HUD: State lax in recruiting low-income workers for Katrina efforts

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has upheld its ruling that the Mississippi did too little to recruit low-income people for Hurricane Katrina recovery work at the Port of Gulfport.

HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity also found the Mississippi Development Authority failed at times to track employment of low-income people on work done at the port and rebuilding some homes.

HUD wants MDA to propose remedies to the problems federal officials found, giving the agency 10 days from receipt of the letter to designate someone to negotiate.

MDA spokesman Jeff Rent declined comment Friday, saying the agency hasn’t received the letter yet. However, he did point to a 2012 finding from a separate HUD unit that noted the “Pathways to the Port” program, which is meant to connect low-income residents to port jobs.

The letter, dated Tuesday, came in a separate but parallel inquiry to one where HUD has demanded the state prove it has retained enough jobs at the port. The state agreed to preserve 1,300 jobs and create another 1,300 in exchange for $581 million to rebuild and expand the port after the 2005 storm damaged the facility.

The new finding says Mississippi did not:

— Meet minimum contracting requirements for low-income residents at the port of Gulfport in 2010 and 2011.

— Do enough to recruit businesses owned by or employing low-income residents for port of Gulfport work from 2009 to 2011.

— Provide correct hiring preferences to low-income residents and businesses.

— Create a plan to comply with low-income opportunity requirements until 2012, even though MDA started getting supplemental disaster funds in 2009.

— File a report demonstrating it had complied with low-income opportunity requirements for the Neighborhood Home repair program in 2011.

Critics of port work note that the latest HUD finding shows few new workers have been hired in construction efforts in Gulfport. The state revised down the number of new workers created in 2012 from 49 to 19. Eight of those met low-income requirements, and HUD accepted that part of the state’s appeal.

“MDA maintains that because various contractors were fully staffed prior to entering into contracts, new hiring opportunities were not created,” HUD wrote of engineering firms that were designing the port project in 2010 and 2011, when no new workers were hired.

Reilly Morse, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the handful of jobs created is unacceptable, considering the money that’s been spent.

“Over and over the port has cited this construction phase as a big, catalytic economic opportunity, saying lots of people are going to get lots of jobs,” said Morse, who represents groups that sued over the port project. “And what we’ve discovered is very few jobs have been created.”

Morse said he’s uncertain what remedial options might be appropriate. Put pointing to concerns HUD expressed about the state’s monitoring and compliance effort, he said MDA needed to make it “much more robust.”

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