Isle of Fight

When a battle over public housing engulfed Galveston, the question wasn’t whether officials could reach a compromise. It was whether they wanted to compromise in the first place.
Isle of Fight
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

When I heard this summer that a big fight was brewing in my hometown of Galveston over public housing, I could not resist driving to the coast to find out what was going on. When I made my way onto the Gulf Freeway, I performed the ritual of opening wide the windows of my SUV to admit the fresh smell of sea breezes. The Island has not been my home for many a year, but when someone asks me where I am from, I always say Galveston. I may live in Austin, but when you’re BOI—“born on the Island,” as we say—it’s a life sentence.

One reason I was drawn to the battle is that this is a presidential election year, and I was curious to see if politics in Galveston is in as much turmoil as it is everywhere else. We live in a time when the public is increasingly alienated from the political process and politicians. The culprit is gridlock, a circumstance that calls to mind the worst aspects of contemporary politics—intransigence, hyper-partisanship, and the breakdown of civility. I hoped I would find that Galveston was an exception to the rule, but to be honest, my expectations were not high.

Politics there has always been intense because everything takes place on a sandbar. I can recall fights over whether the shrimping fleet should be berthed or whether cars should be allowed to drive on the beach or whether parking meters should be installed along the seawall. Some residents have referred to the city as the “Free State of Galveston” and believe that the rules that exist on the other side of the bridge don’t apply on the Island. It is a charming notion, but the truth is that Galveston is not free. It is a prisoner of its tragic past, a once proud city whose destiny of greatness was snatched from it by the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, a massive hurricane that struck on September 8, 1900. The storm killed nearly a third of the city’s 30,000 residents and changed its fortunes forever. Now people end up there because it is the end of the line, and the end of the line is where they want to be. In Galveston, no one asks where you came from.

Not surprisingly, the current fight started with yet another hurricane. In the aftermath of Ike, which crashed ashore in 2008, Galveston qualified for $586 million in federal disaster recovery funds that would be administered by the state’s General Land Office. The money would pay for badly needed infrastructure repairs and improvements, but to receive the funding, the city would have to rebuild 569 public housing units that had been destroyed by the storm. In March 2009 the city agreed to move forward with a proposal, but the opposition to bringing back the dispossessed residents was so widespread that I thought the council might throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

As I soon discovered, Galveston had become a different place after Ike. A lot of longtime residents, weary from the constant threat of natural disaster, had moved to the mainland, never to return. For the first time in my memory, the city’s population dipped below 50,000. Galveston suddenly seemed to be populated by gadflies and antigovernment activists. Gridlock set in as the years passed, and in a June 2012 runoff election, incumbent mayor Joe Jaworski, who had been a supporter of public housing, was defeated. His opponent, Lewis Rosen, preferred a voucher program instead of rebuilding, and he was swept into office with an entire slate of council members who agreed with him.

Public housing, of course, is a difficult issue for any community. It is laced with economic and racial overtones that can easily spill out. I remember where various public housing developments were located before the storm, in a back-bay district of warehouses and overlooked neighborhoods that were often regarded as a source of crime and drugs. Tenants were often trapped in a cycle of poverty, their prospects for improvement poor because the city is a low-wage tourist town.

Rosen wanted to offer rental-assistance vouchers to tenants for use in Galveston or in other cities, but the proposal raised the ire of housing advocates and federal officials. Critics feared that the voucher program was essentially a way to keep poor residents from moving back to the Island. If they relocated somewhere else, there would be no reason to rebuild the units. Concerned by that development, Housing and Urban Development secretary Shaun Donovan wrote to city leaders in late July, “[The proposal to rebuild public housing units] is the centerpiece of a legal agreement the state made more than two years ago. It has been nearly four years since the storm, and hundreds of families are still waiting for the return of affordable housing on the island.​ . . . Every family who called Galveston home prior to Hurricane Ike should have an equal and fair shot to return to their hometown, regardless of their income or race.”

As the summer wore on, the council batted various proposals back and forth but made no progress aside from stirring up activists from across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, state officials were running out of patience. The GLO had established two separate deadlines for the city. By September 1, Galveston had to have developed the basic framework for a plan, and by September 28, the mayor and the council had to have voted on its final provisions. But because of what the state perceived as foot-dragging, it decided to punish local officials in late August. A program manager at the GLO emailed the city manager: “As of Aug. 21, 2012, the GLO is suspending funding for all of the City of Galveston’s uncommitted nonhousing projects pending resolution of an approved plan to reconstruct all public housing units damaged or destroyed.” Though the city considered mounting a legal challenge against the state, the consequences of inaction were

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