02 Sep Plant a Flag of Equity – 15 Years After Katrina
As the devastation of Hurricane Katrina became clear to the public, a popular saying took hold: the storm was “an equal-opportunity destroyer.” What this phrase neglects is the fact that this storm struck a profoundly inequitable society shaped for generations by Jim Crow law. For this reason, vulnerable Black and poor residents faced stubbornly embedded disparities in housing and economic resilience.
In the fall of 2005, the Mississippi Center for Justice opened a disaster recovery office in Biloxi with the goal to plant a flag of equity in the efforts to rebuild and recover. Over the next five years in partnership with allies, MCJ urged federal and state officials to prioritize those least able to recover using their own resources.
At the outset there was optimism over the call by the Governor’s Commission to prioritize low-income residents in housing initiatives. Further optimism came from generous Congressional support for the region: nearly $12 billion in federal block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But an early hint of inequity came when HUD allocated Mississippi an outsized share of these funds at the expense of our fellow storm victims in Louisiana.
In general, states must spend most of their HUD block grant funds to benefit persons of low and moderate income (LMI). In this case, however, Congress authorized HUD to reduce that requirement to half the total, or to waive it entirely on the demand of the Governor, if necessary. And this was what Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour attempted to do for the entire $5 billion. In addition, Governor Barbour fended off state legislative allocation or oversight of these funds, leaving him solely in charge of an amount four times larger than the CARES Act funds over which the state legislature recently asserted appropriations control.
Over the course of five years, MCJ and its allies met the challenges and delivered results, the highlights of which include:
- Persuading HUD to require Mississippi to create a $700 million housing assistance program targeting over 6,000 LMI storm victims, with or without personal insurance.
- Suing HUD over Mississippi’s diversion of $600 million from housing recovery to expand the State Port at Gulfport that led to the creation of an unmet needs housing program in which over $210 million went to house 5,100 households in 15 counties.
- Advocating for a small rental assistance repair program for over 4,000 units including rent affordability requirements and attention to small family-owned rentals.
- Advocating for repair of nearly 2,000 units of public housing and construction and fair housing protections of over 3,300 units of tax credit financed rental housing.
- Advocating in favor of modular Katrina cottages to transition storm victims out of FEMA trailers and for their conversion to permanent housing.
- Advocating to rescind waivers on disaster recovery programs which HUD granted as to nearly $1.2 billion in economic development, community revitalization, and infrastructure.
- Pressuring HUD to scrutinize inflated job forecasts at the State Port at Gulfport.
Today, we can say that our collective advocacy advanced our goal of equity in disaster recovery, both in the general use of funds and the specifics of key housing programs. Our appeals for reform have also contributed to some changes in disaster response law that reduce inequity although the ad-hoc federal approach to this issue means that vigilance remains necessary.