Being vouchered off the island? Part 4, the tribe has spoken
As the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Ike approached, with the Galveston Housing Authority having decided to partner with a private developer (McCormack Baron) to rebuild a brand-new HOPE VI development on the site where stood four public housing properties, a new monkey wrench was thrown into the prospects: a mayoral election that became a referendum on one single issue: the public housing.
The smile of a winner: Lewis Rosen on election night, June 23, 2012
As reported in the Galveston Daily News (June 24, 2012):
Rosen elected Galveston mayor in runoff
Galveston — In what could be seen as a citywide referendum against a controversial plan to build subsidized housing on the island –
Funny how the goal posts shift: what once was a rebuilding has become, with the passage of 3½ years, ‘building new’.
Temporary housing in High Island, Texas, near Galveston
– retired businessman Lewis Rosen unseated one-term incumbent Mayor Joe Jaworski in a runoff election Saturday. Rosen, 69, took 3,776 votes for 57% of the total, according to complete but unofficial returns. Of those, 2,170 were cast during the early voting period. Jaworski took 2,834 votes for 43%, according to the unofficial returns.
In a city of 57,250 people (let’s figure 30,000 adults), 6,600 of them voted, or about 22% turnout. In such a context, 500 votes adamant for or against the public housing would swing the issue.
Just a few minutes before and a few blocks northwest in a building on the corner of 23rd Street and The Strand, Jaworski acknowledged to a smaller group of his supporters that the race was over. “One issue flipped our boat over,” he told supporters.
Eddie Settlocker assesses damage caused by Hurricane Ike at an apartment complex he manages September 14, 2008 in Galveston, Texas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) #
The election had consequences, immediate ones:
The mayor-elect has previously said one of his first actions would be removing most and perhaps all the members of the authority’s governing board. Terms of three of the authority’s five commissioners expire at the end of this month.
He has said he would appoint authority commissioners willing to kill the mixed-income plan and petition the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare land it owns on the island as surplus so it could be sold to developers to build single-family houses for middle-income people.
Rosen has also said he would work to expand Galveston’s property tax base by promoting both commercial and residential development, especially on the West End and building a priority list of infrastructure projects.
The new mayor’s public statements belie implications of bigotry, stereotyping, or prejudice:
“This election was a referendum on public housing,” Mr. Rosen said. “The citizens of Galveston did not want to build back the type of housing that was here before.” He said vouchers would allow residents to live “where they have job opportunities, which do not exist in Galveston.”
Mayor Rosen’s concern – housing people where there are no jobs – is validated by experience all around the country. I’ve previously posted at length about the transplantation of Los Angelenos over the San Gabriel Mountains into the high desert of Lancaster and Palmdale, and of the difficulties they faced there.
“People come here with no support network, no family at home to help them, nothing but just a house to live in. It makes no sense to encourage them to come,” said R. Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster, Calif.
Old New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was among the nation’s sickest cities, with declining population, a shrinking employment base, high poverty (23%), and high unemployment (15%). Vouchers can work to deconcentrate that poverty and enable people to move to where the jobs are – in this case, across the causeway into Galveston County. So the debate between former mayor Jaworski and newly elected mayor Rosen is more than a fight about local politics or local prejudice, it’s a core unresolved argument in housing and urban policy.
And the experience of New New Orleans proves that those whom nature has dispersed do not always want to come back to what they had before:
Areas that were under water economically and physically are under-restored
Still, there were two flies in the ointment of new Mayor Rosen’s plan: the Conciliation Agreement and HUD’s post-Ike funding – and scarcely a month into office Houston Chronicle (July 26, 2012) (blue text), Mayor Rosen learned that some things can’t be overturned by votes.
GalvestonGalveston – City officials are abandoning their resistance to rebuilding the 569 public housing units damaged by Hurricane Ike and are negotiating with the Texas General Land Office on a new rebuilding plan, the city housing authority chairman said Wednesday.
Under the Conciliation Agreement, the GLO has wound up as the referee of particular cities’ compliance plans.
Herz and Rosen were part of a Galveston delegation summoned to Washington on Monday to meet with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Shaun made Glaveston an offer it couldn’t refuse
You can’t use my money to sue me, and you need my money to rebuild
Donovan gave Galveston officials 30 days to come up with a plan for rebuilding public housing or lose hundreds of millions of federal disaster dollars. HUD so far has allotted Galveston $589 million [which remains unspent].
Donovan told the Galveston delegation Monday that he wanted the plan to include mixed-income housing and vouchers that are tied to specific locations through contracts with the housing authority.
It’s ironic that vouchers, which were intended originally to give tenant freedom of choice in housing, are now used principally to provide an income-based subsidy that is attached to particular homes, eliminating that choice. Such is what happens when successive Congresses and Administrations write legislation by schizophrenic Ouija board.
Oh, Ouija, will I get voted out of office?
A previous GHA board majority picked by Jaworski developed a plan that included 170 location-specific vouchers, each of which would replace one rebuilt housing unit. Herz said the number was being negotiated.
“The housing authority is prohibited from spending any legal money to fight HUD,” said [new board chair Buddy Herz]. “I just feel like I’m negotiating with both arms tied behind my back.”
Talk about an unfair fight
And that, in simple terms, will be that. Even though HUD was not a party to the Conciliation Agreement, nor to the litigation giving rise to it, because it was filed with HUD’s office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), HUD approved the agreement with the acknowledgment that the parties “believe … that the provisions of the Agreement will adequately vindicate the public interest.”
The negotiations mean that newly elected Mayor Lewis Rosen will be unable to fulfill his campaign promise to issue vouchers rather than rebuild the public housing units flooded by Ike in 2008. “It’s a very interesting proposal that we at GHA and the city, I believe, are taking seriously,” [newly appointed] housing authority Chairman Buddy Herz said.
Buddy Herz, before his lesson in Federal law
Aside from the holding hostage the Federal disaster relief money, which the city will use ” to rebuild infrastructure, such as a water-treatment plant, roads and sidewalks,” it’s been generous with housing-specific funding:
The agency has authorized [Appropriated – Ed.] $109 million in federal funds to replace the lost housing.
For 569 homes, that’s nearly $200,000 an apartment. These will be very nice apartments.
Blumeyer, a HOPE VI property in St. Louis
“This is all we are requiring of the Galveston Housing Authority—to rebuild with quality, affordable mixed-income housing,” Mr. Donovan said in an emailed statement. “Many would consider this a golden opportunity to use federal and local resources to rebuild public housing the right way.”
He’s right about that, and reality is sinking in.
Though the story is heading toward its resolution, Galveston’s four years of stalemate and political debate never did get to the core question: Is vouchering equivalent to exile? As many as four thousand families left Galveston city and have moved elsewhere.
Flooding over access road 523 to Surfside beach, caused by Hurricane Ike forming in the Gulf of Mexico, is seen near Surfside Beach, Texas September 12, 2008. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
If the redevelopment proceeds as in the current version, perhaps 180 extremely low income families will have permanent residence in the city, courtesy of the property-based vouchers. For this we held up $570 million in Federal relief aid?
[Former mayor Joe Jaworski] said later that he did not regret lending his support to the housing authority plan, even though doing so cost him the office.
“I think we were right on the issue,” he said. “And I think history will show that the plan so many worked so long and hard to create was the best one for the island.”
Though he lost the election, former mayor Jaworski will have two consolations: he stood in defense of his principles, and though another mayor will have the ribbon-cutting, the principle he fought for will have won.
The former mayor, in front of his home on Winnie Street, Galveston