As we approach the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting America’s Gulf Coast, there are lessons to be learned about housing, and about leadership.
Many people have worked hard to address the housing problems of people displaced by the storm. Among the most outstanding contributors to the housing relief effort are the government and the apartment owners of the city of Houston.
While federal bureaucrats were mired in red tape and indecisiveness, industry and government leaders in Houston recognized the need to work together, and took bold steps to house many thousands of hurricane victims.
Working closely with apartment owners, the city moved the victims into 35,000 vacant apartments, despite the fact that the city had no guarantee the vouchers it gave tenants to pay rent would be covered by federal relief payments.
“Both the city of Houston and private apartment owners had no other choice. Yes, it was the right thing to do, but it didn’t take a lot of thinking to do it,” said Jeff Hall, executive vice president of the Houston Apartment Association. With its “can-do” approach, Houston got people housed for a fraction of the cost of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) program of providing trailers to the displaced.
None of this would have happened without the courageous leadership of Houston Mayor Bill White. His government’s current challenge is finding affordable housing for Katrina victims who will remain in Houston after FEMA assistance ends, as well as low-income residents who were there before Katrina hit.
In his 2007 State of the City Address, White highlighted the city’s Project Houston Hope. More than 3,000 lots have been identified in neighborhoods with high concentrations of vacant and abandoned tax-delinquent housing. Of those, some 600 have been acquired by the city and 130 have contracts to begin construction.
What’s most amazing is that the city has been able to expand services and lower property tax rates without increasing city debt as a share of citizens’ incomes, according to the mayor.
Sadly, the federal government’s relief efforts look ridiculous when compared to the achievements of White and the Houston apartment industry.
As the New York Times editorialized recently, the feds could have addressed the housing needs of the displacees quickly and efficiently by using the Sec. 8 housing voucher program to pay rent for them to live in existing vacant apartments.
The Bush administration refused to do that, despite the desperate pleas of many housing leaders, including the National Multi Housing Council. Why? One reason: It would have worked well.
For normal human beings, it’s hard to grasp the twisted reasoning behind the decision to use a very expensive, jury-rigged program administered through FEMA rather than the well-established housing voucher program.
But think about it. Using the voucher program would have shown that it is useful and worthwhile. That would make it far harder to squeeze the life out of what Republicans see as a last vestige of the days of “big government” and large social welfare programs.
It’s interesting to imagine how things might have been different in the Gulf Coast if White were president and Bush was the mayor of Houston. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t wish that on the good people of Houston.