The Year of Living Dangerously

Houston’s Katrina hangover.

October 2006By Comments

JUST ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I was driving along the edge of one of Houston’s nicest neighborhoods when I noticed a young black woman on foot taking in the sights. It was near sunset, and the sky was a radiant mix of pink, gold, white, and blue, courtesy of our airborne pollutants. The trees were lush from rain, and the houses were suitably showy. The woman couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Dressed in tired clothes and swinging a cheap suitcase, she was dancing slowly in circles, happily awestruck, as if she had landed in Oz.

Like so many Houstonians during that first week of September 2005, I was in a state of total enervation, drained by local rescue efforts that had begun immediately after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and sent an estimated 200,000 evacuees reeling our way. I figured this girl for another newcomer and thought her happy, game expression boded well for her and for us. Welcome, welcome, I thought.

That was the mood in Houston then: über-hospitable. As the closest big city to New Orleans and by far the most welcoming place in Texas, Houstonians created a whole city within a city for the evacuees virtually overnight, one that included housing, hospitals, missing-persons bureaus, stores, playgrounds, whatever, all free of charge. Elected officials put competing interests aside as city, county, state, and even federal agencies worked in a semblance of harmony. According to a 2006 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, fully 85 percent of the local population said they donated money, food, or time to help the evacuees. The best of Houston was on global display: its generosity, its determination, its passion for innovation. Only the crabbiest curmudgeons wondered aloud what many were thinking, which was, What would the city be like a year after the storm? How could Houston, which had never been particularly interested in or munificent toward its own poor, absorb a population of 200,000, about half of whom were exactly that?

Alas, I found out on August 30 of this year, at a meeting of Houston’s prosperous west-side community at Grace Presbyterian Church, near Beltway 8 and Westheimer. The agenda was to discuss rising crime in the area—twelve murders so far in 2006, compared with five total in 2005. The past month had seen a brutal killing of a 64-year-old family man at a car wash and the carjacking and murder of a 23-year-old woman, both against the backdrop of a citywide 18 percent increase in violent crime, which Houstonians had been quick to attribute to “the Katrina people.” (In fact, while those arrested for the car wash murder were evacuees, the man charged with carjacking and murder was not.) Residents complained that they were afraid to go to the grocery store at high noon or to walk their children to the neighborhood park; Katrina evacuees, they claimed, harassed them and frightened them. (That the voucher-bearing evacuees were almost all black in a neighborhood that was almost all white went undiscussed.)

Hence this town hall meeting with Mayor Bill White and his police chief, Harold Hurtt. Here was the flip side of Houston’s beneficence: a mostly white, mostly affluent crowd of 1,700 or so bound and determined to drive the mostly poor, mostly black newcomers not just out of their neighborhood but out of their town. In this desire they were not alone. The same survey that showed how many residents had pitched in during the disaster also revealed that 74 percent of those polled now thought that helping the evacuees had put a considerable strain on the community, 66 percent believed evacuees were responsible for a major increase in violent crime, and 47 percent believed the city would be worse off if most of the evacuees decided to stay put.

For once, White’s Calvinist, CEO mien failed to charm. The audience didn’t care that crime was down overall, and they didn’t believe that his administration was dedicated to getting evacuees “into the mainstream” as quickly as possible. White’s tough talk—“In Houston we have a special housing program for people who commit crimes, and that is called jail”—was met with tired jeers. His lapses into liberalism received harsh heckling, especially when he mused, “When somebody commits a crime, you wonder what happened to that person to make them commit that crime.”

Taking to the open microphone, speakers demanded an end to “perpetual entitlements” for “Katrina illegal immigrants.” As White was recommending more neighborhood watch groups and promising additional police cadet classes, an older man behind me piped up with “Shoot ’em! That’s how you get rid of the problem.” A woman said, to thunderous applause, “We want the New Orleans residents to go home.” The city’s mayor, Ray Nagin, should send a bus, she said. “We’ll pay for it!” someone added.

