Advocates still oppose port diversion despite extra $100 M for post-Katrina housing

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Advocates involved in the Mississippi Gulf Coast recovery effort welcomed Gov. Haley Barbour’s announcement Tuesday that another $100 million will go toward unmet housing needs in the hurricane-ravaged area.

They remained critical of a state plan to divert $600 million that had been earmarked for housing to a port improvement project in Gulfport.

Barbour’s announcement of the cash infusion for the Long-Term Workforce Housing program comes days before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to approve or reject the port proposal.

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A coalition of organizations “remains strongly opposed to the plan to redirect this money. We would need even more than $600 million to take care of the unmet housing needs,” said Roberta Avila, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force, a member of the Steps Coalition.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, a housing crisis has gripped the region as thousands still live in government-issued trailers. Escalating costs for land, rental and insurance have priced many people out of the market.

That’s why it is critical that the $600 million be used for housing instead of the port, said James Crowell, president of the Biloxi chapter of the NAACP.

“It’s affecting us economically. In order to get them back here, they definitely need a place to live. Even developers are having problems securing land at a price they can afford to sell it so they can make some money,” Crowell said Tuesday.

Mississippi has several housing initiatives under way, including grant programs for people whose homes sustained flood damage from the storm. The problem is that there’s not enough assistance for people who had wind damage, said Avila.

“The governor has been adamant about the fact that he would not use CDBG funds for wind damage,” she said.

Mississippi received $5.4 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds from the federal government after Katrina wiped out large portions of the Gulf Coast. Barbour has said the restoration of the port is crucial to the state’s economy.

The port generates about 3,000 maritime jobs and is the third busiest container port in the Gulf of Mexico, officials have said.

“The CDBG program is a very comprehensive program, which we have stated from the beginning. The state is constantly reviewing ways to maximize the money in this program to get the full benefit for the Gulf Coast,” Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said Tuesday.

Initially, the workforce housing program was allocated $150 million. The program requires for-profit and nonprofit entities to submit competitive proposals to construct housing in Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River counties.

The proposals must meet HUD requirements regarding low-income families. They also will leverage private capital with HUD Community Development Block Grant funds to construct single-family or multifamily homes. Some will be rental units.

The Mississippi Development Authority, which manages the program, issued a request for proposals in September 2007. Winners of the first round of competition will be announced within the next 30 days.

In September, the MDA said that only $100 million of the block grant funds had been unallocated, and it was unclear if that was the money used for the long-term housing program. The governor’s spokesman didn’t immediately answer the question.

“If that’s the last of the money, it leaves a lot of people without money to take care of their housing needs,” said Avila.