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Renaissance Corporation focused on affordable housing

Coast leaders often list the lack of affordable housing as a major roadblock in the area’s recovery. After Hurricane Katrina roared through South Mississippi, FEMA reported there were 65,389 homes damaged or destroyed.

Without adequate housing for employees, businesses cannot make and execute plans to reopen, contractors cannot retain sufficient forces to rebuild and residents continue to suffer.

Numerous public and private entities are addressing this tremendous challenge. One group organized to focus on the problem is the Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation, created by the Gulf Coast Business Council in response to the housing shortage.

Laura Davis is president and CEO of the Renaissance Corporation, and Kim LaRosa is executive vice president. The board of directors is a roll call of community leaders and includes Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power, as chairman.

‘Committed to rebuilding’

“Our leadership spells success and they’re committed to rebuilding the Coast,” Davis says. “There’s not another entity like us.”

The group has worked arduously to formulate a plan to achieve its mission of facilitating the development of mixed-income communities that provide safe, quality, affordable housing for the workforce of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They are releasing it to the area as the second anniversary of the catastrophic hurricane is observed, and Davis says it is being received with optimism.

“We are not a construction company,” she says. “We will facilitate the building of homes. The story of the Renaissance Corporation is one of being committed to the Coast and removing obstacles to rebuilding.”

A key part of the plan is the REACH Mississippi program, an employers’ assisted housing program modeled after a similar program in Illinois. Davis says the program is being piloted with the Northrop-Grumman Company.

“They’ve set it up and we’re helping with matching funds to employees, based on income levels, who build through their employers,” she says. “We expect to roll out this program in September or October. We’re attempting to bridge the gap to the end users and to mission-driven developers through creative financing.”

The plan states that by structuring a creative gap financing program for the workforce, the opportunity for the workforce to be restored back to the coastal communities is made possible. The REACH program provides the link between the employer and many of the on-the-ground efforts to maximize the number of workers served and to ensure that the program cuts across diverse population groups.

REACH represents a partnership among the Renaissance Corporation, participating employers, Fannie Mae, NeighborWorks America, community based non-profit affordable housing providers, private developers, financial institutions and the state.

Employers will contract with a NeighborWorks America charter member to administer the program, provide homeownership education and financial counseling, and manage the down payment or rental assistance provided by employers.

“The Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation, acting as coordinator, is raising capital to set up a fund to match dollar for dollar (based on the income level of the employee) an employer’s contribution,” Davis said. “The Renaissance Corporation is being shaped as a sustainable model for redevelopment and will represent a necessary part of the institutional infrastructure on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for years to come.”

She says the organization feels that forging critical partnerships with the public sector, the community based non-profits and the private sector — and serving to link those organizations to one another — is the key to success and the ability to affect enduring change.

Sound strategy?

The group sought and received assistance from the Urban Land Institute, which formulated a strategy through which the corporation could leverage $100 million in public and private funds to facilitate the development of approximately 10,000 units of housing, or $2 billion in total development, over a 10-year period.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway is an ex-officio member of the group and attends as many meetings as he can. He had not yet seen the plan when interviewed by the Mississippi Business Journal but was looking forward to reviewing it and supports all efforts to bring more affordable housing back to the Coast.

“We’re very pleased with efforts of the Renaissance Corporation and with the progress the Biloxi Housing Authority is making with the restoration of the $45-million-plus HOPE VI initiative,” he says. “A seniors’ village, under construction before the storm, is now fully occupied, and the authority is continuing refurbishment on other aspects of the overall project. This is another one of those pre-Katrina success stories that is being resurrected.”

In Gulfport, Mayor Brent Warr is also eagerly awaiting the Renaissance Corporation’s plan while working to formulate one for the city.

“We have exchanged ideas and opportunities and recently developed a housing policy that accurately reflects the needs of our community,” he says. “This was necessary post-Katrina. We feel that our new approach to housing can serve as a model for the Coast and also serve as an invaluable tool to our recovery. Additionally, Gulfport has recently hired a housing production specialist to implement this next and most important step.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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