Houston’s public housing residents are the worst hit by toxic flooding

Levels of E. coli tested in one development are 135 times above the amount considered safe

Floodwaters in two Houston-area neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Harvey have been contaminated with bacteria and toxins — and the highest levels of contamination were found in a low-income neighborhood built next to a slow-moving river that is known to have been polluted for decades.

A New York Times investigation discovered E. coli levels at four times the amount considered safe in “water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor.”

“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in the Times’ research said. “It suggests to me that conditions inside the home are more ideal for bacteria to grow and concentrate. It’s warmer and the water has stagnated for days and days. I know some kids were playing in the floodwater outside those places. That’s concerning to me.”

Though the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have risen concerns about contaminated floodwaters, none of the results of samples they have taken have been made public so far, the Times reported.

The Times elaborated on medical warnings:

Dr. Beau Briese, an emergency room physician at Houston Methodist Hospital, said he had seen a doubling in the number of cases of cellulitis — reddened skin infections — since the storm. He said it was a more modest increase than he had expected, and that the infections had been successfully treated with antibiotics.

Dr. David Persse, the chief medical officer of Houston, said residents caring for children, the elderly and those with immune disorders should try to keep them out of homes until they have been cleaned.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development, which is alongside the Buffalo Bayou, levels of E. coli were measured at a shocking 135 times higher than what’s considered safe, the Times reported. The water also included elevated levels of “lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.”

The Buffalo Bayou has been polluted for years, and it’s been reported that minority residents have suffered the most from the consequences.

“Here it’s normal to see industrial flares from front porches, and to wake up to paint particles from the nearby scrap metal shredding facility floating into homes,” Houston Public Media reported regarding neighborhoods along the bayou.

“I wanted you to come through here because you’re going to see one of the shredding facilities that shreds cars into tiny tiny little pieces of metal. It comes into this community here, and they don’t like it,” said Juan Parras, a community activist who led TEJAS, or Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, in 2011.

Parras said the facility should have never been built. The Ashby high rise was heavily protested in the more affluent parts of town, Houston Public Media reported.

“And there was a lot of complaints, you know, the citizens obviously didn’t want it. And at the same time they were building this,” Parras said. “And sometimes it gets real real high, you know, just a pile of cars here. And so we call it our Ashby high rise. But even though we protested, you know, we got it anyway.

In 2012, environmentalists called for strengthening the Clean Water Act, which helps regulate pollution control, the same law that President Donald Trump’s administration has already proposed rolling back.


Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

The Oakland fire tragedy and the housing crisis in America


7 December 2016

The death toll from last Friday’s fire at a warehouse in Oakland, California stands at 36, with 85 percent of the burnt-out structure having been searched. Among the dead, some of whom have yet to be identified, are young people and artists who made their home in the 86-year-old sprawling two-story structure known as the Ghost Ship. The building was leased to an artists’ collective in the Fruitvale district of the city.

It was the deadliest building fire in the US since a Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003, which claimed 100 lives. The tragedy has horrified the San Francisco Bay Area and the world, leaving many asking how such an event could take place in 21st century America.

It is unclear at this point whether criminal charges will be filed against the owner of the building, Chor Nar Siu Ng, who owns several other blighted properties in Oakland, or against Derick Ion Almena, who leased the property, lived there with his wife and three children, and ran the artists’ collective. Looking for an individual to blame, the media has launched a campaign against Almena in particular, who lost many people he knew in the blaze.

Authorities have pointed to electrical problems and the lack of basic fire safety provisions in the dilapidated structure. At the root of the tragedy, however, lies the dysfunctional character of American capitalism, including a housing crisis born of poverty, social inequality, and years of neglect by government authorities.

The Bay Area, long known as a haven for artists and students, is now largely unaffordable for workers and young people. Along with the tech boom of the last six years, housing prices have skyrocketed. Warehouses and lofts in San Francisco’s former industrial areas have given way to high-end condos and workspaces to house tech start-ups and their employees. More than 2,000 people are evicted annually in the city.

This has pushed artists and others struggling to find affordable housing to Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay, and beyond. Now these areas are also increasingly unaffordable, with the median cost of available rentals in Oakland standing at $3,000 a month, far beyond what is affordable for most Americans. People living in buildings such as the Ghost Ship are faced with the choice of living in substandard housing or being homeless.

