GALVESTON — The Texas General Land Office in mid-July received a study that will largely define how and where more than 300 public housing units will be built on sites scattered around the island.

The report, which focuses on the most controversial aspect of a larger plan that induced profound controversy on the island for more than five years, arrived without fanfare, and the land office will work to keep it from public view.

That tight hold on the information is causing consternation among some who’ve been deeply involved in replacing 569 public housing units demolished after being flooded by Hurricane Ike in 2008. And for some, the report stands as a telling example of how, in an effort to block the rebuilding, civic leaders abdicated both responsibility for and control over a project that could affect every neighborhood in Galveston.      

Request filed

The Daily News on Tuesday filed a Texas Public Information Act request for the report, which was paid for with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The land office would seek to withhold it, however, under a provision in the act exempting from disclosure documents related to potential real estate transactions, Jim Suydam, press secretary to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said. Disclosing the report could harm taxpayers by tipping off potential sellers to inflate land prices, he said.

The land office in March awarded WFN Consulting of Marietta, Ga., a $420,000 contract to determine general areas appropriate for the scattered-site public housing units, Suydam said. The consultants reviewed neighborhood census data and assessed such things as the quality of infrastructure and availability of health care and transportation, he said.

The report also was supposed to include a study about “revitalization of the North Broadway neighborhood” and “adjacent low income minority neighborhoods,” according to a resolution approved by the Galveston City Council in September 2012 after long and often heated negotiation with the land office and HUD.

It was unclear last week how deeply the report delved into revitalization issues, however.

Aside from assessing potential public housing sites, the report would help make suggestions about how the city could coordinate building infrastructure with rebuilding public housing, Suydam said.          

Seeking details

What was clear last week, however, was that people and groups involved in the long, contentious rebuilding effort were keen for details about the report and that some were feeling shut out of the process.

Texas Low Income Housing Information Services, which was instrumental in Galveston receiving hundreds of millions in federal disaster recovery dollars, sought to have input in, and to learn details about, the consultant’s work, but wasn’t able to, John Henneberger, the group’s co-executive director, said.

“We asked to meet with the consultants but were not allowed to,” he said. “The GLO handled this process completely internally.”

The group finally gave up and moved on to other projects, Henneberger said.

Steven McIntyre, an attorney and member of nonprofit Gulf Coast Interfaith, who has been among the main local advocates in the rebuilding effort, said he was able to arrange a meeting with the firm and the land office.

“A few of us in town met with them a few weeks ago,” he said. “I asked for the meeting and encouraged them to talk to folks north of Broadway and not just to the Chamber of Commerce and people in the government, but people who live and used to live there.”

The consultants listened but didn’t probe for any input from the local delegation, McIntyre said.

He said he had been unable to learn any details about what the consultant’s report recommended.

Surprised

Mayor Jim Yarbrough said he met with land office officials shortly before taking office in May and left that meeting under the impression that the consultants would be in touch; that never happened. He said he was surprised to learn Wednesday that the consultants had filed a report.

Yarbrough said he intended to contact the land office looking for details about what the consultant recommended.

“There still may be an opportunity to influence the scattered-site part of the plan,” he said.  

Interim City Manager Brian Maxwell and other staff members met with the consultants to talk about development along Broadway near mixed-income projects that also are part of the public housing rebuilding effort, spokeswoman Elizabeth Rogers said. The scattered-site public housing units were not part of that discussion, she said.

Not surprised

Former Galveston Housing Authority Board Chairwoman Betty Massey said it wasn’t surprising to her that the report appeared to have been done without much local input. The authority under Massey had supported rebuilding public housing, but opposed doing so with a large number of scattered-site units. That board instead favored building mixed-income developments like those planned on the sites of the demolished Cedar Terrace and Magnolia Homes projects. Henneberger’s group had favored scattered sites.

Local leaders lost control of the process after the 2012 city council election in which a bloc opposed to rebuilding public housing at all was swept into office, and Massey and her pro-rebuilding colleagues on the authority board were ousted, Massey said. In September 2012, the housing authority struck a deal under which the land office would find a nonprofit developer to build and operate as many as 388 scattered-site public housing units.

The local housing authority now has no role in the scattered-site part of the rebuilding. That same month, the city council agreed to surrender the $500,000 HUD community redevelopment planning grant to the land office. That money was used to pay for the report filed in mid-July.

“They not only ceded our responsibility to provide low-income housing, they abdicated any local control over the biggest part of it,” Massey said. “It was one of the dumbest things ever done in Galveston.”

The land office last week was drafting a request for proposals for nonprofit developers qualified to run the scattered-site effort, Suydam said. Officials hoped to make a selection by the end of September and have the planning work commence by January, he said.

Contact Associate Editor Michael A. Smith at 409-683-5206 or michael.smith@galvnews.com.

(15) comments

Susan Fennewald

it's not really a bad sign that they weren't interested in what the locals had to say.. It wasn't good that they talked to Gulf Coast Interfaith (a group with very one-sided views and therefore no credibility in overall housing issues) but it sounds like they were just being polite.

