When Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern half of Mississippi in 2005, more than 60 percent of single-family dwellings were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Those numbers increased for rental properties, which created even more displaced residents in a state where safe and affordable housing was already out of reach for so many low-income and minority residents.
In the wake of this tragedy, Mississippi Center for Justice opened a new office in hard-hit Biloxi to offer legal services to the thousands of Gulf Coast area residents who needed an advocate to help them fight for a fair recovery. The Center has been at the forefront of federal and state policy battles to restore safe and affordable housing to Hurricane Katrina’s most vulnerable survivors, including thousands of children.
Through these efforts, a pattern emerged where many elderly, low-income and minority communities were not being recognized by the state as Hurricane victims. Without adequate housing, some were forced to leave their dream of home ownership behind and live with friends and family. This anguish turned into outrage when media outlets reported that nearly $600 million of Mississippi’s federal disaster grants were being reallocated to expand the state port at Gulfport.
To help combat this decision, Mississippi Center for Justice filed suit on behalf of community groups and individuals against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This suit resulted in a landmark settlement, in which Governor Haley Barbour agreed to set aside $132 million dollars for low-income households in 9 Mississippi counties.
In partnership with the Steps Coalition National Low-Income Housing Coalition and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Center led a multi-year effort to demand priority attention to affordable housing needs in the spending of disaster housing recovery funds. This involved home grants, rental and work-force housing, cottages and housing repair programs. This work increased the amount of Phase II homeowner grants from $50,000 to $100,000 and brought about the adoption and enhancement of the Small Rental Assistance Program.
Unfortunately, some victims of this tragedy are still waiting for recovery funds to rebuild. The Center continues to monitor the state’s aid distribution progress and hold policymakers accountable and ensure recovery funds used for projects like the Gulfport port expansion are being put to the best use for Mississippi’s citizens.