With an architecture background, Chrishelle Palay has helped push for equitable disaster recovery and fair housing in Houston for years. After working as the Houston co-director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Texas Housers, she took on the new role of executive director of the Houston HOME Coalition, a group of equity-minded community organizations with a focus on housing, labor and the environment, that came together to help guide Houston through its Hurricane Harvey recovery and beyond.
The Urban Edge talked with her about what an equitable recovery means and some of the challenges and opportunities facing Houston as it continues to deal with the lasting impacts of Harvey. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Here we are, more than a year and a half out from Hurricane Harvey. There’s this refrain to not just rebuild but build better. What does that mean to you?
Harvey definitely exacerbated an already dire situation for communities that had been disinvested for years. Yes, it's true that Harvey did not discriminate when it came to the places where the damage was but the recovery has definitely been discriminatory because of the long practice of discriminatory policies that have been in place.
So, when we say not just build it back but build it back better, it's taking a look at those policies and the ways in which dollars have been used in these communities to invest deeply in a sustainable manner, not just fixing rooftops...building back in a way that sustains these communities, looking beyond the built environment…looking at the ways in which dollars could be catalyzed to provide real livelihoods for folks. A lot of times, we see contractors who aren’t necessarily from the area that come in and get these projects built without leaving any type of capacity in place for the communities that were affected. There's an opportunity for workforce training. That’s something we haven’t seen in the past so hopefully, we see that.
Have you seen any talk of that capacity building focus?
The city hired a firm, ICF, to deal with the intake and outreach aspect and one thing the HOME Coalition did was to push and say we want to see local nonprofits, grassroots groups being able to be the bridge to get folks in the door to get assistance. Because you can hire these companies to do the work but it's about trust in the neighborhood and it's our real community leaders that have the trust to get folks into the door and into the system.
The larger groups are the ones who have the capacity but if not for this invisible network of small grassroots leaders and trusted community members, then folks would not know how to navigate the system at all.
You have a lot of experience in these post-disaster situations and have talked about this in the past, but what are some general lessons that you’re keeping in mind as we navigate after Harvey?
It will take a long time. There has to be a clear line of communication. People have to know where they stand, where they are in the process and they have to have clear expectations as well. If they don’t qualify for a program, they need to know that they don’t qualify and not just be strung along to think maybe eventually we might be able to get some help. There needs to be a balance of expectations, hope and criticism. There's always room for growth.
When it comes to preparedness, for folks working with community members, pictures and documentation are always very important and also while work is being done, take pictures before and during the process as well.
Are there elements thus far about this recovery that look different to you than what you might have seen in the past? For example, we have a pretty different county government in office now.
We have a real opportunity for real transformative change...the city alone has $1.17 billion. The county has passed this $2.5 billion bond. There’s money. We’re working from a place of abundance. That’s why it's so important to not just build back, but build back better. And also that the resources are prioritized in an equitable manner [to] make sure people who have been left behind, that their needs are being addressed. There is a lot of discussion about geographic equity, and that’s not the most impactful way to make sure these dollars are being leveraged.
You have neighborhoods like Greenspoint and Halls Bayou where those apartments get flooded every single time. People should not have to live like that. The folks in Greenspoint have no other options.
When you look at some of the fenceline communities, though they may not have flooded, they are right there along the fenceline of those industries.
With all this HUD money coming in, there’s a lot of opportunities but there have been concerns along the way, particularly with the federal findings of the city’s actions around low-income housing and segregation. There was a settlement but many suggested it wasn’t enough. Do you feel you have city partners on board with your vision or do you still have concerns? How did you feel about the settlement?
I didn’t think the settlement was, for lack of a better term, strong enough to really require the city to commit to fair housing, to really affirmatively further fair housing. I don’t think it was really substantial enough. I know that the administration at the housing department right now, they have the best intentions but you have to recognize the way in which the city has worked when it’s come to fair housing in the past. It's really incumbent on the city if we want to see a real change, when it comes to equity, fair housing, all these things, the city must lead on this. We can't leave it to the market, we can't leave it to developers, we can't leave it to citizens. The city must take lead if we’re really intentional on equity being an issue we really want to confront and address.
Have there been any surprises or unexpected challenges in this new role?
Surprises in a good way. Most of the folks that are around our coalition table have their particular field of interest, a particular area of expertise, and you would assume when folks come to the table, that's the one issue they want to work on. But what we’ve seen is a lot of support and understanding of the other folks around the table and a real effort to understand areas beyond the initial work.
Now you have folks that typically just work with housing, get a better sense of the importance of job safety, of how dollars can be spent to really shore up a workers training program for people in the community. You see the overlap, people understanding the realities of environmental impacts on communities that have been there long before Harvey came but Harvey just made things worse. You look at areas like the Fifth Ward area where there's the Union Pacific, where years ago there was creosote soaked into areas there. After Harvey, because of the flooding, community members were really nervous and are still trying to get an understanding of the extent of contamination.
People are starting to understand other issues of interest and concern in their work. That would be the one surprise because in Hurricane Ike there were so many people working on their particular issues but not necessarily working collaboratively.
The focus is still very much on Harvey as people continue to try to get help and recover, but thinking ahead a little, how can Houston be in a better position next time around? Are there mistakes you see that get repeated or compounded with each disaster? Is HOME intending to continue on past the Harvey recovery?
We definitely see it as a long standing group. We assembled because of Harvey. We know a disaster is going to hit at another point in time. The long-term is that we address the issue of equity. Once that is really addressed when a storm like Harvey hits we will have a plan for how to help low-income folks so they can thrive.
How will you know when that issue has been addressed, what will that look like?
I would know that the city is better prepared if you look back a year beyond the storm and folks are not still living in mold. When folks are not still living as if their home is a campsite. When everyone is able to recover within relatively the same timeframe and at the same rate, then I'll know we have confronted the issue of equity in the city.
What will you be watching at the HUD recovery money and additional assistance starts to reach people?
We’re going to be watching the process, how accessible the process is, how people are getting information, how long it's going to take for hammers to start swinging. Once that starts, the quality of work. How long it's going to take folks’ homes to be rebuilt.
We’re going to also be looking at the buyout program. If they are bought out, where are they able to relocate? What the relocating process is if there even is one?
We’re going to be looking at the prioritization of the infrastructure projects, who’s benefitting from those projects? The scale and scope of those projects. Everything. The siting of multifamily developments, if they will be built in communities with access to good performing schools, jobs and other amenities.