Barbour rejects call to reconsider port diversion

Published 1:45 am Friday, June 26, 2009

Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday he won’t reconsider his plan to divert $570 million from a hurricane housing fund to a port expansion despite renewed calls from congressional leaders to do so.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., have sent Barbour a letter asking him to hold off on the diversion because housing availability in the Gulf Coast region hasn’t kept pace with the need.

When asked if he would reconsider the request following a news conference on Thursday, Barbour responded “no.” The governor walked off before he could be asked to elaborate.

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Hurricane Katrina ripped across the coast in August 2005, destroying much of the region’s housing stock. Congress approved $5.4 billion in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to aid in the state’s recovery.

Last year, then-U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson signed off on Barbour’s proposal to steer the money earmarked to replenish coastal housing to port expansion. However, Jackson also cited the lingering unmet housing needs, a problem exacerbated by increased insurance and rental costs in the aftermath of the storm.

The letter from Frank and Waters is the latest attempt to block the diversion that has drawn criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill and housing advocates across the country. A lawsuit was filed in December on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims who have been unable to acquire permanent housing four years after the storm. The pending litigation has delayed the release of the money for the port expansion.

Waters and Frank said they also sent the letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan “to ensure that he is aware of the serious reservations we still have regarding Mississippi’s use of housing funds for the Port of Gulfport.”

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said Donovan would respond to the representatives.

Barbour took the $570 million from the hurricane housing fund. He said the state’s programs were on target to meet set goals.

Frank and Waters said so far, those housing development programs have fallen short. For instance, the Small Rental Assistance Program was projected to produce as many as 7,500 units, but based on current contract awards will only yield 4,800, the letter said.

They also cited a program that was supposed to provide 12,850 units for work force housing. The first two phases of that program will result in 4,831 units.

The estimates for new housing units were formulated immediately after the storm, and are no longer an accurate representation of the housing situation, said Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, which oversees the federal funding for the projects.

Youngblood said Thursday that a 2008 housing study conducted by the South Mississippi Planning and Development District found that affordability was the main obstacle on the coast.

Barbour has asked HUD for 5,000 housing vouchers to help hurricane-displaced residents cover the costs of permanent dwellings. Federal officials said last week that HUD would provide $50 million in new housing vouchers to areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Youngblood said the state hasn’t received its vouchers.

“While housing vouchers fulfill a particular housing need, without available housing units, vouchers are worthless,” Frank and Waters wrote.