Gulf Coast housing plan is good news, but...

By Coco McCabe
The Port of Gulport in Mississippi is slated to receive a $600 million makeover using funds originally intended to restore housing on the hurricane-battered coast. Mississippi housing advocates have protested the plan, pointing out that many people in the

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Working families on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, many of whom still have nowhere permanent to live two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina wrecked their homes, got some good news last week: The state has decided to allocate $100 million more to help restore workforce housing.

"It's a victory," said Kimberly Miller, a state policy specialist for Oxfam America. "It's always a good thing when you see money going into housing needs."

But it's a victory tempered by reality. Advocates say there are still enormous unmet housing needs and $100 million will hardly begin to cover them. Further, the allocation pales in comparison to the $600 million in federal grants the state intends to spend on redevelopment of the Port of Gulfport—money that was originally earmarked for housing restoration.

Late last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave its blessing to Mississippi's plan to apply that $600 million in grants to the port, the third busiest container port in the Gulf of Mexico. The decision deeply disappointed housing advocates who have fought hard since September to convince HUD and Mississippi officials that people need help more than the port does.

Shortly before HUD released its decision, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced the $100 million allocation for workforce housing—a move some said was timed to quiet complaints that low-income residents weren't getting a fair share of the federal housing reconstruction dollars.

"It's not that we're asking for a second helping," said Roberta Avila, director of the Interfaith Disaster Task Force. "We're saying look, there's this huge unmet need and our state can do better than it has been."

Port or people?

Barbour has said the port restoration is crucial to the state's economy and essential to the revitalization of the region. The Mississippi Development Authority has predicted port improvements will generate 5,400 maritime-related jobs by 2015.

But housing advocates say the needs of people who have lost their homes must come first in this recovery.

"Nobody down here is against the port expansion, but not at the expense of people's housing," said James Crowell, president of the Biloxi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "There's a long way to go in terms of housing and we're at the peak of a recession and that may cause even more problems with rebuilding homes. We just feel this is the wrong decision at the wrong time."

In an analysis presented in December, the Biloxi-based STEPS Coalition noted that the state's current plans to restore housing fell woefully short of the need, particularly for renters. Of the 37,105 storm-damaged units affordable to people earning very low incomes, the state expects to replace just 5,700 of them says STEPS. All together, the organization says unmet housing needs total nearly $1.9 billion.

Barbour's plan

"Restoration of affordable housing is absolutely vital to coast recovery," said Barbour in announcing the $100 million workforce housing program. He said he expects the money will produce between 2,500 and 4,000 housing units. In September, the Mississippi Development Authority issued a request for construction proposals. The state plans to announce the first round of winners toward the end of February.

But Mississippi's long history of marginalizing its poorest citizens has left some people unimpressed with the governor's offering.

"Virtually, we have a plantation economy here—since before the Civil War—where the wealthy make money off poor people's labors," said Sister Martha Milner, citing the huge difference in dollars for the port versus what will go toward workforce housing. A housing advocate, Milner represents the Sisters of Mercy on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

"The community that's hurting is that community that's always marginalized—the low-income workers," she said. "His concern is not for those folks—even though he talks about it. That's not where his concern is."

What's next?

So where does all of this leave the people who are still camped out in trailers or have yet to return to the state because they can't find affordable housing?

They are disillusioned, depressed, and angry, said the NAAACP's Crowell.

But housing advocates are not done fighting yet. Some are turning to US Representatives Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for hope. The legislators, who are, respectively, chairman of the Committee on Financial Services and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, have indicated they would be willing to hold hearings on how the federal recovery money is being spent on the coast.

Diane Yentel, a policy analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition said that only 23 percent of the $5.4 billion in community development block grants the state received has gone to low- and moderate-income people. Normally, 70 percent of the block grants are designated for those income groups. But because of the scope of the storm, Mississippi and Louisiana both got permission to reduce that figure to 50 percent.

Congressional hearings on where those grants have gone could draw attention to Mississippi's continuing need, and set the stage for a supplemental budget request.

"This issue in Mississippi is the impetus for the hearing, but we're hopeful they'll take a broader look at community development block grant spending throughout the Gulf Coast," said Yentel.