Growing affordability: How a housing agency leader aims to provide solutions in Fort Worth

June 21,2022


See full Fort Worth Business Press article by Bob Francis, Fort Worth Report here.

Since arriving at Fort Worth Housing Solutions in 2015, Mary-Margaret Lemons has been busy. 

As the first general counsel at the agency, she had a lot to learn. That meant reading and listening – two key leadership skills she emphasizes.

She had plenty more to do, particularly in 2017 when she became president at the agency, which provides rental and home ownership opportunities for people with lower incomes. She learned and tackled many things all as Fort Worth was closing two aging housing communities, Butler Place and Cavile Place, and relocating residents throughout the city. 

A lot has happened under Lemon’s leadership at Fort Worth Housing Solutions. The agency has about 1,500 units currently in development and a pipeline of projects on the way. Housing Solutions manages 6,400 rental assistance vouchers across various programs that help 33,000 people cover housing costs every day. 

“We’re growing,” she said. 

Despite all that change swirling around her, Lemons found a family connection. 

The agency currently has its headquarters in Butler Place Apartments, located at the northeast intersection of Interstate 35 and Interstate 30, one of 52 Public Works Administration projects for low-income housing built in the Great Depression. One of the architects of that project was her great-great uncle, Wiley G. Clarkson, who also built many other projects in the city, including TCU’s library, Trinity Episcopal Church and homes in Ryan Place and River Crest. 

“It felt like a full circle moment when I figured that out,” she said.

Lemons had served as the agency’s first general counsel the previous two years. During that time, she quickly began to educate herself about the agency, which provides rental and home ownership opportunities. 

“Mary-Margaret is a very solutions-oriented person, which I love,” said Michael Crain, who represents District 3 on the Fort Worth City Council. “If there’s a problem, she’ll say ‘Let’s figure out how to solve it.’”

When FWHS takes over or acquires a multifamily project in his district, Crain said he knows he doesn’t have to worry about that project. 

“They’re using their assets to then reinvest in other places, other neighborhoods, so we can continue to house our most vulnerable,” he said. “It’s important work.” 

Lemons, 42, has some deep Fort Worth roots, although she was born in Galveston and didn’t come to the city until her father became golf pro at River Crest Country Club.  

Lemons was in elementary school then, and golf served Lemons well. She was on the R.L. Paschal High School golf team and her first job with a paycheck attached was for a used golf club store on Camp Bowie Boulevard. 

Lemons’ path to her current position took more of a dogleg. 

She began with a public relations degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and while in college worked with celebrity chefs Grady Spears and Tim Love just as Fort Worth and Texas cuisine began to gain some culinary recognition. 

“It was a great experience for an 18-year-old,” she said. “I was booking cooking classes, and editing cookbooks and photo shoots for all kinds of things while getting my college degree.” 

Career re-evaluation began either early one morning or late one night. She’s not quite sure. 

“I don’t know if it was opening the door in the morning for the fish guy that made the delivery at 7 a.m. or clearing beer bottles off a table at the White Elephant Saloon late one night, but I was like, ‘I don’t know that this is a long-term career path. I’m tired,’ ” she said. 

She headed to Texas Wesleyan Law School, now run by Texas A&M. 

She interned at OmniAmerican Credit Union, then took a full-time position there. It was an eventful time, as the credit union became a bank. 

“It was a really community-oriented organization,” she said. “I got to work in Fort Worth and get to know a lot of people which has helped me now.” 

She also got plenty of experience, first as the credit union became a bank and then when the bank was sold to Southside Bank in 2014. 

She worked with Tim Carter, then president of the bank and a former executive director at United Way of Tarrant County. 

Lemons received a lot of good advice from Carter.

“He challenged me to find a way to get to ‘Yes,’ because the legal team can say ‘No’ a lot. I like a challenge, so it gave me a new way to think about things.” 

Carter also advised her to always give more than you take. 

“And that’s the way I lead with my staff,” she said. “I feel like if you just live by that mantra, you never can go too far wrong. So give more than you take, and I do that with time, effort, everything.” 

One benefit she and the agency have given to employees is a four-day work week, so they can spend more quality time with their families. 

Lemon’s father died from prostate cancer in 2010, when she was not yet 30. She was busy at work then and in a high-stress position. It made her re-evaluate work life. 

“I just realized that time is our most precious commodity and people really need to take time off and not always feel like they have to be at the office or connected to the office,” she said.  

The housing authority started the four-day work week just before the pandemic and has kept it since. 

“I think it does just create a better work-life balance and less absenteeism  honestly,” she said. “People aren’t taking PTO (paid time off) because they know they have a day to get stuff done.”

Birthplace: Galveston 

Family: Husband, Eric Lemons; daughter, Lucy Mac, 13, and son, Thomas, 10

Education: Bachelor’s degree in public relations at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2002, law degree from Texas A&M (then Texas Wesleyan) School of Law in 2007. 

Work experience:  Reata, Tim Love, OmniAmerican Bank, Fort Worth Housing Solutions. Lemons serves on the Board of Trustees for the national Public Housing Authorities Directors Association and is a member of the board of directors for Downtown Fort Worth Inc., North Texas LEAD and the Continuum of Care for Tarrant and Parker counties.

Volunteer experience: Served as committee chair for The WARM Place’s annual gala. Sister, Shelley Bettis, is executive director for the nonprofit which offers grief support services for children. Also worked with Cancer Care Services. 

First job:  Tour Line. When Lemons was 15, she worked there on Locke Street. The store sold used golf clubs. 

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “Listen. I think one of the reasons I got here is I absorb a lot. Always keep your eyes open, your ears open and read, read, read. I was carrying around a tabbed HUD (Housing and Urban Development) notice for six months and really trying to learn the housing authority before I was asked to take an interim role here. And when they looked around and said, ‘Who knows the most about what’s happening,’ it was me. I had been there the longest. Hadn’t obviously been in housing, but I knew how to get the right people around the table, so be collaborative and listen.”

Best advice you ever received? “Always give more than you take, from Tim Carter.”