Being vouchered off the island? Part 1, stranded

August 7, 2012 | Cities, Disasters, Elections, Galveston, HUD, Local issues, NIMBY, Portability, Public housing, Regulation, Section 8, Subsidy, US News, Vouchers

By:David A. Smith



By rights, the sandbar we now call the island of Galveston, Texas, has no business existing as a city.  Like Venice’s Lido, New York’s Fire Island, Holland’s Zeeland, and the North Carolina Outer Banks, it’s merely a long drift of granules temporarily perched above sea level.


What the ocean giveth, the ocean taketh away


But exist it does, despite once being obliterated in 1900, and as the city does not exist that has no poor people in it, Galveston has its share of the poor – who, until Hurricane Ike in September, 2008, lived in large numbers in Galveston’s public housing.


Cedar Terrace in Galveston, damaged by Hurricane Ike


This story caught my eye from a very recent Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2012) article that made little sense to me when I read it and that proved, on further exploration, to be shockingly simplistic and inaccurate, and hence to obscure the real issues and, like the earlier New York Times piece on Scranton that I dismembered and then reassembled correctly, to trivialize, personalize, and politicize the underlying issues, which have much more to do with large national issues than who-called-whom-a-racist.


Well, so what?


A note on sources


I started this blog post using a Johnny-come-lately story in the Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2012), only to discover that to make sense of events we had to go back in time and use material from the Houston Chronicle (July 26, 2012) (blue text), Texas Observer (April 5, 2012) (red text), and documented in a Houston Chronicle July 1, 2011 story (green text).


Underlying the current passions are several issues that are fundamental to urbanization and housing assistance:


1.     Place-basing versus portability

2.     Poverty concentration versus poverty dispersal

3.     Choice versus exclusion

4.     Pure-public versus public-private


And throughout the next four days’ posts (and the multiple newspaper stories I’ll cite), the question is omnipresent but never asked: Is vouchering public housing tantamount to exile?


Don’t worry, you’ll have a housing voucher


In many ways, this philosophical divide is impassable: people take up residence on one side or the other and then never even peer into their neighbors’ policy yards.  For instance the Journal, arriving late to the story, frames it in stark terms:


A Texas-Size Housing Fight


US Threatens to Cut Aid After Galveston Rejects Rebuilding Low-Income Units


Until 1900, Galveston was Texas’s biggest and most prosperous city, but when the 1900 hurricane hit, the city’s economic future was destroyed, in much the same manner as Katrina rewrote New New Orleans’s future, splashing its population all over the country.  Houston thrived, Galveston slept.


Texas’s population booms, Galveston’s doesn’t


Then came Hurricane Ike:


Galveston, Texas—Four years ago, Hurricane Ike swept through this island town on the Gulf of Mexico, flooding homes, destroying property and wreaking havoc on the economy.


The surge before the storm swamps Galveston Island, Texas, and a fire destroys homes along the beach as Hurricane Ike approaches Friday, Sept. 12, 2008. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


Now, Galveston has become the center of a different type of tempest, as local officials battle the Obama administration over plans to replace 569 public-housing units ruined by the storm.


For nearly two decades, Galveston’s population has remained entirely level; and like Old New Orleans, the hurricane triggered a diaspora that appears permanent.  After Hurricane Ike, the city lost about 10,000 people, most of whom have not returned four years later.  As I wrote seven years ago, right after Katina, the hurricane effected a radical deconcentraton:


Even as Paris suffers through the hideous consequences of malignant income over-­concentration, back home Hurricane Katrina has done what three decades of well-meaning urban social policy could not: it has decisively and permanently deconcentrated poverty from Old New Orleans.   


New Orleans public housing, 2001


As I pointed out then, damage from a catastrophe is permanent only if the city was ailing to begin with, which Old New Orleans was.


Old New Orleans was one of the nation’s sickest cities, with declining population, a shrinking employment base, high poverty (23%), and high unemployment (15%):


Among the real estate destroyed, and still not rebuilt, were four large Galveston public housing complexes the storm rendered uninhabitable and apparently irreparable [That is, no one is on the record as suggesting the apartments could be repaired – Ed.].