It was not a pretty picture, but it wasn’t a surprising one either. Houston has long prided itself on its reputation for self-sufficiency, a.k.a. low taxes and limited government assistance. You are supposed to come here and make it on your own. Hence, the current post-Katrina situation is often advertised as a collision between an entrepreneurial culture (us) and a welfare culture (them). In fact, the acute crisis of last year threw into stark relief the chronic problems that existed here long before the Katrina victims arrived or before White became mayor: bad schools, unhealthy air, substandard housing, poor public transportation, and violent crime. As Stephen Klineberg noted of public services in the city of Houston: “We were doing a lousy job before Katrina.”

Despite the complaints about Houston’s newest immigrants, they were not exactly welfare queens. Of the 150,000 people who remain here, about 90,000 are poor or disabled, and some, indeed, have criminal records. But a Zogby telephone poll of Katrina (and Rita) evacuees in Houston’s joint-housing program conducted in July 2006 showed that most of these evacuees held jobs in New Orleans when the storm hit. They weren’t rich—69 percent were earning less than $15,000 a year—but neither were they looking for handouts. Some 68 percent were not receiving federal assistance before the storm, and 53 percent said they were currently looking for work in Houston.

While they are looking, the safety net created during the first, horrific weeks after Katrina is coming unraveled. FEMA housing assistance, extended once before at White’s behest, is set to end in February 2007—and, by the way, the wait for Section 8 federally subsidized housing was five years long before Katrina. As for health care, newcomers can get in line: Harris County had the highest percentage of people (1.1 million) without health insurance in the nation before August 2005. One reason health care here remains so threadbare is that the tax rate for the Harris County Hospital District remains 20 percent lower than that of Dallas or San Antonio. Yes, many of the 20,000 New Orleans schoolchildren who came here are now lagging behind Houston’s own, but the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, has long been underperforming too.

It is also true that the criminal element among Katrina’s evacuees has increased Houston’s violent crime rate. But these wrongdoers came into a city in which the number of cops on the street had recently nose-dived. Many older police officers took advantage of pension increases approved by the former mayor, Lee Brown, to take deferred (and more generous) retirement packages. They began leaving in droves just after White took office, in 2004. In February of that year, there were 5,350 cops on the street; now there are 4,769. The timing could not have been worse, of course: According to the community organizers at the Metropolitan Organization, as Houston’s population increased in the wake of Katrina, the ratio of officers to citizens dropped to 2.2 per 1,000. Response time has slowed to the point where some emergency calls are carried over into the next shift. Though White began rejiggering once the dismaying crime statistics came out last October—asking for more federal money, some of which has been promised but has not yet arrived; moving cops from desk jobs to the street and concentrating them in high-crime areas—the new cadet classes will not make up for the officers lost anytime soon. The cost of such classes was, of course, not brought up at the church meeting, as residents screeched about high property tax rates. In fact, as White pointed out, property taxes went down last year—and the two years before that. Houston is the only major city in the nation that can boast such a reduction.

What was most apparent was that this crowd was ready to dispense with the evacuees and return to business as usual. But that isn’t going to happen. There may be jobs in New Orleans, but there is, as yet, very little available housing for the working class. And with no place to live and no stores or communities or even, in some cases, electricity, families are loath to move back. The good news is that Harris County, with 4 million people, can eventually absorb 150,000; the bad news is that the old strains remain for all to see and, worse, experience.

The lesson of the meeting at Grace Presbyterian was that civic issues, left unattended, have a way of exploding at inopportune times. If the White administration was slow to sense the danger in Houston’s shrinking police force, the citizenry has been slow to acknowledge the ramifications of its parsimony, and now the choices facing the mayor are the same ones facing Houston: Either we can pull together and make sacrifices for the common good, a touchy-feely message that many in the city have grown weary of, or we can raise taxes for additional services, a message that many in the city have always been wary of. Finding compromises will fall not just to White but to the city at large. Once again, Houston’s ability to come up with novel solutions will be put to the test.

“We’ve got to finish this job with effectiveness and grace,” White told me later. “But nobody said it would be easy.” Even before the meeting, he was working on another plan, with Nagin, to send Louisiana evacuees who commit crimes back home to jail. For the folks in west Houston, though, that may not be enough. At the end of the meeting, White asked the crowd to join him in a closing prayer, but few were there to hear. The rest had already stormed out.

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