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NAACP: Low-income people disproportionally hurt in Katrina aftermath

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, low- and moderate-income Mississippians have received too little help in recovery, says a new report by the state NAACP.

“The storm devastated Mississippians of all classes and races,” says the report released Wednesday. “For the poorest, low-wage residents of the Gulf, the storm dealt a disproportionate, catastrophic blow.”

Government programs have not yet been put in place to help renters, and that’s affecting people such as cooks, waiters, casino workers and hotel housekeepers who are essential to the tourism industry, said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“These are individuals that make the economy go,” Johnson said at news conference at the state Capitol.

In a portion of the NAACP report, Amy Liu, deputy director of The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote that since the Aug. 29 hurricane, “the housing recovery program has been tilted heavily to homeowners” while there has been too little attention to low- and moderate- income people.

“Furthermore, Katrina has provided an opportunity to replace predominantly low-income neighborhoods with healthier, mixed-income communities, and the commitment to promoting mixed-income neighborhoods has been nearly nonexistent,” Liu wrote.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this past week approved Mississippi’s plan to restore 2,500 public housing units destroyed by Katrina.

The public housing funding is separate from Gov. Haley Barbour’s $3.4 billion housing assistance grant program, which Barbour says will involve a component to address the needs of low-income and working poor homeowners.

All of the money is part of the $5 billion the state has received from the federal Community Development Block Grant Program to respond the housing crisis created by Katrina. The first phase of housing assistance was designed to help homeowners whose property flooded despite being outside the federally designated flood zone. People could qualify for grants only if they had a homeowner’s insurance policy. About 17,000 people are awaiting checks of up to $150,000.

Johnson said working-class people could become victims of state banking laws that allow predatory lending practices. He said Mississippi lending laws are friendlier to the banking industry than to consumers.

“That is a very dangerous environment for individuals who are desperate to rebuild,” Johnson said.

In some cases, he said, people have unknowingly signing second mortgages on their homes to pay for roof repairs.

The NAACP report also says increasing costs of insurance could deter some low- or moderate-income homeowners from rebuilding on the coast.

The NAACP is one of several groups release reports as the one-year anniversary of Katrina approaches next Tuesday.

Oxfam America, another advocacy group for the poor, also is calling on government assistance for renters in areas recovering from the storm.

“Low-income, working class — black, white, Latino, Vietnamese — people in the coastal areas of both Mississippi and Louisiana have not received adequate relief assistance one year after Katrina,” said Don Rojas, media manager for Washington-based Oxfam.