Rebuilding the Interior City

A developer builds 13 spec homes in Como, and they sell in a flash. Townhomes are also in store for the southeast side of Lake Como. What’s next?

Tim Fleet has been building homes and developing property for years. And you’ll find him across the region, from Decatur to Ennis and Fort Worth interior city neighborhoods like Como, Morningside and the North Side. Why the interior city?

“We could make more money elsewhere, but we’re very interested in the inner city,” Fleet says. “We’ve invested money in the inner city. I think it’s important that people who have money help people who don’t have money. If more people in the inner city own their homes, that helps everybody.”

One of developer Tim Fleet's Como spec homes

Fleet is one ofa small number of developers who are working in Como – a neighborhood rife with vacant lots and seemingly stuck in a time warp – in a search for convenient interior-city sites with attractive prices. Como’s population has declined by half from a peak 7,063 in 1960, the neighborhood suffering the impacts of desegregation, mortgage redlining, crime and drug activity.

More than two years ago, Fleet, who builds under the Riverside Homebuilders moniker, bought 15 lots in Como for $5,000 apiece and built 13 homes. Two of the lots were “unbuildable,” he says, for issues that turned up later, like unclear title.

The four- and three-bedroom homes, with features like open floor plans, appliance packages and foam insulation, quickly sold starting at $160,000, Fleet says. “These have the same energy efficiency as our most expensive homes,” Fleet says. “Same warranty. I have an unlimited budget for warranty” – one year for certain items, and up to 10 years. But within the first year, he says he fixes anything that goes wrong.

Fleet has found strong demand for his houses in Como. “I don’t think we’ve had a house sit 45 days,” he says. And he’s purchased more lots, with 20 today. Lot prices have gone up, as they have in Fort Worth’s interior neighborhoods. The most Fleet says he’ll pay in Como is $12,000 per lot today.

Fleet’s not alone. The Houston developer InTown Homes, working with Phillip Poole’s TownSite real estate development firm in Fort Worth, plans single-family homes, attached rowhouses, and a public open space on never-developed land on the southeast side of Lake Como, the small lake that borders the neighborhood on its west side and is fronted by the Sunset Heights neighborhood on the east side. The project, through rezoning, is now going through a replatting at the city. “That will determine density,” Poole said.

Townhomes, courtyard-styled homes, and row houses are products Como needs, Poole says. “They’re missing in Como.” Trinity Habitat for Humanity has chosen Como as one of three focus neighborhoods for the several years, including Hillside/Morningside and Carver Heights East in Southeast Fort Worth, and is the largest homebuilder working in Como.

Estrus Tucker, Como Neighborhood Advisory Council facilitator

Estrus Tucker, a leadership and civic development consultant and facilitator of the Como Neighborhood Advisory Council, has watched as development interest has ratcheted up. Inquiries about property in the neighborhood have increased considerably since 2015. Neighborhood leadership has received about 20 calls from builders, investors, and developers in the last eight months, Tucker says.

At home, where he has three properties in Como, “I get about 30 slips of paper per week,” he says. With Como’s affordable prices, vacant lots and poverty, “the handwriting has been on the wall.”

Fleet is no small builder. His company sold 600 lots last year and closed sales of 286 homes, he says. This year, he’s budgeted to close on 420 houses and 900 lots, including 40-45 houses in the interior neighborhoods of Como, Morningside, and Northside.

Fleet quickly built trust among Como residents and leaders by appearing before the neighborhood council, calling on city leaders, and listening to residents’ concerns, Tucker says.

“Tim did his homework, he showed us his plans, answered questions about design,” Tucker says. “The community did not want a lot of small houses. They didn’t want homes that looked like they were for poor people. And there was an appreciation of garages.” Fleet also donated fencing to a community project, deepening the trust, Tucker says.

Some homeowners were worried about new development driving up property values and taxes, Tucker says. “That was in the room. It just wasn’t a dominant voice. Anything happening in Como, there’s a concern about prices and taxes going up.”

By contrast, neighborhood leaders chose not to help a Realtor whom they felt was disingenuous, Tucker says. “What he wanted was access to individuals who own lots. He wanted us to be a mediator. It felt insulting.”