It will be very interesting to see their report - and how they weighted various factors. Particularly interesting will be to see if they included any county-wide analysis. Were their directions to confine themselves strictly to the island? unfortunately, I think so - but perhaps I'm wrong.

Let's face it - this is a real estate issue and the GLO has legitimate grounds for keeping it secret until after the land is bought. When the city was trying to buy out bayfront property after Ike - the neighbors bought potential sites so that no public park could go in near them. I learned that if the city wants to put in a public bayfront park - it'll have to keep it very secret until after the land is bought if its anywhere near houses. I can only imagine the reaction to public housing sites.

Steve Fouga

Susan, I think I remember a provision stating that all of the scattered sites must be new construction; i.e. existing apartments, rental houses, or properties for sale can't simply be declared eligible to become public housing. Am I remembering correctly?

Is it likely that he land to be purchased is currently privately owned, or City property, or both?

I'm not inferring that you have any inside knowledge, just asking because you seem to know something about the process.
[smile]

Mary Branum

This is all about "them" and "us".
Them being the government.

I was under the false impression, the government is "us"!

I still do not understand what our State has against Galveston.

Norman Pappous

Jake you are correct

Susan Fennewald

The requirement for new construction wouldn't necessarily eliminate the possibility of buying something older, tearing it down, and then building something new. (Would it?) The problem will be finding room on Galveston Island for that number of units (which is a LOT). I suspect that they'll actually construct a new "project" somewhere, or perhaps multiple new projects of 25-100 units, in order to reach 300 units. Galveston doesn't have enough empty lots to have 300 units of truly scattered sites (where there's only 1-4 units in a 3 block radius).

If you're worried about your neighborhood - look around you. Are there many empty lots? Probably not. If there are no empty lots in your neighborhood, then I like to think that you really don't have to worry about the housing authority buying them- unless they start buying and tearing down houses in order to build new public housing.

Steve Fouga

Thanks, Susan and Norm.

Like you said, not many empty lots in my neighborhood or really any of the so-called "better" neighborhoods, or for that matter the "poorer" ones either.

That's one of the reasons this approach never made much sense to me. It's almost like a joke: "Hmmm, let's think of a densely built-out city where we can plop down a bunch of extra people. And let's pick one where it's hard to find a well-paying job, where many among the existing population are already poverty-stricken, and where once a decade the town is demolished by a natural disaster."

What a peculiar location to put any sort of public housing.

Susan Fennewald

I have to point out that your generally wrong about no jobs. Galveston has more jobs than people. Thousands of people commute to the island every day for their job. Galveston has problems - but lack of jobs isn't one of them. I point this out only because some people are willing to sacrifice quality of life for jobs - when Galveston's problem is really the reverse of that. We have jobs, but the workers aren't wiling to live here.

I know if you don't have a job, or are looking for a particular type of job - it seems like there are no jobs. But we're a small place and we don't have an infinite variety of jobs. In Galveston, if you're wiling to take any kind of job (and are employable) - you should be able to find one. It may be bagging groceries, or working as a waiter - but there are "now hiring" signs around town.

Steve Fouga

My point is that not just any job will give a person in public housing the ability to eventually leave it and purchase (or rent) unsubsidized housing, and build a life independent of the dole. Plenty of jobs, but the well-paying ones are taken.

I know this in part because my daughter, a recent college graduate, can't find a job on the Island that pays well enough to support herself. As you say, she could find a min-wage job easily. If that's our intent for the folks in public housing, then aren't we guaranteeing them a lifetime in the projects?

Rauline Vanda

Perhaps they will build on the site of the Old Government/Coast Guard Housing that they are demolishing now on around 44th U I think? Does anyone know what is going to be done with that site?

Steve Fouga

I hope this land is far too expensive for public housing. Imagine, people getting to live for almost nothing on some of the Gulf Coast's most valuable property!

I don't know what's planned for the site, but probably a hotel, restaurants, or upscale multi-family. Really, this is one of the best locations on the Island.

Joel Martin

They were asking ten million last I heard.

Rauline Vanda

Wish someone would build a really nice entertainment establishment on this property with a bowling center/skating rink/country dance hall. Would have parking area as well. Maybe I'm not awake yet. Thoughts anyone?

Ellen Morrison

You must still be asleep - and dreaming, Vodka... that's going to be a hotel complex, and a fancy one, at that.

Since Landry's owns the cute little vintage brick motor court that is now an apt. complex behind it, TF might be eyeballing it?

Rauline Vanda

Ahhhh confusedemmy....Yes, I was asleep & dreaming. I figured as much regarding TF eyeballing if not already in hand. I didn't know he already owns Crockett Courts behind there. (or at least that's what it use to be called many years ago).....Well alrighty then!....I'm wide awake now, was a nice dream though. [wink]

Rauline Vanda

Oh! And if we could HAVE Gambling here in Texas....That would be a PRIME area for a CASINO!!!! Well yeah...I guess I'm really not awake now. Though my previous suggestion would create a few jobs as well. [smile]

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