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

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

(21) comments

Susan Fennewald

The basic problem with the rebuilding is that Galveston is too small a place, and has too little empty space, to support that many "scattered sites". The "numbers" are bad - the GHA couldn't make them work, and the GLO couldn't make them work. So now what?

Steve Fouga

I'm sure I'm naive, but couldn't the plan be renegotiated to include fewer scattered and more concentrated sites? I mean, now that the existing plan is demonstrably not working? Perhaps there's been enough personnel turnover and political changes at the federal, state, and local levels to make it happen... 🤔

Susan Fennewald

But where would you put the concentrated sites? I'm not sure that there's anywhere on Galveston that would pass the standard criteria. They were able to rebuild on the current sites because the rules allow rebuilding at 1/2 the density on already used sites without satisfying the normal criteria for sites.

George Croix

Steve, did you hear the tale of the irresistable force meeting the immoveable object....?

Jarvis Buckley

I read the Texas Tribune article. Very
mean spirited & divisive. Not a fair account.

Raymond Lewis

Be curious to know what you thought was not "fair" about the TT article Mr. Buckley?

Susan Fennewald

Mr. Lewis, what I thought was unfair ... was that there was no indication that Galveston has almost ALL of the county's public housing and that our density of public housing, even without more rebuilding, far exceeds that of Houston, Austin or 99% of the state of Texas. And that we were the ONLY place that was required to build public housing in order to obtain hurricane relief funds.

Emile Pope

There is plenty of blame to go around. But it's concentrated on one side. The city agreed to rebuild the housing in order to receive funds for Ike recovery. But the minute the money was received people began a concerted effort to make the city go against the agreement, which even ousted the mayor simply because he insisted that the city honor its agreement. The only reason that the housing ended up being built was that the city's refusal meant that it would have to pay back the money that it had already received (which it was unable to do). And a long winded argument trying to justify the actions of people against rebuilding public housing does little to change the facts.

lauraelder Staff
Laura Elder

Where would be the part justifying anyone's actions?

Emile Pope

Wasn't Herz against the original plan to rebuild the units that the city agreed to?

lauraelder Staff
Laura Elder

Yes, but this editorial didn't justify that.

Emile Pope

The fact is that if the city had followed the original agreement it signed off on none of these problems now would have existed. So complaints about the secondary plan ring hollow.

Raymond Lewis

Good article Laura and correct, there is plenty of blame to go around. But..finding blame was kind of what got us here. It will be interesting to see the out come of GLO's changed position to now want the housing authority to manage the scattered sites. That was not part of the deal. The plan was for way too many scattered sites to begin with. A mess of our own making.and about to get messier...almost ten years after Ike.

lauraelder Staff
Laura Elder

Mr. Lewis,
I think you're right, that we need to move beyond the blame and find the solutions. We're concerned that the GLO is not living up to its scattered-site agreement and we will continue to cover that issue.

Susan Fennewald

I agree - a mess. And it will be interesting to see how it will be done. I just hope that the GLO retains responsibility - so that Galvestonians won't be held responsible for it.

Emile Pope

Unless I am mistaken, your editorial was "Plenty of blame to go around". Yet when I show that blame solely lies with the city's refusal to follow the original agreement your position changes to "move beyond the blame". "Find the solutions" was not what your article was about. I guess I'll have to wait until you decide to cover that issue...

Susan Fennewald

In the first place - originally the "city" didn't agree to rebuild. The GHA did. The "city" and the "housing authority" are not the same entities. When the Conciliation agreement was signed that promised that Galveston would rebuild - that involved the state of Texas, HUD and the housing advocates. I'm not sure it even involved the GHA. But it certainly did not involve "the city" of Galveston.

"Best practices" in public housing would have had the rebuilding occur over a widespread area - at least the county of Galveston, if not the entire Houston metro area or the state of Texas. Instead, the state, the housing advocates and HUD agreed to have ALL of the public housing rebuilt in Galveston.

So far, it's been impossible to cram this much public housing into the city of Galveston in any responsible manner. Either they'll give it up - or they will stop trying to build it in a "responsible" manner.

Steve Fouga

Susan, I guess I am naive. I thought there were several areas of substantial open space. They must be zoned inappropriately or considered unsafe or too far from amenities. Broadway near the justice center, East End Flats, Fort Crockett barracks, various spots north of Broadway...

Susan Fennewald

Zoning isn't an issue in Galveston (though it is in other places). I'm not sure why they decided that the old Oleander homes site isn't suitable. But whatever the reason, it probably also applies to the neighboring property in front of the Justice Center. The East End flats is unbuildable by anyone. The ground is unstable unless LOTS of money is spent to stabilize it. It's been a while since I reviewed the criteria for public housing sites - so I've forgotten the details. It may be the "flood plain" issue since almost all of the island is within the 100 yr flood plain. And/or a money issue? The seawall is high ground and may not be in a 100 flood plain - but it is VERY expensive.

Jarvis Buckley

Laura explained the exact point I was trying to point out Mr. Lewis.

Rick Altemose

Link to the Texas Tribune article: https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/16/galveston-public-affordable-housing-hurricane-ike/

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