Nick Powell Oct. 9, 2020 Updated: Oct. 9, 2020 7 p.m.
When Hurricane Ike washed the Gulf’s waters over Galveston in September 2008, it took the Oleander Homes and its nearly 200 public-housing units with it, flooding the apartment complex so badly that it had to be demolished.
A dozen years after Ike’s destruction, fewer than half of the 569 public housing units in Galveston that were destroyed by the natural disaster — including Oleander — have been rebuilt. The reasons range from a lack of financial capital and political inertia to outright racist opposition.
Now the fenced-in, grassy 11-acre Oleander site on the north side of Galveston is poised finally to be redeveloped as an $85 million, 348-unit mixed-income development. At more than $240,000 per unit, advocates say, the project would be one of the most expensive affordable housing developments ever built in Texas. Half of the units would be public housing, belatedly fulfilling a promise to rebuild every housing unit lost to the storm.
For local housing advocates who have fought since Ike to replace affordable housing on an island with increasingly expensive real estate, tirelessly scouring Galveston for land and beating back vocal opposition from some island residents, the Oleander development is seen as a pillar for a revitalized, historically Black neighborhood.
“People need a place to live,” said Leon Phillips, head of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, which supports the rebuilding of public housing. “When your employment on this island doesn’t generate an income that keeps up with what the rent is on this island, they need help.”
Ironically, the latest stumbling block for the redevelopment is not residents taking a NIMBY posture or city officials, but the Austin-based fair housing advocates who forced the city to build back the lost housing in the first place.
In 2010, a group of fair housing advocates filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over the city’s refusal to replace the units. The advocates reached a binding legal agreement with the state and federal governments to rebuild every lost unit, in a way that “affirmatively furthers fair housing.” This means that the rebuilding of public housing cannot perpetuate segregation of the island’s Black residents, many of whom live on the north side of Broadway, an area that frequently floods and is farther from vital services such as food and transportation.
“We will be opposing what they’re doing at every stage of the process,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, who helped hammer out the settlement with HUD.
Henneberger contends that the planned Oleander redevelopment is an unsatisfactory byproduct of more than a decade of stonewalling by city officials and developers that kept the Galveston Housing Authority from acquiring the necessary land to scatter the new public housing across neighborhoods of all income levels — the very heart of fair housing laws that HUD is supposed to protect.
“It’s so appalling that it has taken 12 years to even get to this point,” said Maddie Sloan, a fair housing advocate with the nonprofit Texas Appleseed that has worked extensively in Galveston.
Instability at the housing authority has further complicated rebuilding efforts. Since 2017, three different individuals have led the authority’s board of directors, which holds final approval over any public housing redevelopment proposal.
Betty Massey chaired the housing authority board from 2010 to 2012 but was ousted after a new mayor, Lewis Rosen, who ran on an anti-public housing platform, installed an island lawyer as chairman — one who complained shortly after Ike that rebuilding public housing would lead to “ghettos.”
Massey, now the vice chair of the housing authority board, said the authority looked into various alternatives to rebuilding the 287 remaining public housing units, including leasing a mostly unused school campus property on the south side of the island as part of a mixed-income development. The idea was ultimately rejected by the Galveston Independent School District. Another proposal, to raze the island’s community center on the north side of the island to build a low-income development there, was scrapped by the housing authority earlier this year.
“I cannot tell you how many times we said to Mr. Henneberger and Ms. Sloan, ‘Show us the land,’” Massey said. “We looked, and we looked, and we looked and (the land) is simply not there,” Massey said. “The housing authority had 11 acres (at Oleander), they put it through the housing and neighborhood standards review and it was approved by HUD.”
The Oleander proposal would include 174 units of public housing as well as 87 units built with low-income tax credits, which would be counted toward the remainder of unbuilt public housing units from Ike even though they could be rented out for more than most public housing residents can afford. The remaining 26 units of the 569 lost to Ike would be built as scattered-site single units across the island.
McCormack Baron Salazar, the developer tapped by the city in 2012 to build back its public housing units, will construct the Oleander homes, housing authority officials said. McCormack Baron Salazar redeveloped the former Magnolia Homes and Cedar Terrace public housing projects, also destroyed by Ike, into two mixed-income developments, with 145 units reserved for public housing residents between the two complexes.
Henneberger is most concerned that Oleander won’t function as a true mixed-income development in the vein of the Magnolia and Cedar Terrace communities, both of which were 51 percent public housing and 49 percent market-rate apartments. At Oleander, the 261 public-housing and tax-credit units comprise 75 percent of the development, skewing heavily towards an exclusively low-income property.
“We see that this property is going to develop a client profile of being a low-income development, it's not going to be a true mixed-income development,” he said.
Henneberger added that the proposal as it now stands explicitly violates the post-Ike settlement with the state and federal governments and also concentrates poverty on the north side of Broadway, where most of the island’s public and low-income housing is located.
Massey disputed that the housing authority is actively segregating Galveston. She believes Oleander, like the Cedar and Magnolia developments, will become “neighborhoods unto themselves,” noting that property values are rising on the north side of Broadway as new developments pop up, including the redevelopment of the old Falstaff brewery.
Local residents such as Phillips agree, envisioning a north side of Galveston that resembles Houston’s historic Third Ward neighborhood.
Patricia Tolliver, a retired nurse and housing activist in Galveston, noted that the Oleander site could be a haven for the many homeless families and children on the island.
“They’re considered homeless but these families are actually here living with other people,” Tolliver said. “Once we get these units built, these families will have a place to stay.”
Joe Compian, co-chair of the civil rights committee for Galveston’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, stressed that local residents have maintained good relationships with the Austin-based housing advocates, even as they disagree on the Oleander site.
“It’s like a big Italian family that gets together and gets loud and disagrees on things — ultimately at the end of the day, all of us who have a heart, who desire to see a stronger community, a stronger diverse community, will ultimately all come together to do what’s right,” Compian said.
The housing authority in August approved an agreement with the Texas General Land Office, which will administer the federal funds for the Oleander site, a major step towards officially breaking ground.
Still, Henneberger will be watching the Oleander process closely. Should President Donald Trump lose his reelection bid, Henneberger hopes a Biden administration might see fit to re-examine the Oleander project and force HUD to reinstate an Obama-era rule requiring cities and towns that receive federal funding to examine local housing patterns for racial bias, sending the project back to the drawing board.
“To rebuild (Oleander) as it was when Jim Crow was the law, that’s not an outcome that we want to be a party to,” he said.
But 12 years after Ike leveled Galveston’s public housing, Massey believes the fair housing advocates shouldn’t stand in the way.
Those in need of affordable housing, she said, “they needed it 10 years ago.”
EJP has worked with the Galveston Housing Authority for years and is part of the development team rebuilding GHA's sites.