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Much remains, but groundwork has been laid for recovery

After Hurricane Katrina two years ago, Gerald Blessey, an attorney who is a former mayor of Biloxi, said massive government help similar to the Marshall Plan instituted to rebuild Europe after World War II was needed in order to assure the recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While billions of dollars of aid have been funneled into the state, has it been effective? Where does the Coast stand in the recovery process?

While many local governments feel frustrated in getting FEMA money actually into the ground, Blessey said there has also been tremendous progress.

“The HUD grants through the Governor’s Office the congressional delegation got have been extremely helpful,” Blessey said. “Much like the Marshall Plan, they have helped local government to bridge the funding gap because of a lack of a tax base. It got them up and running. Now we are in the next stage where tremendous infrastructure improvements are needed to go forward.”

It can be hard to generalize because so much is going on. While many local governments have complained that it is difficult to get FEMA to make decisions and follow through funding projects, there are a number of successful FEMA stories. For example, FEMA helped provide funding for the recently opened St. Patrick’s High School north of Interstate 10 on Highway 67 that replaced two Catholic high schools destroyed in the storm: St. Johns in Gulfport and Mercy Cross in Biloxi.

“FEMA has been very helpful there and should get credit for helping them be able to open for this school year,” Blessey said. “There are many other FEMA stories that have worked. But you can certainly feel frustration where things haven’t happened yet, especially in Hancock County and western Harrison County. Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Pass Christian and Long Beach really need much more help because they were hit so much worse and don’t have as much of a tax base left to work from. That is a great challenge. No one is satisfied with the progress there.”

Affordable housing solutions

One of the earliest needs identified by the business and government leaders was to rebuild affordable housing for the workforce. Lack of housing, especially affordable housing, has made for a tight labor market. As chair of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Land Use Committee, Blessey was instrumental in pushing for the formation of the non-profit Renaissance Corp. set up to find solutions to the affordable housing problem.

“That is an accomplishment of the business and government community working with the Governor’s Commission,” said Blessey, who is vice chairman of the Renaissance Group. “It is really a public-private partnership of the classic mode. Local government and business leaders took the Governor’s Commission report recommendations and turned them into reality. The Gulf Coast Business Council provided the funding to get it started. Then we have been working closely with the Governor’s office to find funds to make it happen. We have a 10-member board from three counties. We have a number of outstanding leaders who are successful in their own right including Anthony Topazi, who serves as chair of the group.”

This spring the Renaissance Corp. brought on staff including a director, Laura Davis, formerly with Fannie Mae. Blessey said while it has taken a while to organize and get underway, great progress is being made. The Renaissance Corp. has been putting together proposals and is ready to launch several affordable housing initiatives. One is called the REACH program.

“It is a program to assist employers in helping employees obtain affordable housing preferably as close to employment as possible in order to carry out the New Urbanist principles to be able to walk to work or have a short mass transit or commute,” Blessey said. “Walking is better and that stimulates areas currently in need of revitalization.”

Bridging gaps

Other efforts include a program to bridge the gap between the ability of workers to pay and the cost of housing for citizens within 80% and 120% of median income. Residents with an income below 80% of median income are eligible for public housing. But what might be considered the middle class, people whose income is between 80% to 120% of the median income, are having a difficult time because there are so few programs to help.

“We are trying to raise some grant money to help bridge the gap,” Blessey said.

“We are talking about 60%, the population in middle. The middle class is having most trouble.”

The programs are primarily targeted for south of Interstate 10, the most devastated areas. The REACH program would provide second and third mortgages to bridge the gap between what people can afford to pay for housing. The second mortgage may defer interest or be forgiven over time.

Making it work

The first employer partner with the REACH program is Northrop Grumman in Pascagoula, which will contribute a significant sum to get employees into the program.

“It takes a combination of the Renaissance Corp. and the employer to make the whole thing work,” Blessey said. “The employer is part of the donor base in order to make it happen.”

It is easy to look at the half empty glass, and rue the lack of progress with actual affordable housing coming out of the ground. But Blessey sees the glass as half full because of the large amount of diligent efforts thus far. He predicts a year from now there will be a number of successful projects putting people into affordable housing.

“Part of the problem with the economy is many jobs are going unfilled because it is hard to find people places to live,” Blessey said. “People who do have jobs have long commutes, and gas is expensive. That is not good for the employee, the environment or the community. We really have this Catch 22 we are trying to break by doing this affordable housing.

“This is not housing projects. It is affordable housing that would be built as any other market housing. Much of it will be in what we call mixed-use developments that have neighborhood centers associated with then. The New Urbanism principal is to have neighborhood services like grocery stores and doctors offices within walking distance or short traveling time. That restores the sense of community that is so important to having a revitalized economy and people getting back to normal. That is part of the grand design of the Renaissance Corporation’s goals.”

The Renaissance Corp. is partnering with local municipal and county leaders and housing authorities to work with them on master planning. Blessey especially lauds the work being done in Pascagoula.

“Pascagoula is kind of ahead of everyone,” he said. “City Manager Kay Kell and the mayor and council have stepped out to take advantage of this joint planning to help with providing housing for the workforce.”

Adding insurance

Another problem is insurance. It is one thing to be able to afford to buy a house, and another to add $300 or more per month for insurance premiums. The Renaissance Corp. is working on a program to provide help with insurance premiums for the next few years to bridge the gap.

Blessey sees that Coast has good momentum going forward into the recovery that some people predict will take 10 years from when Katrina hit.

“There is a lot going on with restoration efforts,” he said. “On the other hand, there is a lot that needs to be done. The glass is half empty and half full. The half full is great, but we have a lot more to do to fill the rest. The momentum is there but there are still great challenges ahead in affordable housing and restoring all the schools to pre-Katrina physical conditions.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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