JACKSON – This was a case of David versus Goliath: David being Gulf Coast community advocates for low income householders whose domiciles were badly damaged by Katrina five years ago, but shut out by the state from federal disaster relief funds; Goliath being Gov. Haley Barbour and his minions who controlled the recovery money.
Chalk up one for David.
A week ago, Barbour and his Mississippi Development Authority team relented under pressure from the Obama Administration and agreed to give the Gulf Coast housing advocates a $132 million slice of the $5.4 billion federal storm recovery aid allotted to the state in December, 2005, half of which was intended to be spent on low and moderate income families.
Remember, the Gulf Coast community advocates filed a federal lawsuit two years ago opposing the Barbour Administration’s diversion of $600 million to a pre-Katrina grandiose plan to expand the state-owned Port of Gulfport. The diversion scheme had been approved by HUD back when Barbour’s buddy, George W. Bush, was still in office.
As part of the $132 million deal announced Nov. 17, the advocacy groups agreed to drop their lawsuit and Barbour’s MDA will institute an outreach campaign to find qualified applicants from the six Coastal area counties, plus Forrest, Lamar and Jones counties which also had damage from Katrina.
The program, named “Neighborhood Home,” caps at $75,000 the maximum any household can receive for repairs. Importantly, unlike commercial insurance, the new program will cover both wind and water damage.
Reilly Morse, senior attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice, one of the key advocacy groups, said that 4,400 elderly and handicapped persons with unmet housing needs have already been identified and hundreds more are expected from the outreach.
Morse, who has been leading the Gulf Coast community housing advocacy effort for several years, said “it was an amazing group of people” who came together at the Isaiah Fredericks Community Center in North Gulfport on Nov. 17 for the announcement of the disaster plan settlement. Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, along with r Barbour and Morse were the principals on hand for the landmark settlement unveiling.
Special credit was given by Morse to Gerald Blessey, formerly Biloxi mayor and state legislator, for getting Barbour and MDA officials on board to direct the $132 million to housing recovery for lower-income households. Blessey now serves as MDA’s housing recovery director.
“We’ve had a hard time getting anyone (at the state level) to listen to us until Gerald Blessey went to bat for us,” Morse declared. Overall, he added, “this was a victory for a persistent community effort.” Besides the Center for Justice, the lawsuit against HUD had been joined by the state Conference of the NAACP, and the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center. Pro bono legal support had been given by attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Low income black neighborhoods are expected to particularly benefit from the new program, Morse declared. He told the story of how during the storm a white Gulfport family with a young child had been forced to abandon their home just South of the raised railroad bed which traverses the coastal cities. “They knocked loudly on the door of the first house they came to North of the railroad tracks, and finally, an elderly black lady came to the door,” he said.
“She invited the little family inside to ride out the storm,” Morse added. “Later after the family had left, wind heavily damaged the elderly lady’s home and relatives who lived in another area took her in to live with them,” he said.
The 82-year-old black lady couldn’t afford to make necessary repairs in the last five years to make her home livable. “She is one of the many worthy householders we expect to make whole,” Morse said.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.