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Even foes united against scattered sites - The Galveston County Daily News : Ike

November 23, 2014

Even foes united against scattered sites

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 10:55 am, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Five acrimonious years have passed since Hurricane Ike pushed a wall of water over the island, inundating the ground floors of three public housing projects where about 1,000 of Galveston's poorest residents had lived for decades, and cutting political rifts still deep and wide today.

Plans have been approved to replace the 569 demolished public housing units in two phases. The first phase calls for building 141 public housing units on the sites of two demolished projects. About 60 would be built at the old Cedar Terrace project, north of Broadway between 29th and 30th streets; and about 82 would be built at the site of the Magnolia Homes project, just north of Mechanic Street between 15th and 18th streets on the island's East End.

The public housing units would constitute 51 percent of total units — about 120 at Cedar Terrace and about 160 at Magnolia Homes — in two controversial mixed-income developments.

Aside from a lingering threat from David Stanowski, of the Galveston Open Government Project, to halt the projects through litigation, even some of the most outspoken foes of rebuilding agree the mixed-income projects will be built.

But most of the main local players, both those ardently for and those ardently against rebuilding in general, argue the second phase — a state plan to build 385 units on sites scattered across the island — is undesirable, unworkable and unlikely to ever happen.

Only the Texas General Land Office, which is administering a massive statewide rebuilding effort, and representatives of Austin-based housing advocacy groups say they are committed to the scattered-site plan and convinced it will be completed.      

Meanwhile, in late August, 1,231 applicants, representing perhaps 3,000 people, were on a waiting list for public housing that didn't exist and won't exist for two or more years to come.

More than 2,300 applicants, representing as many as 6,000 people, were on a waiting list for one of 1,577 permanent Housing Choice Vouchers issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Galveston Housing Authority.

While there may have been some overlap on the two lists, the numbers indicate an unfilled demand for subsidized housing equal to anywhere from about 9 percent to about 20 percent of the island's post-Ike population of 47,000 or so.

The lists are not going to get shorter anytime soon.

Even under the best-case conditions, the first public housing units — those at Cedar Terrace — aren't scheduled to open until October 2014, according to a timeline from Galveston Housing Authority. Nothing about the rebuilding effort thus far has followed a best-case trajectory and that trend seems destined to hold. On July 12, for example, the firm SCI Engineering, which was hired to conduct soil testing at the Cedar Terrace site, reported that more pollution testing was needed and that the site may require remediation to remove contamination. The news knocked an expected closing date back from mid-November to mid-December and also pushed the groundbreaking date back about a month, according to the housing authority. 

Meanwhile, Stanowski says he plans to file his long-threatened lawsuit before the end of the year. The longtime foe of plans to rebuild public housing on the island says he has plaintiffs with standing to bring the lawsuit, attorneys ready to file the papers and money to pay for it all, but he won't answer in detail questions about any of it.

"It's best if we keep all of that under our hats for now," Stanowski said.

Two principal, albeit reluctant, leaders in the mix-income phase — Mayor Lewis Rosen, the city council representative on the housing authority board, and Irwin M. "Buddy" Herz, the board chair — said they weren't much worried about Stanowski derailing those projects.

"It takes a lot of resources to take on the federal government in a lawsuit like that," Rosen said. "I just don't think he has the resources."

Nothing that can be called unity has developed around the mixed-income projects. The best you can find is simple agreement. Proponents think they should be built and will be built. Opponents think they shouldn't be built, but will be.

Scattered sites are a different matter. That plan has at the least the potential to unify islanders, at least about what shouldn't be done.

Take, for example, former Mayor Joe Jaworski, who was the only elected official to publicly support a housing authority plan to replace most of the 569 lost units through building mixed-income developments. That support, more than any one other thing, cost Jaworski a second term.

In August, Jaworski said he thought Galveston still had the opportunity to avoid having 385 units built in scattered sites and instead move to a plan relying on more mixed-income developments.

"I hope that the next discovery is that people like the mixed-income developments," he said. "I hope they will like the way the developments look and work and we'll just need to find a way to finish."

That way to finish should be something other than 385 scattered-site units, he said.

"That's more than just hopefulness," Jaworski said. "Most people are data driven; if the government will do its job, we may still be able to change the plan."

Betty Massey, former chair of the housing authority board, said she doubted the scattered sites would ever be built.

"I don't see how they can build them," Massey said.

In the first place, attempting to find places to put 385 units will cause a huge public backlash, Massey said. She bases that on the experience of the former housing authority board that proposed building only 15 units on scattered sites.

The public hearing on those 15 units brought out a large and vocal crowd opposed to the plan.

"It's also not cost effective and it's inefficient because it separates people who need public housing from the other services they need," Massey said.

"I just don't see how it's going to happen."

Massey agreed with Jaworski that the final units should be built mostly in mixed-income developments.

Rosen also voiced doubts about whether the scattered-site phase would ever be built. He was careful to note that he was expressing his own opinion, not that of the council, and that he was merely expressing doubt about the workability of the plan, not opposition to it.

"I just don't think there's going to be enough money left over after the mixed-income to build and maintain that many units on scattered sites," Rosen said.

But John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which, along with the land office, developed the scattered-site plan, said that was not the case.

"There's plenty of money available to complete the project," Henneberger said. "There has always been ample funding."

The land office also disputed the idea there was a lack of money to complete the scattered-site phase.

"We've got $84 million to build these sites, and that should be enough," spokesman Jim Suydam said.

The land office on Aug. 15 closed a request for proposals for a group to conduct a study about where and how to build the scattered sites and how they should be managed.

It was unclear when the group would be selected.

"The Galveston Housing Authority handed this program over to us at the General Land Office less than a year ago and there are a lot of details still to be worked out," Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said.

"Right now, our disaster recovery staff is evaluating proposals for a study that will inform our decisions on this as the program moves forward.

"To speculate further on any future policy decisions without the information gained by study would not be in anyone's best interest."

The study could take as many as 18 months to complete and the land office hoped to have the units ready to lease before the end of 2015, Suydam said.

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