A decade after public housing fight in Galveston, units holdup to test

EJP has been a long-term partner of the Galveston Housing Authority assisting in the drafting of a rebuilding plan that is now in implementation stages to construct a mixed-income housing development in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008.



GALVESTON

With little fanfare and only moderate public attention, crews began work last

month on a major mixed-income development that will replace most of the final

federally mandated public housing units demolished after Hurricane Ike.


Construction of the Oleanders at Broadway, 5200 Broadway, began in contrast to

the intense public scrutiny, and at times vitriol, that accompanied beginning phases

of the island’s two other major mixed-income developments.


The beginning of the end of that controversial period raises a question about

whether objections to replacing the 569 units of public housing — depressed

property values, crime and blight, to name a few — have panned out.


A decade later, most haven’t and those involved in the rebuilding effort 10 years ago

say the mixed-income developments are a triumph.


THE LAST OF THREE

The $112 million mixed-income Oleanders at Broadway development is a two-year

build that ultimately will include 348 family units.


The 11.5-acre site is the last major construction project on a 13-year endeavor to

replace the 569 public housing units mandated by the federal government after

Hurricane Ike in 2008. The storm damaged much of the island’s public housing.


But unlike the relatively quiet start to the Oleanders’ construction, the proposition

of rebuilding public housing sparked serious debate in Galveston 10 years ago.

“It was not a pleasant situation at that time,” said Irwin M. “Buddy” Herz, who was

the president of the Galveston Housing Authority board from 2012 to 2018. Herz

also was on the board from 1994 to 2000.


What residents were afraid of was a return to the kind of public housing Galveston

had before Hurricane Ike, said past housing Commissioner J.T. Edwards.


“The bottom line was there was a lot of crime and blight in the affected areas,”

Edwards said. “We’ve turned that around. Now people talk about how great the

Cedars at Carver Park look. There is basically almost zero crime now in comparison

to before Ike in those same areas.”


A NEW MODEL

The Villas on The Strand, 1524 Strand St., and Cedars at Carver Park, 2915 Ball St.,

were built between 2014 and 2017. Housing company McCormack Baron Salazar

manages the two complexes and will manage Oleanders.


Debate over where and whether the public housing should return was strident,

controversial and divisive at the time.


“There were a number of discussions about where my soul would end up at the end

of my journey,” said Tony Brown, who was on the housing board from 2012 to 2015.

Brown was referring to people who told him he was going to go to hell for his part in

plans to replace the units.


And the original housing, much of it built immediately after World War II, was in

pretty bad shape, said Brown, who proposed an alternative plan to the mixed-income

developments.


“Its original purpose was for people who were just getting out of the Army and

didn’t have a job yet,” Brown said. “A three-bedroom unit was about 900 square

feet. It was designed to be temporary.”


A plan developed by Brown proposed the housing authority buy 150 apartment

units in “high-opportunity” areas of Galveston and place the remainder of the 569

units in apartments on the mainland through rental assistance vouchers.


Betty Massey, who was vice president of the housing authority board that oversaw

the original plan, found a different root of the opposition.


“I have to attribute it to race and class,” Massey said. “There were people who didn’t

want lower-income families returning to the island. Maybe they didn’t want

families of color. I don’t understand it.”


Some former board members pushed back on this interpretation, however.


“It was not that they didn’t want the low- to moderate-income folks,” Edwards said.

“They didn’t want the stigma that came with it, high crime, gang dealings.”


STALLING CONSTRUCTION

Part of why the last chunk of public housing units is just now, 13 years after

Hurricane Ike, under construction is because of several years of debate about how

and where to build that housing.


When Lewis Rosen was elected mayor in 2012, he appointed several board members,

including Herz and Brown. Rosen had run against the idea of replacing the public

housing at all, instead championing rental assistance vouchers as a better solution.

Rosen was concerned at the time the city, still recovering from Ike’s devastation,

didn’t have the economy to support low-income people, he said.


“We were still recovering from the storm and there was no place to live and no jobs

available,” Rosen said. “This town was hurt. It just didn’t have the infrastructure to

support what the housing authority at that time wanted to do.”


‘NO ANDS OR BUTS’

At the time, the federal government told the city it couldn’t build on the Oleander

site because of pollution and flooding concerns, a position reversed in 2019.


The federal government also had prohibited the construction in certain areas, such

as north of Broadway, which limited options, Herz said.


There also was some question about how many units Galveston should have to

rebuild, Brown said.


“We had numbers indicating we had the highest number of public housing units per

capita in the state,” Brown said. “How much can a community absorb and still be a

viable community?”


But all of that questioning came to an end when several members of the housing

board were flown to Washington, D.C., to meet with the director of the housing

department, Herz said.


“They simply told us that we were going to build two complexes,” Herz said. “There

were no ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it.”


The city could have lost out on millions of dollars in disaster recovery money had it

failed to rebuild the 569 units.


‘PROOF IN THE PUDDING’

The Villas and Cedars developments have been largely successful, Massey said.

Driving or walking past the complexes, it’d be easy to not realize the apartments

were public housing at all, she said.


“The proof has been in the pudding,” Massey said. “They’re beautiful. They’re well-managed.”

The aesthetics and low crime of the Villas and Cedars probably is why construction

of the Oleanders was met with such little public response, Brown said.


“I think in large part it’s because the community as a whole has seen what it’s like

when the team of the housing authority and McCormack Baron builds one of these,”

Brown said. “It’s nothing like we had before.”


In addition to the Oleanders, the housing authority is planning early next year to

begin renovations of 26 scattered-site units, which will fulfill the remaining 569-

unit obligation.


Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; keri.heath@galvnews.com or on Twitter @HeathKeri.

By KERI HEATH | The Daily News |Sep 18, 2021

https://www.galvnews.com/news/article