Some low-income Mississippi residents, still in need of recovery funds five years after Hurricane Katrina, will receive disaster recovery assistance following a Nov. 15 settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After two years of litigation, the department agreed to redirect to needy residents for home rehabilitation a portion of funds earmarked for other Mississippi recovery efforts, including the expansion of the state’s commercial port,.

The $132.8 million will also provide rehab funding to homeowners who were previously denied governmental support because of a stipulation against rebuilding homes damaged by wind during the 2005 catastrophe.

Through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program, these low-income citizens will be eligible for up to $75,000 in repairs and home reconstruction or receive assistance to seek permanent alternative housing, according to the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The lawsuit, filed by the Mississippi NAACP chapter, the Mississippi Center for Justice and Gulf Coast Housing Advocates on behalf of the needy residents, challenged Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to spend $570 million in federal hurricane recovery money to expand the stae’s port at Gulfport.

“This is a major accomplishment for the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit as well as the thousands of households previously denied assistance that will now be eligible for the federal aid they have always needed,” Larry Schoen, one of the attorneys that represented the residents, said in a statement. “It is a testament to the commitment of these Plaintiffs and the willingness of all parties to work toward a pragmatic and satisfactory solution.”

Advocacy groups say priority was given to the insured when it came to federal assistance.

Over $1.4 billion in grants were paid to homeowners with insurance, but only $387 million went to low- and moderate-income households, according to Mississippi Federal Disaster Recovery reports in March. That means only 27 percent of poor residents saw those recovery funds.

“Our focus always has been to get Mississippi to finish housing first,” said James Crowell, treasurer of the Mississippi NAACP. “With this plan, Mississippi has committed to repair low-income households…We can now make progress toward repairing and rebuilding housing in low-income African American neighborhoods that have been neglected for the past five years.”

As a result of the agreement, attorneys for the plaintiffs and HUD will withdraw their suit, now in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, The Chicago Tribune reported.

The state has begun an outreach campaign to identify further unmet recovery needs in nine southern Mississippi counties—Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone, George, Lamar, Forrest, and Jones, according to a correspondence issued by the state’s Disaster Recovery Division. Residents can apply for assistance through the Mississippi Disaster Recover Web site.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO