At 3-year mark, housing still issue on Miss. coast

Published 10:47 pm Saturday, August 30, 2008

On the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour says he’s proud of Mississippi’s progress even as advocacy groups point to glaring gaps in the state’s housing efforts.

Barbour released his Katrina progress report Friday — the third anniversary of the storm that washed away thousands of homes and businesses on the Mississippi coast and triggered deadly flooding in New Orleans in August 2005. He acknowledges in the report that housing remains a critical issue. However, he said Mississippi’s assistance effort is one no other state has matched.

“Should America undergo another disaster of Hurricane Katrina’s magnitude, I truly believe other states will uphold Mississippi’s disaster recovery program as an example to emulate,” Barbour said in the report.

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Barbour said the state has put nearly $1 billion in federal funds into programs to restore housing for low-income residents. But construction hasn’t yet begun on some of that housing.

The governor’s been on the defensive at times as advocacy groups — many of whom have released their own anniversary reports — have criticized the state for its pace during the past three years.

Some 5,500 families still live in temporary housing in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. They’re under a March 2009 deadline to find permanent homes.

Mississippi received $5.4 billion in community block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after Katrina. The money was to be used in several areas such as economic development, infrastructure and housing.

The Mississippi Center for Justice says the state didn’t consider low-income residents in its planning from the outset because it applied for waivers to free it from the requirement of directing 50 percent of grant money to that population.

As of March 2008, the state had spent only 13 percent of its disaster funds on low-income victims, the center said in the report compiled by the Steps Coalition, a group of churches, nonprofits and other groups aiding in the coast’s recovery. The waivers are the reason, said Reilly Morse, an attorney with center.

“When you put out over $1 billion without income targets, you are going to skew the percentages heavily toward wealthier homeowners,” Morse said.

Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority that oversees the housing funds, questioned the math in the report even though the figure comes from documents his agency filed with the federal government. A performance report submitted to HUD is posted on MDA’s website.

Youngblood said the only waiver the state received was for its $2 billion homeowner grant program. He said of the money that’s been paid, about 40 percent has gone to the low- and moderate-income so far. But Morse said the state received waivers for other projects, including community revitalization and infrastructure.

The center’s report said current housing restoration plans also will fall short. The state’s small-rental plan is forecast to restore only 46 percent of the pre-storm units, leaving 7,500 units unrepaired. It also said a $350 million long-term work force housing plan for up to 12,850 homes is “over optimistic,” when compared with the $1.3 billion the state spent on grants to restore 17,800 homes.

Oxfam America criticized the state in its report for waiting until this past spring to spend money on the rental housing project.

Recovery advocates are still pushing Congress to reverse HUD’s decision earlier this year to let Mississippi divert $600 million from its housing fund to an improvement project at the State Port at Gulfport.

Barbour appears to be listening to some of the complaints. Just this week, he hired former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey as the state’s new coast housing director, whose role will be to work with local nonprofit agencies, governments and advocates. Creating the position was among the recommendations of the Gulf Coast Business Council, said Morse, a member of the group.

“He’s local and he knows the coast housing problem firsthand,” Morse said. “I’m hoping other recommendations will be adopted as swiftly.”

On the Net:

Gov. Haley Barbour’s 3-year report: http//

Steps Coalition report: http//

Mississippi Development Authority: http//