Public housing debate continues in Galveston

Following Hurricane Ike, Facing South reported on the struggles of thousands of low-income and public housing residents trying to find places to live after their homes suffered damages during the storm.In Galveston about three-quarters of all homes were damaged in the storm, and many public housing units were deemed unlivable. In the year since Ike, Galveston's poor and most vulnerable residents have been in limbo, waiting to hear the city's plans for rebuilding its public housing.

Before Ike hit, about 2,200 Galveston families lived in public housing or subsidized apartments. As the Houston Chronicle reported in 2008:
Hurricane Ike scattered them to hotels, cramped quarters with family members and the Red Cross tent city on the island.

But with the search for longer-term housing comes a larger question: What part, what place, will Galveston's poor have in the city's revival -- if any?

That's the question still being debated in the city today. This week the Galveston Housing Authority finally announced plans to rebuild 569 units of public housing lost in the storm. But the decision has met controversy from all sides, with the most recent public meeting on the rebuilding plan ending in a yelling match that laid bare race and class tensions present in the island community.

As the Galveston County Daily News reports:
The public meeting hosted by the Galveston Housing Authority on Monday ended in a shouting match between people who support the plan to rebuild 569 public housing units and those who oppose it.

Encouraging poor people to live in Galveston is a bad idea, opponents of the plan, who were mostly white, said. But without public housing, the island's nurses, teachers aids and service industry workers will have nowhere to live, supporters of the plan, who were mostly African-American, said.

The future of public housing has become a contentious point of debate in cities across the country in the past decade. The debate was brought to the Gulf Coast following the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes when it came to questions about how best to rebuild hurricane-damaged communities. In New Orleans, even though public housing developments suffered only minimal damages from Katrina, federal housing officials took advantage of the post-Katrina chaos to push through a proposal to tear down four large housing complexes and replace them with privately developed mixed-income housing. In response, community members, former residents and advocates sued and staged several marches and protests, arguing that the plan to demolish much of the city's public housing developments was discriminatory.

But the city went on to demolish the developments and in the process eliminated some 4,500 public housing units in New Orleans at a time when thousands of residents were still displaced and thousands of others on a waiting list for low-income housing in the city. The decision to tear down the complexes while thousands of people were still searching for affordable housing in the city led many housing advocates to speculate that the real motive was gentrification -- forcing poor African-American people out of the rebuilt city.

But in Galveston, housing officials have made the decision to rebuild much of the damaged units. The Galveston Housing Authority plan would rebuild 340 apartments, townhomes and duplexes on the four public housing sites left vacant after Hurricane Ike, with another 229 units scattered throughout neighborhoods in the city.

Opponents of the plan question the need to build all 569 housing units. "[H]igh-density? We don't want it. It will just produce the same type of ghettos we had for the last 50 years," attorney Buddy Herz, a former GHA board member, said at the meeting.

But those who support the plan argue that the need for housing is still present, and it would be irresponsible not to build all units. According to housing authority officials, before Ike there were long waiting lists -- with more than 3,000 people -- for both public housing and housing assistance vouchers. Housing officials explain that even if all former residents do not return, the island has plenty of other residents in need of housing assistance. With rental rates going up after the storm, it's been harder for people with low-paying jobs live in Galveston, officials say.

Some community advocacy groups also oppose the plan, explaining that it actually would not get people back into housing quick enough.

As the Galveston County Daily News reports:
Both David Miller, president of the Galveston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston Coalition for Justice, want the housing authority to rebuild all of the housing demolished after Hurricane Ike on the four properties the agency owns north of Broadway.
Both Miller and Phillips want people displaced by the storm brought back as soon as possible. The fastest way to do that is to rebuild on property the agency already owns, they said.

When they voted to demolish the four damaged public housing developments, housing authority board members said they hoped to rebuild everything in two years. Krishnarao now says the redevelopment could three or four years.