Houston Chronicle urges prioritizing rebuilding Galveston public housing


House poor
Make restoring Galveston’s public housing a priority

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 10, 2008

More than three years after Hurricane Katrina, some 4,000 low-income apartments languish unrepaired, vacant and shuttered in New Orleans. It’s a lesson in how not to deal with a city’s poor that Galveston would do well to learn.

Before Hurricane Ike, about 2,200 Galveston families lived in public housing or subsidized apartments, according to the city’s Housing Authority. The agency operates 975 units of public housing in four apartment complexes and two high-rise buildings. Poor island residents also occupied another 1,200 subsidized apartments under the government’s Section 8 program.

In September, the Housing Authority reopened units in parts of its high-rise buildings, but it condemned every unit in the four low-rise complexes.

The residents of those apartments scattered to shelters and hotels, a Red Cross tent city and the homes of relatives or friends. Many who had no way to remove their furniture and belongings or had nowhere to take them are wondering what will become of those few possessions.

Their circumstances are difficult now, and, for many, there’s little reason to believe they will improve in the near future. Partly that’s because many of these residents, besides being poor, are elderly or disabled. Some, temporarily down on their luck, may find their situation greatly worsened. Others belong to a category of hard-core impoverished – people with few job skills or single mothers with too many mouths to feed.

But part of the reason some will find the hardships dragging on is that Galveston officials have not yet said when the city’s Housing Authority might reopen damaged subsidized units or whether it will renovate them at all.

That leaves residents little hope of returning anytime soon.

If what happened in New Orleans is any indication of Galveston’s public housing future, the island’s neediest residents perhaps shouldn’t get their hopes up.

In New Orleans, according to the Times-Picayune, that city’s housing agency managed about 5,100 public housing apartment units before Katrina hit in 2005. After the storm, the city demolished 4,534 of those units. Today, around 4,000 privately owned but government-subsidized apartments sit unoccupied for a variety of complex reasons: administrative red tape, market barriers, insurance problems and, arguably, a lack of will on the part of local and federal officials.

Nor is the record elsewhere all that hopeful. In Mississippi, according to a report by the international relief organization Oxfam America, officials turned federal funding designated for rebuilding low-income housing to paying for Biloxi shipyard improvements.

To be sure, Galveston and the people who make a home there have many storm-related issues to contend with besides the restoration of public housing. Roads need repair and traffic signals remain on the blink. Many homeowners and business operators, as well as renters who paid market rates for their units, lost everything in the mid-September storm. The island’s tourism industry took a massive hit.

It’s easy to make addressing the needs of the poorest, most vulnerable citizens a backburner issue. But it wouldn’t be wise.

To do nothing for Galveston’s elderly and disabled who are without the means to help themselves is cruel. To pretend that others can just “get a job” and pick themselves up ignores reality. It’s simply not rational to expect people to go right out and find a job in a less-than-robust economy when they’ve just lost their transportation, child care and work clothes. Not having secure housing makes rebuilding their lives that much harder.

By making restoration of low-income housing a priority, federal and local authorities can keep those families – who need just a short-term safety net – from falling into a generational cycle of entrenched poverty and all the misery that entails.

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