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Mississippi Housing Advocates File Suit Against HUD Over Diversion of Hurricane Recovery Funds

For Immediate Release December 10, 2008


Mississippi Center for Justice
Sharon Garrison (601) 352-2269, ext. 306
E-mail: [email protected]

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Stacie Miller (202) 662-8317
E-mail: [email protected]

Mississippi Housing Advocates File Suit Against HUD Over Diversion of Hurricane Recovery Funds
Nearly $600 Million Meant for Affordable Housing Diverted to Port Expansion Project

(Biloxi, Miss. and Washington, D.C.) – The Mississippi State Conference NAACP, Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center and several individual residents today filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C. against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) challenging its approval of a plan submitted by Mississippi to divert  $600 million of federal hurricane recovery funds from housing programs designed to address the affordable housing crisis in Mississippi caused by Hurricane Katrina to finance the expansion of the Port of Gulfport.

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress appropriated $5.481 billion of the emergency recovery funds to Mississippi. HUD’s own description of this appropriation law notes that its primary purpose is to address the critical housing needs in the hurricane damaged area, especially affordable housing needs. Administration of this funding was to be overseen by HUD under the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which includes requirements that use of these funds conform to the Fair Housing Act and be used primarily to benefit low- and moderate-income people. The suit contends that HUD’s approval of a plan which siphons funds from housing programs to a plan for a major expansion of the port is contrary to the primary purpose of the Congressional appropriation and violates the requirements of the CDBG program.

Included in the complaint are claims that HUD has also approved several waivers of the requirement, amounting to almost 80 percent of the total appropriation, that 50 percent of the funds benefit low- and moderate-income people, with the result that only 21 percent of the hurricane recovery funds are designed for that purpose. In Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties, approximately 65 percent of the housing units exposed to the storm surge and more than 57 percent of the units exposed to flooding were occupied by households with incomes below the U.S. median household income level.

African Americans in southern Mississippi are disproportionately more likely than whites to be living in poverty or in lower-income households, and are more likely than whites to be renters instead of homeowners.

“Though the storm did not intentionally discriminate, the damage did reveal the impact of decades-long discrimination against poor, African American people who were already living in substandard housing,” said Derrick Johnson, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP. “For the first time in our state’s history, we have the resources to right this wrong. It is a matter of priorities. Now is not the time to pull the carpet back over the ugly stain of segregation.”

“Safe, affordable housing was touted as the hallmark of Mississippi’s recovery efforts. Our choice to either fulfill that commitment or to deny options for basic shelter to thousands of low-income, elderly and disabled families will impact the vitality of coastal communities for generations to come,” said Charmel Gaulden, executive director, Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center. “Katrina decimated the availability of affordable housing, especially rentals, in this area. Now, our own government is seeking to leave the least among us out in the cold. We must hold HUD accountable for a fair, equitable rebuilding effort.”

The suit seeks a declaration by the court that, prior to approving the proposal, HUD was required to review and assess the State of Mississippi’s port expansion plan to determine, at a minimum, whether the proposal complied with Fair Housing Act and low-to-moderate income benefit requirements and that HUD violated these duties by accepting the port expansion plan without conducting such a review.  It seeks an order from the court prohibiting HUD from releasing or approving the obligation of any of the nearly $600 million in CDBG funds.

“Through this lawsuit, we intend to enforce HUD’s duty to ensure there will be housing choice for that the thousands of households that Mississippi does not want to help,” said Reilly Morse, Mississippi Center for Justice senior attorney.  “The diversion of funds intended to rebuild safe, affordable housing for low-income, elderly and disabled people has shattered the promise of making affordable housing the priority of this recovery effort.”

“It is regrettable that HUD has approved a plan that so badly turns its back on the housing needs of the most vulnerable citizens in the Gulf Coast area,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This lawsuit is designed to correct this wrongheaded decision and ensure more federal assistance is directed to replacing and growing a diverse affordable housing stock in the areas devastated by Katrina.”

Attorneys from Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, PC, in Boston, Mass., are working in conjunction with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to represent the plaintiffs pro bono.

About The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Lawyers' Committee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The Lawyers' Committee celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013 as it continued its quest of "Moving America Toward Justice." The principal mission of the Lawyers' Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and fair lending, community development, employment, voting, education and environmental justice.

For more information about the Lawyers' Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.

About Mississippi Center for Justice
The Mississippi Center for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice. The Center carries out its mission through a community lawyering approach that advances specific social justice campaigns in partnership with national and local organizations and community leaders.  Supported and staffed by attorneys, community leaders and volunteers, the Center develops and pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide. For more information, please visit www.mscenterforjustice.org.

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