Bake Sales for Biloxi

Out of the media spotlight that New Orleans enjoys, Mississippi's Gulf Coast towns depend on fragile private efforts to come back from Katrina -- five years later.

Mississippi  - Photo by Shawn Escoffery
Mississippi - Photo by Shawn Escoffery

The report also makes the case for “invisibles,” those who never sought state assistance because of their own lack of access to the programs, their lack of knowledge or their own disability. At the same time, money spent by the state on housing also became more and more invisible as the years went by. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2009 that Mississippi decreased allocations for housing by almost $800 million from 2006 to 2008.

Spending on state economic-development programs has far outpaced that spent on housing in the past two years. Mid-2010 goals to produce 5,740 units of affordable housing ran short by more than 2,500 houses. Even the “Katrina Cottage” program — low-cost, modular homes — touted as one of the state’s more successful programs, has produced only 550 of those units, when 2,242 were scheduled for completion this year.

There’s always those bake sales, an idea for which the report says, “As well-meaning as this online appeal may be, Mississippi cannot be permitted to place further demands upon private charity to house our citizens when the state diverted vast housing resources to other uses that still remain unspent.”

“People are looking at this as, ‘This is year five and we’re done,’ but an important slug that’s missing is housing,” says Reilly Morse, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice. “There is an awful lot of media pressure and public relations pressure to tie this up in a bow and say it’s done, but the information out there says that the best-case scenario is that this will take at least another year.”

Money for Housing Taken Away

One of the more controversial financial decisions of the state came when Governor Haley Barbour decided in 2007 to pull more than $600 million from housing allocations — with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency’s blessing — to put into a port-expansion project. This frustrated housing advocates, especially those working on behalf of families who were still out a home. The state went on to pull another $200 million from housing for an economic-development project.

The demand for affordable housing got so bad that the state’s business community wrote a letter to the governor telling him that he had to fund places for their workers to live. A Gulf Coast housing czar was appointed in 2008 to get the state back on track, and since then, spending on housing has improved but still pales in comparison with non-housing spending.

“I understand that port expansion and economic development are supposed to bring jobs, but the job to produce housing is still left undone,” says Bill Stallworth, Biloxi’s lone African-American city councilman, and one of just three in the city’s history. “The money came down with full gubernatorial discretion, and the understanding was that he could cut through the red tape and get money straight to the people more quickly. It didn’t happen that way.”