Senate committee hears from coast residents about housing plight

Published 4:59 pm Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A panel of lawmakers listened on Tuesday as Gulf Coast residents shared their personal stories about the region’s housing crisis.

Allen Johnson, who uses a wheelchair and is a college student, said he has been told he has to vacate his FEMA trailer within six months. Johnson, who lives in the trailer with his 16-year-old daughter, said if he moves, he won’t have access to public transportation and will be unable to get to his classes.

“I would become a prisoner in my own home,” said Johnson, who was one of the dozens of Gulf Coast residents who traveled by bus to the state Capitol.

They came for a Senate Housing Committee hearing on post-Hurricane Katrina housing problems. Representatives from several advocacy groups, including the NAACP, Oxfam America and the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force made their case to lawmakers.

John Joplin of the Mississippi Center for Justice Katrina Recovery Office said estimates show 18,000 storm-damaged homes aren’t eligible for any of the federally funded programs being administered by the Mississippi Development Authority.

“It is very apparent the goal of affordable housing remains a distant mirage,” Joplin said.

He said told lawmakers they should hold public hearings to shine a spotlight on the crisis, support legislation that promotes affordable housing and ask MDA to extend a March 15 deadline to apply for a homeowners assistance program.

The grant program targeted dwellings that were damaged by Katrina’s storm surge. The money came from the more than $5 billion the state received from the federal government.

The first phase of the housing program provides up to $150,000 each to homeowners who lived outside the federal flood plain. 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.

However, homeowners who had wind damage don’t qualify for either phase, which was one of the main complaints during the hearing. The groups want the state to develop an assistance program to help homeowners with wind-damage.

MDA spokesman Lee Youngblood said the legislation approved by Congress in 2005 didn’t provide funding for wind damage.

“Gov. (Haley) Barbour and others have said if you get into wind damage where do you stop? Wind damage goes far north in the state,” Youngblood said in a phone interview after the meeting.

Youngblood also said MDA wouldn’t extend the March 15 deadline because there isn’t any need. Early projections were that about 35,000 homeowners would be eligible for the program, but so far about 27,000 have applied, he said.

Senate Housing Committee Chairman Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, said lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a task force to study establishing a trust fund for affordable housing. The bill, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would create 16-member panel to study and recommend legislation by Dec. 1.

The fund would assist low-income people in accessing affordable rental and home ownership housing. It would also provide funding for the development, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing.

Thirty-eight states have affordable housing trust funds similar to the one proposed in the bill.

“I want to find out what will work for Mississippi,” Frazier said.

The bill is House Bill 896.