Last fall, the Mississippi State Port Authority convened a hearing to listen to nearly 100 comments about Gov. Haley Barbour’s controversial plan, ironically named “Port of the Future.” The proposal would divert $600 million from rebuilding housing destroyed by Hurricane Katrina to expanding a port in Gulfport, Mississippi, instead.
“It is morally unacceptable in light of the fact that there are thousands of Mississippi households that have not recovered,” said Roberta Avila, the head of the Mississippi-based advocacy group Interfaith Disaster Task Force, on a local television station.
Ten days after the public hearing, Port Authority officials adopted the plan as their roadmap for economic development in the state. For many community advocates, it was the latest in a long line of offenses since Hurricane Katrina hit.
Back in December 2005, with the Bush administration’s bungled rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina fresh in the nation’s memory, Congress gave Mississippi $5.5 billion for housing recovery and economic development, with a federal mandate that at least half of the money benefit primarily low and moderate-income residents. The money was much needed for the more than 100,000 Mississippians who had been displaced by the storm, many of whom lived in poorly built homes still badly damaged from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. (FEMA alone estimated it provided emergency shelter to 105,000 residents of the state in the year following Katrina.)
But in the hands of Gov. Barbour, the first attempt at disbursing home-recovery money failed. It offered up to $150,000, but only to homeowners who could meet requirements like having had home insurance and having experienced certain kinds of home damage. The money also left renters out in the cold.
“As of the third anniversary of Katrina, something like a billion out of $1.3 billion of housing-recovery money granted has gone to relatively wealthy homeowners,” said Reilly Morse, senior attorney with STEPS Coalition, a housing rights organization. It wasn’t until a large outcry organized by local community advocates that another round of grant money began going to renters.
Gov. Barbour was able to dodge the federal mandate that at least half of recovery money go to low-income Katrina survivors by seeking waivers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, and in the Gulf Coast we’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis,” said Charmel Gaulden, executive director of the GulfCoast Fair Housing Center.
Dominique Duval of Louisiana’s PolicyLink said, “When we’re talking about systemic discrimination that’s been perpetuated over generations, you need to ask, ‘How are these recovery programs formulated?’”
For Morse, it’s for all of these reasons that the adoption of the Port of the Future plan was “galling.” He noted, “We think they’re at a very serious risk of a Federal Fair Housing Act violation. The port’s approval of this is not a fait accompli. There remain substantial challenges to their plan, and we are going to focus on legal actions.”