State interference threatens Galveston’s promise of equitable disaster recovery

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Eight years ago, Galveston was devastated by Hurricane Ike. Four years ago, at the urging of the Texas General Land Office (GLO), the City of Galveston, the Galveston Housing Authority, local civil rights organizations, attorneys representing displaced tenants, Texas Appleseed and our organization diligently negotiated and formally agreed to a plan to replace public housing units destroyed by the hurricane. The solution we came up with is fair, equitable and in the best interests of low income residents and the city of Galveston as a whole.

But now, GLO appears to be preparing to cast aside that 2012 agreement for a new plan that fails to meet the need to provide fair, quality, long-term affordable housing. The state agency has issued a proposal for rebuilding 97 units of Galveston public housing that violates the Fair Housing Conciliation Agreement it committed to honor, and walks away from an historic opportunity to replace the destroyed public housing with something far better.

The basic requirement of the conciliation agreement is the one-for-one replacement of 569 units of public housing that were demolished due to damage from the hurricane. One hundred and forty-four units have been rebuilt in two beautiful, new, mixed income market rate and public housing developments. This leaves 388 units to be rebuilt in order to replace all the units destroyed.

These remaining homes must be rebuilt in “high opportunity neighborhoods,” which is to say in neighborhoods without high levels of poverty and physical blight and which are not racially segregated to people of color. The parties have also agreed that rather than building one or two large apartment developments, the balance of the homes will be constructed as “scattered site housing” to integrate the residents into the neighborhoods. Getting to this agreement took years of back and forth negotiations, federal court rulings and countless public meetings and hearings. The 2012 plan for rebuilding these remaining 388 homes was reached after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the State of Texas threatened to pull the City’s disaster recovery funding if it did not produce a plan to rebuild the public housing.

GLO and HUD did not sign the 2012 agreement, insisting their role was to see that a local plan was adopted and the local parties cooperate to carry it out. The local parties all agreed, formally adopted and signed the rebuilding plan.

Hence our surprise and consternation when, this June, GLO threw out the carefully crafted terms of the agreement and issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) inviting developers and landlords to apply for millions of dollars in grant funds to rebuild the first 97 units of public housing in the same old manner that the local agreement sought to improve upon. What’s more, GLO offered landlords receiving these grants a totally unnecessary taxpayer funded cash windfall.

The final 2012 agreement outlined a plan to provide tenants real choices and opportunities to live in better homes. Beyond the mixed income and scattered site housing, the agreement includes:

  • Long-term affordability.
  • Tenant services including outreach to displaced residents, mobility and fair housing counseling, relocation assistance and other funding, opportunities for the tenants to buy their homes over time, and homebuyer trainings, financial education and more.
  • Strict standards for the high quality maintenance and upkeep of the homes.
  • Accessible, energy-efficient, aesthetically compatible, storm-survivable design.

The GLO RFP includes none of these provisions. Instead, GLO has offered only the piecemeal distribution of scattered site housing to up to 12 different private landlords, with only a 15-year affordability period, no tenant services, no homeownership opportunity, and insufficient property maintenance standards.

In summary, GLO is on a path to pay landlords too much money for housing that is not guaranteed to be maintained to the highest standards, to deny worthy low income families the opportunity to buy their homes instead of remaining lifelong renters, to leave low income families to their own devices instead of providing family support services and education to get out of subsidized housing. And, most importantly, GLO asks far too little from the landlord/investors in exchange for taxpayer funded grants and rent subsidies – requiring them to maintain housing for only 15 years instead of a much longer term.

The State is proposing a bad deal for taxpayers, a bad deal for Galveston and a bad deal for the families who need this housing. Why is the Texas General Land Office, the state agency that negotiates and manages land deals and leases for billions in state lands, so ineffective in negotiating a better deal for Texas in this case?