An April 16 story in The Texas Tribune was the talk of Galveston last week, not to mention a source of embarrassment. Here’s the headline:
“It’s our form of apartheid”: How Galveston stalled public housing reconstruction in the 10 years after Ike.”
To a city that likes to consider itself open and progressive, that had to sting. The article rehashed the racial tension, anger and vitriol that arose over rebuilding 569 public housing units destroyed by Hurricane Ike and correctly points out the island is nowhere close to rebuilding all of them.
But we were struck by who got let off the hook, some revisionist history and some blatant omissions, particularly about how an Austin-based advocacy group and the state — purporting to look out for the interests of the poor — played pivotal roles in the long delay in rebuilding Galveston’s public housing.
First, to read the article is to believe that the issue was divided straight down racial lines — between blacks and whites. “Shouting matches have erupted between the mostly black residents who supported rebuilding and opponents who claimed public housing produced a refuge for crime.”
There’s no doubt that racism fueled much of the opposition to the rebuilding of public housing. It got ugly and was a low point in the city’s history. There were the almost laughable pretensions among some leaders who claimed to oppose public housing because they cared so much about the poor. We say almost laughable, because it wasn’t funny.
In reality, many white and African-American leaders in Galveston fought side by side to rebuild the city’s public housing. To say otherwise is an insult to many people who sacrificed political careers and suffered personal attacks in an effort to ensure the units were rebuilt.
A coalition of white and African-American leaders had by late 2011 developed a detailed plan to replace the 569 housing units lost to Ike, while avoiding the most unpopular possibility — hundreds of scattered-site units.
To meet terms of a 2010 conciliation agreement, that coalition advocated replacing the public housing units with mixed-income developments and only 50 scattered sites. Granted, that better plan was derailed by Galveston residents who, incredibly, believed we could and should just hand poor people vouchers and send them across the causeway.
It’s also true the all-white bloc in power in Galveston after 2012 had to be forced into moving ahead with any plan other than exporting the city’s poor to mythical “high-opportunity” census tracts on the mainland.
Very many Galveston residents of all walks of life, and this newspaper, opposed that reactionary political stance.
The article’s most glaring omission is how, exactly, we came to be in 2018 with the bulk of the housing units still unbuilt and its failure to note the role both the Texas General Land Office and the Austin advocacy group Texas Low Income Housing Information Service played in that long delay.
The Galveston City Council in 2012 approved a resolution supporting development of 388 scattered-site units under a plan drafted by the land office and the advocates. The plan called for Galveston Housing Authority to manage the development of two mixed-income complexes, while the land office would manage the scattered sites.
The land office and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development forced the city to accept the plan. The coercion was necessary and justified, but the governments could just as easily have forced the city to return to the original locally developed plan calling for more mixed-income units and only 50 scattered sites. Instead, they adopted a plan favored by the Austin-based advocates.
The locally controlled mixed-income developments are complete, have been for a couple of years, and are successful.
What’s not even near complete is the scattered-site part under land office control. It took the land office about four years to even issue requests for proposals for its part of the rebuilding plan.
Meanwhile, nothing about the scattered-site effort is working out to be anything like the plan.
The advocates, for example, assured everyone the scattered-site units would be operated by “qualified, competent, mission-driven nonprofit” groups for “no less that 75 years,” that all units would be taxed or pay amounts to the city in lieu of taxes and tenants would have the option to buy the units.
None of that is true.
The land office is paying for-profit developers — many with no experience at anything, much less at housing the poor — about $15 million to build, manage and own the first 97 housing units.
Rather than being public housing for 75 years, they’ll be public housing for 15 years.
Under the 2012 plan, the local housing authority was not to be involved at all in the scattered-site program.
That, too, has changed. Now, the local housing authority is to be responsible for almost 300 scattered-site units, which would mean they won’t be on the tax rolls.
Irwin “Buddy” Herz, housing authority chairman, has objected to the plan, arguing the authority doesn’t have the money to maintain and operate that much scattered-site housing and would be bankrupted by the effort.
The land office had used a special kind of rent-subsidy voucher to underpin private developers of the first 97 units, but has said that’s not an option for the remaining 287 units, Herz said.
“Now there are no more vouchers available, so if any more scattered sites were done, we — meaning GHA — would have to do them,” Herz said.
After The Texas Tribune article began circulating, Herz said in an email to area leaders:
“I asked for a maintenance and reserve fund to be used only for the scattered sites (necessary after the first couple of years) as GHA building 250+ units with no means to maintain or upkeep would bankrupt GHA in a few years. This request has been ignored as the out-of-Galveston advocates only care about numbers — not quality of scattered site homes in the years to come.
“If GHA doesn’t get support for this position, Galveston will have a large number of slums in the next 10 years.”
Proponents of scattered-site public housing say it deconcentrates poverty and gives low-income people a chance to live in more affluent neighborhoods. Opponents fear that subsidized housing in general, particularly public housing, threatens property values and community safety. Even some supporters of public housing in general say scattered-site housing removes low-income residents from the services they need.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, much of it correctly directed at local people and reputed leaders, but let’s not make the Texas General Land Office and the Austin advocacy group heroes here.
To do so is to engage in revisionist history.
• Laura Elder