The Coast's Forgotten Poor | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Coast's Forgotten Poor

"It was already hard to find an apartment even before the storm," Karen Peyton of Biloxi said. "Now it's almost impossible, and the rents are skyrocketing."

Peyton was forced out of her apartment complex in Biloxi in May 2005 because it was being redeveloped into condos. With major surgery looming, she had to "scramble around from place to place" before she finally found a vacancy. Three months later, Hurricane Katrina struck.

The 42-year-old rode out the storm in the Biloxi Coliseum, and when she returned to her apartment three days later, she found it was intact but damaged by water. She went to stay with friends in Atlanta for a month with the understanding that her apartment would have new carpeting. When she returned, her apartment was just as she left it.

What's more, in May 2006 she received notice that her rent was increasing by $50 a month. Peyton is on disability payments and has struggled to meet the higher rent. She cannot move, however, because rents are even higher elsewhere.

Although all Gulf Coast residents face foreboding obstacles to rebuilding lives that were swept away by Hurricane Katrina, none of them fare worse than low-income residents. In a report this month, "Envisioning a Better Mississippi: Hurricane Katrina and Mississippi—One Year Later," the NAACP, working with Rutgers University, detailed nearly total failure by the federal and state governments to address the basic needs of renters and low-income residents on the Coast.

"Over the past year, due to the decisions made by the governor's office and the Legislature, there has been no real provision made for low-income families effected by Hurricane Katrina. Out of the nearly $5.1 billion dollars received by the state through Community Development Block Grants, called CDBG funds, there has not been a plan from the governor's office to support the recovery of renters and other low-income families on the Gulf Coast," said Derrick Johnson, head of the Mississippi NAACP.

CDBG funds usually require that 70 percent of money be spent on low-income housing, but Congress waived that provision in 2005. The result is that Gov. Haley Barbour, acting through the Mississippi Development Authority, steered most of the funds to home owners who were ineligible for flood insurance. The state made no provision for renters.

In the most recent special session, the Legislature dedicated another $25 million in assistance to local governments suffering budget shortfalls due to Katrina's devastation of tax bases, but none of this money is directed to low-income housing.

The Coast had many renters before Katrina, and rental properties suffered disproportionate damage. "Nearly 61,400 homes in Mississippi sustained major or severe damage. Of those, 34 percent were rental units. The share of homes completely destroyed or severely damaged that were apartments was even higher, at 38 percent," the report states.

In fact, approximately 80 percent of all rental housing was damaged, and 45 percent experienced severe or catastrophic damage.

"Affordable housing is non-existent," Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi said. "There is no affordable housing in the core of Biloxi. Casinos are all the way around us, but there's no housing, no local business."

Hanshaw was one of 350 Biloxi residents who marched in protest to the Beau Rivage grand re-opening on Tuesday to draw attention to the plight of low-income residents. She said that Barbour has ignored pleas from citizens like her.

"If your rent was $500 last year, it's $850 now," Hanshaw said. "Minimum wage is the same, but energy bills and gas is higher. It's like we're getting hit from all sides."

The report found that damage to rental units and high demand for labor has increased the cost of rental units by 25 to 30 percent.

Most renters are African American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, 70 percent of rental households in Biloxi were African American. So were 51 percent and 75 percent of renters in Gulfport and Pascagoula. Furthermore, poverty is concentrated. Mississippi was tied with Louisiana in 2000 for having the highest share of people living in neighborhoods where at least 20 percent of residents were poor. Nearly 42 percent of Mississippians lived in these "poverty areas."

"We would like to see these resources be utilized in a more equitable way," Johnson said, pointing to Barbour's statement that because the hurricane did not discriminate, the recovery would not discriminate either. "What we're seeing now is that the recovery effort has not only discriminated against lower-income residents, it has been slow to support any Mississippians on the Coast for their housing needs in this recovery."

Barbour's office did not return a call for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

For now, Hanshaw said, many low-income residents are illegally doubling up in apartments. "These are real people, and they can't make their rent. And no one in the government is helping," she said.

Previous Comments


affordable housing? There is virtually no housing period. and Insurance rates are going to really hinder even those you would consider well to do from having housing as well.


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