Houston: The Real Texas? I pray not based on these attitudes

In the late 1990’s the marketing motto of Houston was “Houston: The Real Texas.”  Based on what I have been reading lately I hope that’s wrong.

At the risk of seeming like a voyeur of Texas hate speech I’m going to point out the reader comments on Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg’s column titled Has Houston pulled in its welcome mat?

Falkenberg interviews Katrina evacuees about the reception they have received in Houston.  The evacuees she talks to are a married school teacher and a broker.  Middle class evacuees such as these have certainly suffered unfairly from the spill over anger directed at the poor.  There is little discussion of their fate of low-income evacuees in the community.  Several months back Chronicle reporter Mike Snyder wrote a story success story about a lower-income Houston Katrina survivor who built a home through Habitat for Humanity.  It engendered an outpouring of anger from Chronicle readers.

Falkenberg’s column this week has drawn almost 500 comments from readers in reaction.  Overwhelmingly they are extremely negative and often angry and hate filled.  If you want to see the ugly side of Houston it is on display in these reader comments.

What is incredible is the that this level of angry can be elicited by stories of middle class successes and self help accomplishments.  Given this climate it is understandable that no one has been willing to attempt a reasoned and in-depth discussion of the challenges facing long-term, low-income families displaced to Houston.

Falkenberg and Snyder at the Chronicle are lonely voices in Houston leadership circles as far as challenging hated-based attitudes toward at least some Katrina evacuees.  Mayor Bill White has read the polls and does not so much stand up to public anger as try to temper it.  His comments in in the Falkenberg column are about as far as he goes these days.

There was “a tiny percentage,” White says, “of evacuees that didn’t respect the laws in Houston and we arrested them.”

The estimated 60,000-80,000 Katrina evacuees who chose to stay in the Houston area include people working jobs at all income levels, including business owners and large employers, White says. Yes, they brought more traffic, but also more purchasing power to the local economy.

And yes, there are those who continue to commit crimes and have yet to find jobs, but, he says, “None of us here in Houston would want to be judged by the actions of those who are lawless if all of Houston had to evacuate.”

I am left to wonder where is the forum for thoughtful and intelligent discussion and education regarding how to lift up and eventually integrate extremely poor Kartina survivors in Houston into the society at large.  Traditionally, the daily newspaper plays this educational role in a community.  But a newspaper cannot do this alone if religious, political and educational leaders remain silent.  That seems what is happening.  The loudest voices are those filled with ignorance, anger and hate.  Those voices are holding us back from moving on to this important business.

In my ideal the “Real Texas” does not cower from problems by letting bullies scare them.

Houston’s fair housing failure segregates Katrina evacuees in SW slum apartments

Houston crime map shows crime is high in downtown and Southwest areas.
Houston crime map shows crime is high in downtown and Southwest areas.

Today’s dangerous housing problems in the Southwestern part of Houston have been greatly exacerbated by the actions of Houston city government in the settlement of large numbers of Katrina evacuees in the area. But the problem does not lie solely in past actions.  The City of Houston, in violation of provisions of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, continues to act to concentrate the predominately low-income, African-American evacuees in these deteriorated, high crime, segregated apartments.  So far neither the state or the federal government has acted to stop the city’s actions.

Let’s look back to 2005 to see how this developed.  Faced with a huge influx of Katrina evacuees the City of Houston assumed principal responsibility for finding apartments to accept the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.  When the city sought vacant apartments a large number were found in southwest Houston in an area containing very high densities of Class C (older, poor condition) apartments originally constructed during the 1970’s and 1980’s in the wake of the Oil Boom.  These apartments already had substantial physical problems and were largely segregated with low-income families made up of ethnic and racial minorities.

According to the Houston Chronicle

Driven by housing patterns, economics and sometimes the desperate desire to find a safe new home, roughly one-fourth of the 83,300 Hurricane Katrina evacuees occupying government-financed apartments have gravitated to high-crime neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.

The city and Mayor White have received praise for their prompt handling of the huge task of rehousing the evacuees.  This praise is deserved.

But it should have been clear from the beginning that the concentration of a poor and minority population in this already deteriorating area of high density apartments would produce problems if the evacuees stayed put for any length of time.  There is virtual unanimous agreement in affordable housing policy today that for low-income multifamily housing to succeed two things are needed: the resident population should be economically and racially diverse within the development and the housing itself should not be located in high crime, high unemployment, low performing school areas.  The relocation of the Katrina evacuees to the Southwest area of the city violated these principles for low-income housing success. Continue reading

FEMA and HUD: not who you would want to depend on to throw you a life preserver

The House Financial Services Committee called HUD and FEMA to testify about when the lead federal agencies for hurricane relief are going to get the 2005 Hurricane survivors out of temporary and into permanent housing. The result: lots of agency mumbling and stammering.

Listen to excerpts from the hearing in this NPR story.

Also appalling is the failure of the agencies to come up with a plan for the next time disaster strikes a lower-income population.  It seems the agencies do not get along and cannot work together.

Let us pray for no hurricanes this summer.  Since our government has no plan, prayer is all we have.

We have not learned the lessons of Katrina

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina we wondered what we could do to help. We settled on four things:

1) advocate on the behalf of the housing needs of the Katrina evacuees;

2) work with the State of Texas to try to come up with a good plan to help the victims of hurricane Rita rebuild their homes;

3) develop model policies to address the rebuilding needs of low income victims of future natural disasters so that low income people don’t go through this mess again; and

4) prototype some housing designs that can be used to rapidly and cost-effectively rebuild the homes of low income people destroyed by disasters.

We learned two fundamental truths from our work in these areas. First, we as a society and in particular our government really do not have a viable plan to assist low income people to recover their housing in the wake of a natural disaster. Second, the needs of low-income disaster survivors are fundamentally different than the needs of middle and higher income disaster survivors in terms of housing recovery.

Given all of the hand wringing and angst coming from government and politicians you would assume that a lot of attention was being paid to learning these lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

You would be wrong.