Lynn Donovan moved to the Magnolia Court subdivision last year. Eager to get away from what she said was rising crime on Broadway, she and her husband built a house in the long-planned but slowly developed subdivision.
The neighborhood was nice, she said, and peaceful.
“It’s very quiet,” Donovan said this week. “The neighbors are nice. I can leave things out on my front steps. For over a year, nothing’s been taken.”
It became less peaceful around the Fourth of July, when construction of nearly a dozen new homes began in the area.
Donovan and her neighbors now find themselves living in the middle of a sudden construction boom, as developers work to build 18 housing units that will be part of the city’s scattered-site public housing program. The program is meant to benefit people with low or moderate incomes.
The housing is part of a program intended to replace 569 public housing units torn down in 2009 after being flooded by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The Texas General Land Office is managing the project. Eventually, there will be 388 scattered-site units in the city, the land office said. Agreements have only been reached for the first 97 homes, however.
The idea behind the scattered-site program is to disperse the public housing throughout the city, instead of concentrating it in one area, as it was before Hurricane Ike. The four complexes torn down after the storm were all north of Broadway.
Under terms mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the scattered-site units cannot be concentrated in the areas they once were — particularly in the areas immediately around Broadway. Instead, the land office and developers had to find property in census tracts elsewhere in the city.
There are 18 scattered-site units scheduled to be built in the Magnolia Court subdivision. Two of those are being built behind Donovan’s house, another two in front of it, and another two down the street.
The number of units in the subdivision has some neighbors worried about a concentration of low-income housing in their neighborhood.
“The scattered housing program in our area is not scattered,” said Ray Truitt, a Magnolia Court resident who spoke during a Thursday city council meeting.
Land office officials say the Magnolia Court homes are only part of a larger plan, and future sites will indeed be spread throughout the island.
The number of public housing units proposed for the Magnolia Court area is far less concentrated than the housing it is replacing. The old Cedar Terrace public housing complex on Ball Street, for instance, had 139 public housing units in an eight-block area.
Donovan said she and her neighbors had concerns about the public housing. Some are superficial, others technical.
“I didn’t know what the vetting process was of the individuals that are moving into our community,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the number of homes, who owned the homes. I didn’t know anything.”
When the homes are completed, they’ll be occupied by clients who sign up for the project-based voucher program through the Galveston Housing Authority. The residents must meet the program’s income requirements, and must pass other benchmarks, including a criminal-background check.
After being cleared by the housing authority, the clients are not guaranteed housing, officials said. They still must reach an agreement with the property owner and enter a private contract.
“The Galveston Housing Authority screens for program eligibility and those that qualify are then passed along to the property owner or manager to apply,” said Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the Texas General Land Office.
Community reluctance to accept public housing is not new or unique in Galveston.
In early 2012, the city of Galveston was still in charge of building scattered-site housing. The city and the housing authority chose 12 sites, and alerted neighbors in the immediate area to the proposed new construction. Such notifications are typical in city planning cases.
The notifications drew vociferous protests from the neighbors at a three-hour long public hearing, and in the following months the city’s involvement in the scattered-site program fell apart.
The scattered-site program was taken over by the land office in late 2012, but the start was delayed by a failed lawsuit that challenged the idea that it was appropriate to replace public housing on the island at all.
Progress on the program didn’t begin in earnest until last year, when the land office began accepting bids from contractors to build the first round of scattered-site homes. This time, no letters were mailed to neighbors. Details about the program were published in the legal notice section of The Daily News.
Since the start of construction, the word has started getting out about the locations of the housing. An outdated list of scattered-site properties circulated on Facebook, which led some people to look up addresses in county records and identify the owners.
Revelations there also have led some people, like Donovan, to be skeptical of the program and city leaders’ connections to it.
At least two of lots on which scattered-site houses will be built were recently owned by James “Beau” Yarbrough Jr., son of Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. The younger Yarbrough is an executive with DSW Homes, one of the contractors building the scattered-site housing.
Galveston County Appraisal District Records show Beau Yarbrough bought the lots last year, and, until recently, was still reflected in property owner records as the owner. The records now show that Yarbrough transferred the deeds to Delldotto Homes LLC, a corporation registered by Texas City attorney Russell Plackemeir, on June 29.
Delldotto is one of the three companies with state contracts to build the homes. One of the others is J & S Ventures, which shares owners with DSW Homes, Beau Yarbrough’s employer.
In an email to The Daily News, Beau Yarbrough declined an interview, and said he had been told to direct all questions to the General Land Office’s public information officer.
Mayor Yarbrough said he was aware of his son’s properties, but has nothing to do with the construction or the future management of the housing units.
The Galveston City Council has not made any decisions related to scattered-site housing in the three years Mayor Yarbrough has been mayor, but Mayor Yarbrough said he had notified the General Land Office and Department of Housing and Urban Development of his son’s involvement to ensure it did not run afoul of state or federal rules.
It did not, he said.
Eck, the land office spokeswoman, said that the land office did receive a conflict of interest disclosure form from Beau Yarbrough, and again emphasized that neither the city of Galveston, nor the Galveston Housing Authority, were involved in the contractor selection process.
Some property records might not always reflect the latest plans for the scattered-site housing, Eck said.
“Many of the properties are optioned by the developer and the sale is contingent on HUD site approval,” she said.
Properties might fall off a list if the property does not meet federal housing requirements for approval or if the approval process takes too long and the option time limit runs out.
Donovan said she met with Beau Yarbrough last week, and received some answers, but still found the situation confusing.
“I’m not opposed to anyone having a place to live,” she said. “I am opposed to any kind of lack of transparency. If you can’t communicate, it brings a lot of fear.