The Fight After the Storm

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After Hurricane Ike battered Galveston in September 2008, city leaders promised that the island’s poor would be welcomed home. Public housing, they pledged, would be rebuilt within a year or so. But a number of bureaucratic setbacks, as well as a spasm of anti-public housing activism—some of it racially charged—has hindered the rebuilding effort.

More than a year after the storm, local officials confess that residences for displaced families may not be ready for another two to three years, and that’s if everything goes as planned.

The Galveston Housing Authority had planned to not only replace the public housing units lost to the storm, but build additional homes to meet increased need.

Earlier this year, a group of self-described “middle-class taxpayers,” with roots in anti-government and Tea Party activism, rose up to oppose any new government-subsidized apartments. The strident opposition and pesky bureaucratic delays led the housing authority to repeatedly redraft its plans. The latest, and more modest, plan would simply replace the 569 units lost in the storm.

David Stanowski, leader of the anti-housing forces and a libertarian activist, calls government-housing policies a “complete failure” and insists that his side is only trying to save the poor from a lifetime of dependency.

“It’s like their birthright to have the projects rebuilt on the same locations,” Stanowski tells the Observer. On the Web site of his anti-government group, Galveston Open Government Project, Stanowski frequently writes about the “poverty industry.” In a typical passage, he recently wrote, “White guilt has lead to the de facto policy of: no expectations, no responsibilities, and no accountability in the operation of the Welfare State; in other words—the entitlement mentality.”

That language is tame compared to what some other anti-public housing activists in Galveston have written online. Anonymous activists (Stanowski says he wasn’t involved) posted an online petition against the public housing effort that reads in part: “If anything we need less of these parasites on our Island and need to stop catering to their lifestyles. … An island economy is NOT the place to build a welfare paradise.”

The acrimony has attracted the attention of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In a November letter to Gov. Rick Perry, the agency said it was tracking the Galveston public housing situation and reminded the state to follow the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act in spending disaster-recovery funds.

Though the hardcore opposition would like to see no public housing rebuilt, community leaders largely agree that all 569 apartments lost in the hurricane should be replaced in some form. But it might take a few years.

The debate now centers on details such as how dense the new developments should be, where to locate them, and what population they will serve. Raymond Lewis, a member of the housing authority board, says that no matter the configuration, the demand for affordable housing far outstrips the eventual supply. A lot of people in Galveston lost their homes, and even if the new units are built, they may not be enough.

Patricia Tolliver, a retired nurse who lived in Galveston public housing after a divorce left her unable to pay rent, says, “The argument is only delaying the process and keeping people homeless a lot longer.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.