Advocacy groups want to know where grant money is going

Published 4:45 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hoping to get a clearer picture of who’s benefiting from Mississippi’s post-Hurricane Katrina housing grants, a coalition of advocacy groups has filed public records requests with the agency administering the program.

The records requests — filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance, Oxfam America, The American Civil Liberties Union, Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — seek information about grant applicants and state contracts related to the housing program.

The Mississippi Development Authority, which oversees Gov. Haley Barbour’s Homeowners Assistance Grant Program, has until Sept. 6 to comply. If it doesn’t, the groups said they’ll consider legal action.

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MDA spokeswoman Jennifer Spann said the agency had received the requests and would respond “if what they’re requesting is actually in our public records.”

Reilly Morse of the Mississippi Center for Justice said his organization wants the quarterly reports that MDA has to submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which approved and funded the program. Morse said the requests aren’t meant to suggest fraud has been committed.

“It’s important to see if we’ve steered off course from what needs to be done for bringing the coast back,” Morse said. “If this information was online, like it is in Texas, we wouldn’t have to bother.”

Earlier this month, Barbour said more than $1 billion in federal funding had been distributed to 13,944 homeowners for the first and second phases of the housing program.

The first phase of the program provides up to $150,000 each to homeowners who lived outside the federal flood plain but lost their houses to Katrina’s water after the storm struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

The second phase, to cover low-income and working poor homeowners, provides up to $100,000 for people who had storm surge damage to their primary residence regardless of whether they were insured or whether the property was in a flood zone.

MDA’s Web site shows how many grant applications have been received and how many grants have been paid, but those details are too general, said Debby Goldberg, director of the Hurricane Relief Project at the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance.

“It doesn’t give you any indication of who is it that’s included in those numbers,” said Goldberg. “Are these low income people? Are they moderate income people? Which communities is the money not flowing into,” she said.

Goldberg said because the state is using federal Community Development Block Grants for the program, the funds must be used to promote fair housing. The original federal requirement for the CDBG funds was that at least 50 percent of the money go to low- to moderate-income people, but Mississippi received a waiver for that requirement in phase one, Goldberg said.

Spann said MDA wasn’t tracking applicants based on race, gender or location. She also said that no one has been disqualified from the assistance since people who do not meet the requirements for the first phase are automatically considered for the second phase.

Goldberg said after Katrina hit, available housing was limited and market prices rose, a troublesome situation for low- to moderate-income residents.

In East Biloxi, a predominantly black area and one of the hardest hit by the storm, about 40 percent of the homeowners who were eligible for phase one grants have received some monies, said city Councilman Bill Stallworth.

Stallworth, who founded the East Biloxi Coordination Relief and Redevelopment Agency to assist in the neighborhood’s recovery, said many of the homes were undervalued on insurance policies. He said the policies were worth $50,000 to $60,000.

“If you have to come back and rebuild at today’s marketplace, you’re looking at $100,000. So you’re starting in the hole,” Stallworth said.