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With 17,000 Mississippi households still camped in FEMA trailers more than two years after Hurricane Katrina wrecked their homes, an urgent rallying cry has suddenly risen from the Gulf Coast: "People Before Ports!"
At issue is a new state plan to divert $600 million in federal funding earmarked for housing restoration and pump it into the redevelopment of the Port of Gulfport, the third busiest container port in the Gulf of Mexico.
Housing advocates are crying foul. Religious leaders have called it "a great injustice." And residents, who have spent the past two years squeezed into trailers while trying to scrape together enough resources to get back into real homes, are wondering how much longer they're going to have to wait for help.
"We're not opposed to the port being restored, but we don't want them to use this money because there are so many people who have not been restored to their homes," said Roberta Avila, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.
"Local folks are not upset with the port expansion. The problem is the money is being taken out of homeowner funds," added Kimberly Miller, Oxfam America's state policy specialist on the Gulf Coast. "They see every day all the folks who haven't been served—or who are still fighting to get anything and are still in FEMA trailers."
One of them is Tanya Grace, a 37-year-old teacher's assistant at an elementary school in Gulfport. She has been living in a FEMA trailer in Biloxi since the storm.
"What's more important—expanding something or trying to get people out of a FEMA trailer?" asked Grace, who has been working two jobs to try and save enough money so she can afford the ever-climbing rents in Biloxi. "First they need to take some of the money and build apartments for people who earn minimum wage." One and two bedroom units are now renting for $800 and $900 a month, she said.
"People can't afford that," said Grace.
On Wednesday, with the help of Oxfam America, a group of about 20 religious leaders representing every denomination along the coast called a press conference to challenge the state's plan and warn that it would bring hardship to many.
"You're going to have economic development passing through the port and people are still going to be homeless. We say that's not right," Pastor Larry Hawkins of the Shiloh Baptists Association told the crowd. "We're not going to just sit here, roll over, and play dead and watch you allocate money to help individuals and take that money and expand the port."
But state officials haven't given anyone much time to try and put the breaks on this project.
Hatching plans behind closed doors
The Mississippi Development Authority, or MDA, announced its plans in a press release on September 7—giving Gulf Coast residents and activists barely 17 days to respond. The formal comment period ends Sept. 24. The state has to submit its plan to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, for approval. Housing advocates are working hard to let people know what is going on so that they can register their objections.
Short notice from the state is nothing new to advocacy groups. They have been fighting for months to get more information about how Mississippi is spending billions of taxpayer dollars.
"So much of what has happened with the recovery has happened under the cover of night," said Oxfam America's Miller. Twice, she said, members of the legislature have tried to pass bills that would create an oversight process for the billions of federal dollars allocated for the Mississippi recovery. The effort failed both times.
At stake is $2.82 billion in homeowner assistance grants. The state has paid out about $1.07 billion of that to approximately 15,000 applicants, Miller said. Slightly more than 15,000 homeowners are waiting to get their grants. And still thousands of others—many of whom are renters or whose homes suffered wind damage—don't qualify for help according to the rules the state has set up.
"Most of the dialogue about how this money gets spent is between folks in Washington and the MDA," said Miller. "The chance for public review is pretty limited. Part of the reason we're here is fighting to make sure the taxpayers' money is being spent the way they expected it to be."
That fight has included several Public Information Requests to the MDA for documents reporting on how the grants have been spent so advocates can keep an eye on whether low-income groups are getting their share.
"One of the big surprises was that the reports don't have much detail on those numbers," said Miller. "They're not keeping track of that information."
In its pitch for the port, whose top imports have included bananas, the Mississippi Development Authority is projecting that the facility will generate 5,400 maritime-related jobs by the year 2015. It said a portion of those jobs will be made available to low- and moderate-income workers.
"The state of Mississippi understands that the restoration of the Port of Gulfport is crucial to the economy of our state and essential to the revitalization of the Gulf Coast region," said Gov. Haley Barbour in an MDA press release.
But the Mississippi Center for Justice, a non-profit law firm that focuses on racial and economic justice, has said the plan "makes a mockery of the Governor's Commission's recommendation to place a priority in every housing program upon serving the needs of lower income storm victims."
The housing needs for people in the low- to moderate-income range remain vast, and meeting them could more than consume the $600 million the state wants to invest in the port. For instance, the Mississippi Center for Justice points out that there are at least 5,000 low- and moderate-income households in the state's lower 10 counties whose homes suffered severe wind damage. None of them are eligible for the state's home grant program. Meeting their needs, with an average grant of $70,000 each, would cost $350 million. Additionally, there are 13, 800 rentals affordable to people with low to moderate incomes but that remain severely damaged. The state has a plan for producing just 5,000 units. To double that program would cost $258 million.
Critics of the governor's plan say housing money should be spent on housing and the state should find other sources to fund the port project. Options include issuing bonds, enlisting the support of private investors, and seeking additional federal funds through upcoming appropriations bills.
"It's almost like the state is doing a disservice to the port by putting them in a position of having to fight against homeowners for resources," said Miller.
And while locals would be happy to see the port improved—and happy for the new jobs an expansion would bring—there's a question that has to be answered first: Where will a family of four that earns $22,000 a year—as many low-income families do—be able to live if affordable housing isn't restored?
Housing advocates hope that HUD will ask itself that same question—and deny Mississippi's request to expand its port at the expense of its people.