Speaking to CBS, a city councilor from Fruitvale estimated that there are some 200 warehouses in Oakland “that have no papers, no permit, no fire code, nothing.” If occupied, these structures are disasters waiting to happen. And while building inspectors apparently ignore these deathtraps, no measures are taken to alleviate the growing crisis that leads to their use as housing.

The Bay Area’s economy has spawned a small army of billionaires, with 50 of them making it onto the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans in 2016. Oakland itself is increasingly socially polarized, home to the fifth largest cluster of “elite zip codes” in the US, ranked by a combination of high income and education level attained. At the same time, more than 800,000 people in the region live below the poverty line.

The housing crisis in the Bay Area mirrors that of metropolitan areas across the country. The Los Angeles Times reports that more than 20,000 rent-controlled apartments in LA have been taken off the market since 2011 to make way for pricey homes and condos for the wealthy, leading to hundreds of evictions this year.

Evictions are taking place not only in thriving real estate markets like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, but also in places like Milwaukee and St. Louis, where deindustrialization and unemployment, combined with wages that do not keep pace with the cost of living, are driving people out of their homes.

According to a report released last year by Harvard University titled “Projecting Trends in Severely Cost-Burdened Renters,” by 2025 nearly 15 million US households will devote more than half of their income to rent. Those unable to keep pace with their rent or mortgage payments will find themselves evicted and possibly homeless.

The federal government has long since abandoned any responsibility for the provision of decent housing, leading to disasters like that in Oakland last week. According to the US Fire Administration, an organization that tracks fire deaths based on media reports, there were 2,290 fire deaths in the US in 2015, many of them in mobile homes or other substandard housing.

The first US national housing legislation, passed in 1937, went beyond providing low-cost public housing and was aimed at improving the lagging economy by funding jobs to build affordable housing. Public housing today has largely ceased to exist, with units sold off to developers to turn a quick profit, and those in need of housing waiting years if not decades for openings to use their Section 8 housing vouchers.

The Obama administration, following the Bush and Clinton administrations before it, has made no pretense of establishing a public works program to address the woeful state of infrastructure in the US—whether in housing, roads, bridges, energy grids or in other vital areas.

President-elect Donald Trump has made clear his attitude toward the housing crisis with his nomination of Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with no professional housing policy experience, has declared his hostility to the entire concept of public housing and social provision in general, stating: “It really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There you poor little thing, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your health care, your food and your housing, don’t you worry about anything’” (Conservative Political Action Conference, February 26, 2015).

The Socialist Equality Party calls for an immediate halt to foreclosures and evictions and for the provision of billions of dollars to provide decent, low-cost housing to those in need. Housing is a social right that can be assured only by placing the home construction and financing industry under public ownership.

For tragedies like that in Oakland to be averted in the future, public funds must be poured into the construction of new homes for working families. Such a project can be undertaken only under a workers government based on a socialist program, which treats affordable housing as a basic human right, not a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

Kate Randall


Inside the issue that everyone is ignoring — including Bernie and Hillary

The land of abandoned Americans: 

While the Democratic candidates rolled through NYC in advance of Tuesday’s primary, no one mentioned this VIDEO

The land of abandoned Americans: Inside the issue that everyone is ignoring — including Bernie & Hillary
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton at a CNN town hall style televised event in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 23, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/AP/Gerald Herbert)

In the run up to the New York primary, the cable news cycle has been fairly predictable, in that it’s all about the horserace and not the substance of the national moment. Sadly, what we often get is right- and left-channel programmed news, which only confirms our underlying political orientation and sensibilities.

Yet, every once and a while, somebody has the guts to take TV for an Edward R. Murrow-like spin that challenges the audience and the hierarchy in their comfort zone. While these “Harvest of Shame” moments are rare, they are so greatly appreciated because of the desert that big time TV has become, when it comes to the actual issues that matter to the soul of the nation.

Such was the occasion the other night on MSNBC, when Lawrence O’Donnell took his viewers for a tour of a few of the projects that are part of the New York City’s Housing Authority system, which provides housing for several hundred thousand low-income and working class New Yorkers.


O’Donnell asked the rhetorical question why, as of April 13, when he presented the NYCHA segment, neither of Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had accepted the invitation of local officials and public housing advocates to visit one of the projects.

For decades now, these projects, built under the auspices of the Federal Housing Act of 1949, have been permitted by the federal, state and city governments to deteriorate to the point where people are killed by faulty elevators and thousands of children are regularly exposed to toxic mold and unsafe conditions. Consider that there is now a $17 billion dollar backlog in desperately needed capital repairs.

