Galveston agrees on plan for rebuilding Ike-damaged public housing

August 28, 2012 4:41:14 PM PDT
Leaders of a Southeast Texas island city are hopeful their approval Tuesday of a plan to rebuild most of the low-income housing destroyed by Hurricane Ike four years ago will settle an ongoing dispute with state and federal officials that is threatening nearly $600 million in federal funding.

During the 2008 storm, 569 public housing units were destroyed. Mayor Lewis Rosen and council members had campaigned earlier this year on a plan to replace public housing with a voucher system that would allow residents to live in private housing either on or off the island.

Federal officials have countered that agreements for $586 million in funding Galveston is receiving to rebuild and repair streets and other infrastructure on the island is tied to the city rebuilding the public housing. Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas General Land Office, which is administering the federal funds in the state, had in letters sent to Rosen earlier this month threatened to cut off federal funding the city was receiving if Galveston did not approve a housing plan by Sept. 1.

Some Galveston residents and other critics of the voucher plan have said there is not enough private housing on the island to meet the needs of low-income families through such a program and that much of the private housing currently available is substandard. Galveston is about 50 miles southeast of Houston.

During a nearly three-hour meeting Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved a plan that would rebuild most of the low-income housing on the island, with about 100 units to be constructed on the mainland. The plan includes building mixed-income developments where residents who receive housing assistance and well as those who don't would live together. The City Council rejected three other plans that had been submitted to it by the Galveston Housing Authority, including one that was a voucher-only plan.

"I think the citizens of Galveston have spoken and I think the council listened and the council sent back a plan that hopefully will work with the (Texas General Land Office) and HUD ... and we'll just move forward," Rosen said after the meeting.

The plan is subject to approval from state and federal officials. HUD declined to comment. A spokesman for the land office did not immediately return a phone call.

Before the plan was approved, 25 Galveston residents spoke, with most people urging the City Council to approve a plan and not go to court over the issue. They also worried about possible bankruptcy if the city lost the $586 million in federal funding.

Resident Andy Mytelka said while he didn't like that the federal government was forcing Galveston to approve a plan, he didn't want the city spending millions on a lawsuit.

"My final words are suck it up, adopt a plan and move on," said Mytelka, an attorney.

Former Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said the city had a duty to provide affordable housing to its residents and not put the community in danger of losing millions still needed to rebuild Galveston.

David Miller, president of the NAACP chapter in Galveston, said he talks to residents every day who want to return to the island but can't because affordable housing isn't available. Ike reduced the city's population from 57,000 to about 48,000. Miller and others at Tuesday's meeting also suggested issues of race and class were behind the reasons for not rebuilding the public housing.

City leaders and residents who supported them have denied racism was behind not rebuilding the housing.


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