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 clear: Galveston could ultimately lose its claim to the $586 million in federal aid, and it might also be forced to return some $56 million it had already received. Barbara Crews, a former mayor, commented in the Galveston Daily News that “citizens who have recklessly and carelessly sounded off about turning down Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery money from HUD are senselessly risking the very future of our city.” The city had already spent the $56 million; to pay it back, Crews warned, tax rates would have to double for the next two decades.

You might think that this would generate some action by the city. Instead, all it generated was a three-page letter from Rosen to HUD, in which the mayor disputed the deadline for Galveston to outline its plan. “If there was a mistake in the date, I suggest it was not the fault of the city or the GHA [Galveston Housing Authority],” Rosen wrote. “On August 20, 2012, the GLO changed the deadline to September 1, 2012.” Rosen contended that the deadline had been September 30, but GLO spokesman Jim Suydam told the Daily News that both the GLO and HUD insisted that the deadline had always been September 1. 

At a special council meeting on August 28, Irwin “Buddy” Herz, the chairman of the Galveston Housing Authority, presented the council with four separate proposals, ranging from a plan that placed units in various locations to one that called for a federal judge to intervene and issue a ruling. Subsequent drafts of the proposals began to swirl in the days that followed, and the entire council meeting on September 13 was taken up by Herz, who did everything but plead with the council to vote for a plan that could be submitted to the state and federal agencies. That same day, GLO deputy commissioner Gary Hagood issued an ultimatum, telling me, “They have a plan before them. They can accept the plan, reject the plan, or work with the advocates on another plan. I don’t care what they do, but if they have not agreed to anything by September 28, I’m going to cut off their funding.” As I watched the proceedings, I noticed that there was very little discussion among the members about the housing issue. What was there to say? Everyone was locked into their positions. They all looked uncomfortable and unhappy, as you might expect of politicians who had promised something they couldn’t deliver—namely, preventing the rebuilding of public housing.

The city’s leaders and combatants in the housing crisis had a hard time coming to grips with the idea that the Free State was not really free to do whatever it wished. Leon Phillips II, the president of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, made the point in the Daily News on September 1: “In the last few months, I have been in the presence of people that I thought might have a clue to what they wanted to do when it came to the public housing issue, even though I did not agree with their solutions. Well, this has gone way beyond public housing. It has come down to whether little old Galveston Island can take on the Texas General Land Office, representing the state of Texas, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the federal government.” 

On September 28, the day of the final deadline, Herz and the housing authority met in the morning and voted to recommend a plan to the council. At two o’clock, the members of the council assembled to consider it. The only remaining issue was whether the council would vote for the plan and send it to the GLO—or risk losing its disaster assistance. Rosen told the members, “It’s time to put Galveston back together and trust one another again.” Various council members had their say; one called land commissioner Jerry Patterson, who runs the GLO, an “enabler of federal tyranny.” 

In the end, the vote was five to two in favor of submitting the plan, which called for some units to be rebuilt at a previous site along with some single- and multi-family units to be built outside the city limits but within Galveston County. Displaced residents would have a place to live, and Galveston would get its money. I don’t think the council members finally agreed to the rebuilding because they thought it was the right thing to do or because of the money the city stood to get. It was because, after months of controversy, everybody was too exhausted to fight anymore. It may have been a bitter lesson for local politicians, who aren’t used to being told what to do by state officials. If nothing else, the city learned that the rules on the other side of the bridge apply after all.