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.
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
“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.”
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
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-
Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @HeathKeri.
By KERI HEATH | The Daily News |Sep 18, 2021