Miss. Home Corp. ordered to release records to Columbus residents

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Some Columbus residents have won a court fight over release of documents from the Mississippi Home Corp., which is considering tax breaks for a low-income housing development opposed by people who live nearby.

Hinds County Chancellor Denise Owens recently ruled that the state public records law does not allow the MHC to seal tax credit applications, according to lawyers involved in the litigation.

“The judge ordered the records be disclosed within 30 days,” said MHC attorney Chris Waddell.

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Concerned Residents of North Columbus sued MHC as part of the group’s effort to block two low-income apartment complexes near where most of the 200 CRONC members live.

CRONC attorney Mark Herbert said residents don’t see the need for the housing projects and are concerned about the impact the homes will have on the community. The records being opened could be used to help CRONC’s cause, he said.

“They will look at them and make sure the developers are meeting the regulations and putting up accurate information up there,” Herbert said.

Waddell said he had not yet discussed with MHC officials whether they want to challenge Owens’ ruling in the state’s appellate courts.

“The Mississippi Home Corporation will certainly abide by the judge’s order, but the possibility of an appeal is always there,” Waddell said.

After holding a hearing in June and reviewing the documents, Owens recently ruled that MHC was wrong to deem the developers’ government-held records private, Herbert said.

CRONC members are seeking information about two development companies: Franklin Point of Louisville and Sherwood GP of Oxford.

Herbert said CRONC wants details about the proposed Lowndes County housing complexes, including independent studies of whether the homes are needed for the area’s housing market and what occupancy rates are expected. CRONC also wants zoning and building permit records, architectural designs and the companies’ past performance records.

Herbert said a federal tax-credit program Congress expanded to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Katrina has enticed a swarm of companies more interested in making easy money than providing affordable and better housing for poor people.

Developers wanting to build such housing around the state are competing for a limited number of tax credits MHC has available to award.

Waddell had argued that the MHC is obligated to “safeguard” the records filed by Franklin Point and Sherwood in their bids for the federal tax credits.

“Due to the competitive nature of the program and the sensitivity” of the documents, they must not be open to the general public, he said.

“The information itself is extremely sensitive to those developments,” Waddell told Owens at the June hearing.

State law provides that commercial and financial records submitted to government agencies can be closed if they’re “of a proprietary nature.” Waddell said the law doesn’t define what’s proprietary. He said MHC should protect the housing developers from each other as they compete for the tax breaks.

Opening the applications for public review could let competitors steal information from each other, he said. MHC is trying “to ensure the information is not misused,” Waddell said.