Gulf Coast clergy, residents decry Barbour’s grant process

Published 4:49 pm Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Some 200 Gulf Coast residents held a rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday to criticize the governor’s Homeowners Assistance Grant Program, saying it had failed to help renters and low- to moderate-income people get back into their homes.

Pastor Anthony Thompson, of Gulfport, said the group wanted to send the message to Gov. Haley Barbour that the grant process was moving too slow and excluding too many people.

“We’ve asked the governor to meet with us. We sent a letter. He has not responded,” Thompson said.

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The rally was sponsored by the Amos Network, a coalition of congregations, associations and individuals working to negotiate government and private sector agreements on the post-Hurricane Katrina coast.

The group stood in sweltering heat, holding signs that read: “Affordable housing for all” and “We are not invisible.” They sang songs as they marched from Christ Temple Church of Christ Holiness to the nearby Capitol in downtown Jackson.

“People are still living in tents after two years. Most of the people here don’t have no place to go. People on the beach got grants,” said Pastor J.L. Henry, of Moss Point, referring to the tony homes that are being rebuilt along U.S. 90.

Barbour’s grant program is a two-phase project designed to assist residents as they rebuild or renovate property destroyed by Katrina in 2005.

The program is overseen by the Mississippi Development Authority, but is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant funds.

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 storm surge after the hurricane 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.

Thompson said homeowners who had wind damage do not qualify for the program, and an income cap in the second phase eliminates a large number of renters and working poor.

The group wants Barbour to revamp the second phase of the program to include all homeowners who had wind, water and surge damage. They’re also asking for a financial commitment and timetable to restore affordable housing on the coast.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith issued a statement that said the grant program was approved by federal agencies and is subject to review and audits.

“We continue to believe that the most comprehensive recovery programs ever attempted are working to the benefit of the vast majority of coast residents and communities whose lives were disrupted by Hurricane Katrina,” Smith said in the statement.

Marianne Hill, senior economist of the Institutions of Higher Learning, said housing has stalled on the Gulf Coast. She said the number of people employed in construction in June 2007 was no greater than June 2006.

She said people are concerned about the higher insurance costs, new building code requirements and permits.

“We haven’t seen the takeoff in residential construction we’re waiting for,” Hill said.

According to the MDA Web site, grants have been paid to 13,556 of the 15,575 homeowners who were eligible for the program. For the second phase, 2,169 of 7,424 applications had been approved, with 575 grants paid.

Jackie Washington, 53, a Biloxi homeowner, said she’s been waiting for more than a year to hear whether she’ll receive any funding.

Washington said she didn’t qualify for the first phase, but submitted an application for the second phase.

“They don’t tell you any information,” she said. “They say it’s still being processed.”