hook, but all four residents agree that developers have ignored the eastside for too long. 

Now is the time to advocate for a diverse mix of development that allows residents to pursue their most healthy and happy life, Thomas said. 

“Fort Worth has to do a better job of telling our story, because over the years whatever the stigma or the perceptions or whatever has been there, is still sitting there unless we work to change them,” Thomas said. 

Woodhaven’s neighborhood association has tried to shift stereotypes by hosting events, advocating for new murals on Randol Mill Road and supporting nearby libraries and schools.  They’ve welcomed more rooftops into the neighborhood through a single family development off of Randol Mill. 

In the past, the eastside has felt forgotten, but that seems to be changing with new growth, Porter said. Still, Thomas is left with a question. 

“What will it take?” Thomas asks. She arrives at an answer: Unity with her eastside neighbors. 

“We have our own visions for each community,” Thomas said. “What about a collective vision for the eastside? So when developers approach we can say: ‘We have our vision for our communities but we also have a collective vision for the eastside.’”

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...