Galveston Housing Authority has an opportunity to correct at least two serious flaws in plans to replace 569 public housing units demolished in 2009 after being flooded during Hurricane Ike.
The first of those flaws is a mandate to build almost 400 public housing units on lots scattered around the island and operated by private firms with degrees of experience at managing low-income housing ranging from none to maybe a little.
As we’ve argued before, no local people, including the most ardent advocates of replacing public housing lost to Ike, supported the idea of building that much scattered-site public housing on the island. The Texas General Land Office and a group of Austin-based housing advocates with only an academic stake in the issue came up with that plan.
It appears now the island might avoid having to build most of those scattered-site units, which both former housing authority Executive Director Stanley Lowe, and former authority board Chairman Irwin “Buddy” Herz had warned would bankrupt the organization.
It’s interesting to note that Lowe and Herz were on opposite ends of the debate about replacing public housing. Herz ran the board that forced Lowe out. Yet on scattered-site housing, they agreed.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has ultimate authority in the matter because it has the money, have recently come to the same conclusion local leaders had reached in about 2010 — that building a lot of scattered-site public housing in Galveston would be impractical, unworkable, unnecessary and counter to the best practices demonstrated in other places.
Those federal officials have empowered and are encouraging the housing authority to instead pursue mixed-income developments.
This new federal direction allows the housing authority to reduce the number of scattered-site units on the island, perhaps even limiting it to the 97 already near completion.
The shift also provides the authority with an opportunity to correct a second major flaw in the warped plan that emerged after years of political upheaval over public housing — the removal of workforce housing from the mixed-income developments.
Original plans for the mixed-income developments called for three types of housing units — public housing for very poor people, market-rate housing for people who could afford the full cost of rent, and subsidized work-force housing for people with incomes somewhere between.
The Galveston Housing Authority board appointed in 2012 by a city council hostile to rebuilding public housing at all cut the workforce units from the mixed-income developments for reasons that never have been clearly explained, probably because there wasn’t a good reason.
There were, however, several good reasons for including work-force units. For one thing, that tiered system supports the “welfare-to-work” philosophy. The idea is that a poor family can move into public housing, get a job and move into work-force housing and perhaps eventually move into market-rate housing without ever physically moving; it’s a change of status rather than a change of address.
The method removes one of the biggest disincentives among public housing residents to seeking employment — the fear of earning too much to stay in public housing but too little to afford market rates.
Another good reason is that Galveston needs work-force housing and that need is quite possibly greater than any other housing need.
As they plan for more mixed-income developments, housing authority commissioners should restore the work-force housing component that was dropped from the original plan.
• Michael A. Smith