Last state recovery program to begin

Sun Herald

GULFPORT — The last Katrina recovery program for homeowners, the Neighborhood Home Program, is behind schedule but repairs should begin next month on the first of thousands of homes.

Irene Walker, 83, has been living with family members since the hurricane because she did not qualify for earlier homeowner programs crafted by the federal and state governments. Her home in the Soria City community of south central Gulfport will be one of the first repaired because it is uninhabitable.

“I didn’t think it was going to take this long, but I guess I have to have the patience of Job,” said Walker’s niece, Occletta “Cookie” Norwood of North Gulfport. “I will just appreciate it whenever they fix it. I just hope they get to it before too long.” Once the home is repaired, Norwood said, her aunt will return with family members because she is no longer physically able to care for herself.

Housing advocates pushed for the program that will provide a total of $132 million to fund repairs, reasoning that residents least able to afford recovery were left out of earlier programs that helped homeowners whose homes were swamped with tidal surge when they lived outside flood zones and were without flood insurance.

The program was announced one year ago this coming Tuesday. Repairs were expected to begin sooner, but have been delayed several months because two contractors not selected for the work filed protests. One of the protests was withdrawn and the other has been resolved, said Jon Mabry, chief operations officer for disaster recovery at the Mississippi Development Authority. MDA has managed more than $3 billion in federal funds spent on housing programs, including grants directly to homeowners, and construction of workforce housing with down payment assistance, small-rental units and public housing.

Mabry said MDA has been cleared to sign contracts with the five companies selected to make Neighborhood Home repairs. He said MDA is ahead of schedule in qualifying applicants for the program. The applicant review process is rigorous. Basic eligibility requires documentation of homeownership from the time Katrina hit, records that show a homeowner falls within income limits and other information. The federal government requires environmental reviews for each property and checks for duplication of benefits.

“Our policy is not to turn people down, it’s to help them find their documents,” said Gerald Blessey, whom Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Coast housing director in 2008 to ensure recovery needs were being met. “It takes a little longer.”

A demographic breakdown of the 626 applicants already qualified for repairs shows housing advocates had a point about those still waiting for recovery. Sixty-two percent of those applicants earn less than 50 percent of the area median income. At least 51 percent are elderly and disabled.

More than 16,000 applications were accepted in Mississippi’s nine southernmost counties. Of those, 1,400 have found assistance through other recovery programs, while 3,610 appear eligible for Neighborhood Home, including those already qualified.

Reilly Morse, an attorney who works as policy director at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said his agency will continue monitoring Neighborhood Home to make sure no one is unfairly excluded. “We don’t think that this will go forward on autopilot,” said Morse, the leading Coast advocate for a final recovery program. “It’s going to require some ongoing engagement to make sure as many people as are eligible are treated that way and to make sure the ownership issues are settled.”

Nell Rogers, MDA’s Neighborhood Home program manager, said some homeowners who qualified had previously received money from various sources for repairs, but were victims of contractor fraud. Others needed financial help to permanently place Mississippi cottages. Still others received inadequate compensation from their insurance companies. In some cases, homeowners lacked wind insurance, particularly elderly residents who owned their homes outright when Katrina hit and lived on fixed incomes.

She said the average cost of repairs is so far around $18,000. MDA has prioritized the most severely damaged homes for the earliest processing and repairs.

Walker’s house falls into that category. A church replaced the roof, but interior damage is extensive and, Norwood said, the roof over the bathroom needs to be replaced.

“The applicants have been understanding of the process,” Rogers said, “and they’ve been patient.”

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