Residents returning to Palm Terrace after Ike to remove their belongings from water-damaged apartments


Then three years passed, as the Galveston Housing Authority took three years to do very little, to the point where, as documented in a Houston Chronicle July 1, 2011 story, the authority had managed to produce only 40 out of 700+ homes required:

Galveston Housing Authority Vice Chairman James Dennis surveys The Oaks IV housing development for low- to moderate-income families on Thursday. The units replace some homes that were torn down after being damaged by Hurricane Ike. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon, Chronicle / HC


Galveston — More than 1,000 Galveston residents have waited nearly three years for public housing units that open for leasing today. Most of those on the list will have to keep waiting.

Only 40 units will be leased immediately, and it may be a year before more are built.  [As we now know, it’s more than a year, and counting. – Ed.]


Here then was the first choice: pure public ownership giving way to public-private.


The Galveston Housing Authority board has dumped a previous plan and will turn over most of its functions to a private company, further delaying the reconstruction of 569 units torn down because of damage caused by Hurricane Ike in September 2008.


Board Chairwoman Paula Neff [She resigned in November, 2011 – Ed.] said the delay is justified by the better community that will be developed under the new plan.


There’s the second issue: income concentration versus income mixing.  Ms. Leff favored income-mixing rather than concentrating the poor.


Here’s one approach: build huge dormitories 15 miles out of town


“We could have put it back exactly the way it was and put people back in their homes quicker,” Neff said.


Opposition to public housing has been vocal and persistent, with one hearing degenerating into a shouting match between blacks and whites.


As I’ve previously documented, in my multi-part history of public housing, though originally intended to be slum clearance, it wound up concentrating poverty and creating public ghettos, leading to a policy reversal (under HOPE VI) seeking to disperse very poor families into middle-class neighborhoods.  Poverty, race, and dysfunctional ownership and operation all fusing into implacable opposition.  So the authority took the step, sensible for two reasons (political and practical) of shifting to a public-private partnership.


The board expects the developer it hired last week to intermingle subsidized housing for low-income tenants with housing rented at market rates.


For a housing authority, assuring that poor people live in quality affordable housing is an essential function.



However, owning and operating that housing is not essential, it’s technical, because performance is observable and owners/ managers can be held accountable for their performance.


The developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, also will be tasked with improving education and providing support such as day care centers, literacy programs and job training.


McCormack Baron’s involvement with HOPE VI privatized public housing goes back to the very first such complex, Techwood Homes in Atlanta, reinvented as Centennial Park in time for the 1996 Olympics.


Techwood, opened in 1936, demolished 1996


Centennial Place, which stands where Techwood stood


In fact, Atlanta has been the laboratory of public housing reinvention:


Neff said Galveston is the first housing authority in Texas to fully adopt a plan pioneered by the Atlanta Housing Authority.


Three years ago, Atlanta completed a tremendous achievement: it exited from the business of owning and operating public housing, but not from the business of helping very poor people.


The housing authority, distilled to its essence


The new plan is modeled on the 650-unit East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta. The blighted, crime-ridden development was demolished 15 years ago because it was next to the site of the 1996 Olympics.


Using a federal grant, Atlanta rebuilt with mixed-income housing and added cradle-to-college education and the same community services that Galveston wants its developer to provide.


In Atlanta, deconcentrating poverty worked – helped, to be sure, by the city’s revival – but then again, eliminating the blighted public housing community with a superb location contributed to the city reviving.


The plan transformed the community, raising education levels, improving employment and reducing crime by 85%, according to Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit formed by the private developer of East Lake Meadows to spread the idea of mixed-income communities.

“East Lake has been extraordinarily successful by any measure,” Purpose Built President Greg Giornelli said. “There is no magic. It’s just a lot of hard work.”


Giornelli, former CO of the City of Atlanta


Giornelli said Galveston also has a crucial ingredient that most other cities lack: lots of federal disaster recovery money in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.


Purpose Built began advising the Galveston Housing Authority in December at no cost.


Or did the deconcentration work?  That depends on your definition: were we trying:


To revive a downtown?

To improve one particular community?

To help particular poor families better themselves?

To give them choice and mobility?


Sorry, you’re going to have to choose


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]