Given Como’s struggles with issues like poverty, absentee landlords, and aging, Tucker says he doesn’t fear the neighborhood is about to get run over by gentrification. Using the Near West Side neighborhood of Linwood in the West 7th corridor as an example (Linwood’s modest frame houses were rapidly swallowed up and are being converted to luxury urban housing), Tucker said “There’s not likely to be a Linwood within the next five years. But 15, there could very well be.”

Como's Horne Street should be revitalized as a business corner in the neighborhood's heart, a new city plan says.

The city has kicked in, approving a strategic plan last year that covers Como and part of the Sunset Heights neighborhood, dotted by modest, older homes. The plan highlights the decrease in population and loss of small businesses and made several recommendations:

  • Development: Facilitate a range of pedestrian-oriented residential development; establish the north-south Horne Street as a “vibrant business district” with higher-density development on the northern section and more neighborhood retail and commercial development on the middle to northern segments; apply consistent design guidelines for new development and substantial redevelopment projects; promote the fee waivers offered by the city’s Como Neighborhood Empowerment Zone.
  • Housing: Improve Como’s housing stock with new affordable and market-rate housing; limited higher-density mixed-income housing in targeted locations; stabilized and rehabilitated existing housing stock; support of higher-density, “well-designed” townhomes, apartments and condos in targeted locations; rehab and foreclosure prevention assistance to existing homeowners; and public-private partnerships to achieve housing production and intervention targets over 20 years.
  • Neighborhood economic development: Bring new business onto Horne and strengthen existing business; develop programs to recruit and support small business and to develop entrepreneurs; establish business and merchant association.
  • Liveability: Improve parks; transportation network; make timely improvements to public infrastructure; work to reduce crime and code violations; establish an adult job training and workforce development program; establish a coalition to focus on reducing poverty; and develop programs that showcase Como’s heritage.
  • Capacity building: Expand committee structure of the Como Neighborhood Advisory Council; develop public-private partnerships between the council and other organizations; and establish a nonprofit for fundraising on revitalization projects and programs.

Lake Como is the most likely lowest-hanging fruit in the neighborhood’s redevelopment. “It’s a natural resource we need to be developing around,” says Poole, whose development is on the Sunset Heights side of the lake. Says Tucker: “What happens on the east side of the lake could be a catalyst for something on the west side.”

Tucker wants to focus on Como’s northern Horne Street gateway, looking to reinvigorate, for example, the site of a long-closed fried chicken restaurant and a way to revive the historic Blue Bird blues joint, closed for years. “He’s just sitting on it,” Tucker says of the owner.

Bringing back the Blue Bird could do wonders for reviving the neighborhood’s historic and cultural spirit, Poole says.

Tucker’s also taken the lead on forming a new community development nonprofit in Como that will be responsible for fostering development of affordable housing and economic development in the neighborhood. He wants to take deep dives into workforce development and incubating small business and entrepreneurs. “How do we connect people who live in Como with subcontracting opportunities going on in Como?” Tucker says. “Who are the small mom and pop shops thriving today, and how do we incubate them?”

The organization can facilitate affordable housing partnerships with investors, Tucker says. “We help lower the cost of doing business by bringing to bear some expertise,” he says. That could later turn into a fee-generation business for the organization, he said. “So much of what is driving Fort Worth is moving toward housing that is really not for the workforce,” he says. “Workforce housing is what’s missing. It’s going to be pushed to the perimeter, and the central city is not going to be affordable to the average Fort Worth resident.”

Tucker is drawing the board from other organizations already operating in the neighborhood; one-third of its representatives will be from outside the neighborhood. The organization already has about $100,000 in seed money, Tucker said.

Structurally, this kind of organization will be critical to the neighborhood, Poole says. “You have to have an organization that champions it,” Poole says. The city could make the organization, for one, responsible for managing publicly owned surplus property in Como, he says.

Tucker predicts Como will be “very appealing” to high-end developers in 20 years. “My hope would be that we’ve found a good mix of multifamily development that can preserve enough of the identity, have some appropriate senior facilities,” Tucker says. “Some appropriate townhome/condo communities would be a big part of what keeps Como here.”

He wants to see a strong nucleus of small businesses. “It would be wonderful to have something that draws people from all over the city.”