Over the years, as New York City’s murder rate has dropped to historic lows, one analysis shows that NYCHA residents are murdered, raped or assaulted at twice the rate, or more, of the rest of the city.

In O’Donnell’s tour of a Bronx NYCHA project, with New York City Councilman Richie Torres, viewers saw a padlocked playground, where swings and slides were bereft of children, because the project’s community center had been shuttered because it had been permitted to become a potential danger to the public.

O’Donnell brought cameras into a NYCHA apartment where a resident complained of chronic mold. In fact, back in 2013 the mold conditions were so pervasive, such a threat to public health throughout NYCHA, that the Natural Resources Defense Council brought a successful federal class action against NYCHA on behalf of long-suffering residents who were paying rent to live in toxic quarters.

I have investigated living conditions in NYCHA projects located in all five of New York City’s boroughs. In every visit the story was the same. Mold and collapsing bathroom ceilings were a chronic problem related to leaky high-rise roofs. Because NYCHA has never had the amount of money to fix the roofs that leak, it is fighting a loosing battle where they come in and do patch repairs that give way in a matter of months.

In interviewing elderly residents, I learned that “back in the day” these projects had beautiful flower beds and a sense of community, with sufficient maintenance help. In the summertime, teens that lived in the projects were paid to maintain them. These days, there’s a summer job lottery where thousands of kids are turned away.

In doing research for one of the unions that represents some of the NYCHA workers, I stumbled on the preamble to the Federal Housing Act of 1949, which was co-sponsored by New York Senator Bob Wagner, a liberal Democrat, and Ohio Senator Bob Taft, a conservative Republican.

Incredibly, the authors called for “a decent home and living environment for every American family.” The Housing Act of 1949 was the only part of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal that made it into law. In his 1949 State of the Union Truman said “the American people have decided that poverty is just as wasteful and just as unnecessary as preventable disease.”

Truman challenged the nation to take action on building affordable housing because “five million families were living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share homes with others.” He called for rent control.

This was a different and more humane America that felt the living conditions of the poor were a mark on the nation’s character. Scroll forward a few decades, and the attitude coming out of the beltway is that the poor have themselves to blame for their condition and the sooner we can demolish these public housing projects the better.

As O’Donnell rightly pointed out, NYCHA was a “hidden city, hiding in plain sight.” O’Donnell appeared legitimately at a loss to understand how it could be that the two candidates would pass up on the invite. But then, for years now, the poor and struggling urban sections of our entire nation have been ignored. What was Washington up to? It spent hundreds of billions blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan and squandering even more money trying to put them back together again, and failing at that.

But it wasn’t only public housing projects like NYCHA that were ignored. Even as an ongoing urban foreclosure crisis spread blight and abandonment, the federal government and the media looked the other way. According to John Powell, director of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, many American cities, especially in minority neighborhoods, the number of foreclosures and abandoned homes have severely depressed real estate values since the 2008 collapse.

“When the government was saying the crisis was over,” said Powell, “we had thousands of neighborhoods in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where a disproportionate number of homes were underwater and the government did not step in.”

According to “Underwater America,” a report published by the Haas Institute, 71 of the 100 cities with the highest rate of underwater households have a population that’s more than 40 percent African American and Latino. All told, more than 10 million Americans live in one of 395 so-called “hot spot” ZIP codes, where between 43 percent and 76 percent of homeowners are trapped in underwater mortgages and heading for foreclosure.

From the era of the “War on Poverty,” we went to prosecuting the war on the poor in the form of the war on drugs. At the same time we pursued free trade policies that hollowed out our industrial base, we threw hundreds of thousands of African-Americans in jail, as we criminalized drug addiction. The collateral damage was generations of disenfranchised men, who were now convicted felons, and fractured families that required grandparents to step up and raise their grandchildren.

These examples of massive and catastrophic misrule that have been heaped one upon another are interconnected. Reporters are just so terrified that if they hold the elected officials accountable for any of it they won’t get invited back.

Our mainstream commentators project this phony narrative that we have come so far because one African American gets to live in the White House, even as generation after generation of poor kids live in sub-standard housing and millions of working class Americans lost their homes.

There’s just none of that Bobby Kennedy Jr passion to do anything about any of it.