Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lawsuit seeks to divert funds from port expansion to low income housing

In the fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus delivers the “Sermon On The Mount” and from it The Beatitudes got most of the ink from Bible scholars and from the faithful alike — in which Jesus tells us that the poor will receive the “kingdom of heaven.”

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But later in that passage, in Matthew 5:45, we are left with one of the greater truths in the scriptures — the notion that God allows people to suffer the havoc of disasters without regard to virtue or vice.

Matthew 5:45 reads: “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

So, what does any of that have to do with whether $600 million in federal funds gets spent rebuilding the Port of Gulfport?

Lawsuit over the port

Gulf Coast housing advocates — with the support of the Mississippi NAACP —  filed a lawsuit Wednesday in a Washington, D.C., federal court  challenging the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval of   the state of Mississippi’s plan to spend $600 million in Hurricane Katrina recovery funds on rebuilding and expanding the Port of Gulfport.

The lawsuit contends the $600 million of the state’s total $5.4 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds was diverted from housing programs in violation of requirements that at least 50 percent of HUD funds be spent on lower-income residents.

But the Barbour administration has said that of the $5.4 billion in the federal Hurricane Katrina Recovery Package, $3.8 billion was dedicated to housing recovery — including almost $2 billion already disbursed to more than 27,000 households in the three coastal counties .

Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Lee Youngblood has said that over $611 million of the $2 billion has already been given to low-to-moderate income homeowners and that another $700 million was being spent on low income housing construction.

Matter of priorities?

In supporting the lawsuit, Mississippi NAACP state president Derrick Johnson — who Barbour appointed vice-chairman of the the Governor’s Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal after Hurricane Katrina — said: “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,” Johnson said. “For the first time in our state’s history, we have the resources to right this wrong. It is a matter of priorities.”

While Johnson’s heart is in the right place, he shrugs off the fact that Katrina hit everyone on the Gulf Coast, rich and poor alike, and all suffered. (See Matt. 5:45.)

Congress did not appropriate $5.5 billion to cure Mississippi’s historic low-income housing ills. While great progress has been made toward that noble, worthy goal since Katrina, it was never the primary focus of storm recovery.

Rebuilding and expanding the Port of Gulfport will provide good jobs now and into the future and provide a key building block for an economy that can lift the economic boats of low-to-moderate income people on the Gulf Coast.

Quality housing for the poor must be a priority, as Johnson suggests. But so, too, must jobs and the dignity jobs extend to those who will dwell in better homes be a priority in rebuilding the Coast.

(Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Visit his blog