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Getting people housed: Land commissioner visits Port Arthur rebuild project

By Ken Stickney

ken.stickney@panews.com

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush toured a Port Arthur low- and moderate-income apartment complex Thursday that’s scheduled for a rebuild, perhaps to be completed within a year.

Bush cited the project at Southwood Crossing Apartments off Highway 73 as an example of federal tax money from Housing and Urban Development passing through the state and on to the needs of people affected by Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey. The complex was not in a flood zone when it flooded in August 2017.

The project involves a 204-unit complex, built in 2007 and 2008, where all of the first-floor units were ravaged by floodwaters, rendering them uninhabitable. About 80 people remain in the Port Arthur Housing Authority complex, which will use some $13 million in federal funds to rebuild the affected units.

The grant will enable the city to rebuild every affected unit, work that will done by the ITEX Group, based in Port Arthur.

To the studs

ITEX Vice President of Construction Cisco Abshire said all the affected units will be demolished to the studs, “all ripped out,” with wet material removed, “similar to every other (flooded) home in Port Arthur.

Texas General Land Office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said reviews of the plans would take some two-three months; construction would take an additional six-12 months.

Port Arthur snared the federal money by application in a first-come, first-served process, she said. Funding was made available through a $5 billion, recently approved, Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery allocation from Congress. About $250 million of that money was set aside for fixing affordable rental property for low- and moderate-income people.

“The money is going to help us rebuild our city,” said Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman, himself a flood victim. He said his family still hasn’t returned to their home.

Brief tour

Bush toured a single unit, a gutted, two-bedroom apartment and discussed with Freeman and Cele Quesada, the Housing Authority director, and others specific housing needs.

He asked Abshire if his company had enough qualified labor; Abshire answered that his company had hired locally as well as from out of the area. Getting qualified help was a challenge, he said.

The commissioner said the Texas model for distributing federal recovery money for housing has been showing superior results to models used in other states, such as those in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey after natural disasters there.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “These programs take time.”

He said part of what makes Texas’ recovery effort better is the “devolution in authority” and counsel and authority of local officials.

“It’s why you need a statewide official in charge,” he said. Bush himself is the statewide official charged with rebuilding.

Demand great

Quesada said the demand for low- and moderate-income housing is great. For example, he said, the city opened up an online, Section 8 voucher list Wednesday and got 2,000 applicants within an hour and 15 minutes.

“It goes to show how intense the need is in the area for affordable housing,” he said.

Freeman said he’s discussed with Bush other ways in which GLO can help Port Arthur. Among them is training for construction skills for Port Arthur people, to be conducted by Lamar State College Port Arthur.

“We appreciate what you’re doing,” Freeman told Bush. “When you first got here, a few of us weren’t even dry yet.”