By LESLIE EATON
January 24, 2008
As Mississippi awaits a decision on whether it can spend $600 million of federal hurricane relief on a controversial plan to rebuild and expand a shipping port, the state has added $100 million of federal aid to a program to develop housing for low- and moderate-income workers.
The addition, which brings the housing program to $250 million, will produce more than 2,500 housing units, said Gov. Haley Barbour, who announced the increase on Tuesday.
Though it has been widely praised for the speed of its hurricane recovery effort, Mississippi has been criticized by religious and civic groups for slighting the needs of the poor. Congress gave the state $5.5 billion in hurricane recovery grants, with the proviso that half of it should be used to help low-income families, but critics say that less than a quarter of the money is being used that way.
The new allocation may not dampen that criticism because the money is being transferred from another program that was supposed to help the poor by giving grants to low-income homeowners whose houses flooded in Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. That program received fewer applications than expected, the governor’s spokesman, Pete Smith, wrote in an e-mail message.
The state has distributed about $217 million in grants to more than 3,000 applicants to that program, according to data from the Mississippi Development Authority. A larger program, which primarily serves wealthier homeowners, has distributed more than $1 billion to more than 15,000 homeowners.
Advocates for the poor said that they were concerned that not everyone who qualified for a rebuilding grant had received one, and that in any event the state was still not committing enough money to programs to replace low-income housing, to help renters or to assist people whose houses were damaged by wind rather than flooding.
“Washington is really examining how successful Mississippi’s recovery is for all of its citizens,” said Kimberly Miller, state policy specialist for Oxfam America in Biloxi.
Her group has urged the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reject the state’s bid to use hurricane recovery money to expand the port, in Gulfport, which was damaged by the hurricane.
The state has asked the agency to waive a rule that limits economic development spending to about $50,000 per job created.
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