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Governor and HUD Secretary Announce New Components in Homeowner Grant Programs
Story and Photos by Keith Burton - GCN   12/20/06

In a news conference today at Gulfport City Hall, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson was joined by Governor Haley Barbour, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R), and Congressman Gene Taylor (D) in announcing approval of Phase II of the Homeowner Assistance Program and an economic development component designed to help local governments rebuild infrastructure and downtowns damaged by the hurricane.

But on the minds of almost everyone at the news conference was the slow speed of the federal relief, especially the first phase of the Governor's Homeowner Grant program.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's approval of two new components of Mississippi's comprehensive Hurricane Katrina recovery program means additional assistance for potentially thousands of coastal homeowners, businesses and local governments.

"I am grateful to Secretary Jackson, HUD, Senator Cochran and the Mississippi Congressional delegation for their help in creating and implementing these important components of our comprehensive recovery plan for thousands of south Mississippi homeowners, business owners and local governments," Governor Barbour said. "This new phase of our homeowners assistance program will help rebuild housing on the Coast for lower income, elderly and disabled homeowners, who are the people most at risk of not recovering from the worst natural disaster in American history."

"The economic development feature will help local governments attract and retain new jobs by restoring infrastructure and revitalizing downtown areas destroyed by the hurricane," Governor Barbour said.

The audience was mostly made up of representatives of the Steps Coalition, which is a group made up of some 30 organizations working for sustainable recovery on the Coast. (Photo right) The Steps group is working with the state on housing needs connected to Phase II of the program.

"In January, we will be looking to work with the Governor's office to improve and finalize the Small Rental Rehab program," said Reilly Morse, with the Mississippi Center for Justice. (Photo left)

GCN noted that there were no official representatives of any of the other Coast cities present at the announcement.

Phase II provides funding up to a maximum of $100,000 for low to moderate income homeowners in Hancock, Harrison, Jackson or Pearl River Counties whose primary residence suffered flood surge damage from Hurricane Katrina. Such homeowners may qualify regardless of whether they were uninsured or under-insured and regardless of whether their homes were inside or outside the federally delineated flood plain.

A qualifying applicant must have household income at or below 120 percent of the Area Median Income, or about $63,000 a year for a family of four. An additional grant of up to $30,000 is available to help eligible applicants defray the cost of elevating their homes, if necessary.

This second phase is being funded from the $3.2 billion allocated through HUD for homeowner assistance grants.

Homeowners who already applied for grants during Phase One of the program or have already registered for follow-up programs do not have to re-register for Phase Two. However, homeowners who are uncertain of their status are encouraged to re-register at one of the service centers in Gautier, Gulfport or Bay St. Louis. No appointment is necessary. Homeowners may also contact the call center at 866.369.6302.

The economic development component will assist local governments affected by Hurricane Katrina by providing infrastructure to support economic development. The program provides grants or loans to local governments to help companies create or retain jobs; $340 million has been allocated to this program. The Community revitalization program provides funds to local governments to help rebuild downtown areas damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; $150 million has been allocated to this part of the program. And, $10 million has been allocated to prepare community plans for local governments located in Pearl River, Stone, George, Hancock, Harrison and Jackson Counties.

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson  praised Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran for their initiative in getting the funding for the programs that are being administered by HUD and the Mississippi Development Authority. In an interview with GCN after the news conference, Jackson said his agency is working to speed the process of getting the money to the people faster and for making sure it is being property spent.

Governor Barbour said earlier that the state had asked HUD to pre-audit the program to help insure the money was spent right but it has slowed delivery of the funds to the homeowners. (Photo: Gpt. Mayor Brent Warr, left; HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, center; Gov. Haley Barbour, right)

"First let me say that Gov. Barbour made a strategic decision to have us come in to work with them to make sure the money is being properly spent.." said Jackson We have had very little fraud in this process. It might have seem slow,  but I would much better see the process done right, and not be done like in Texas where people that shouldn't have gotten the money did."

"We can all be critical, that is the easiest way we could be, but I am pleased how the process is working. Getting the money was very unique," said Jackson.

Jackson said his agency understands the urgency of rebuilding the Coast and getting money to families and businesses wanting to rebuild.

State Auditor Phil Bryant (photo right) was also at the news conference, Bryant said his staff is working closely with the Governor and the Mississippi Development Agency on how the money is being spent.

"Part of our job is to watch out for the money," Bryant told GCN. "We are also watching out for the homeowners to prevent fraud from contractors after homeowners get the money. We have the internal controls to watch what happens to the money. If the state is irresponsible, then the state is going to be held responsible. We want to make sure it gets to the homeowners."

Both Jackson and Governor Barbour expect that Phase II of the Homeowner Grant program to proceed more quickly than the first phase, but the Governor was quick not to set any dates for the program. He said the state will be working with non-profit groups to move the program forward and provide financial counseling. 

Applicants who qualify will begin financial counseling in the first quarter of next year. "But the program will go on longer than Phase I," Barbour said.

Regarding the speed of the program in Phase I, Barbour said the state has learned a lot of lessons. The government is literally writing the book on the Homeowner Grant Program. Nothing like this has ever been attempted after a disaster.

The governor said some 3,000 people that did not qualify for Phase I have automatically registered for Phase II. Barbour says that including the 3,000 from Phase I, there is a total of nearly 10,000 applicants to the new program. He said that the state has even been getting additional applications recently for Phase I. (Photo right: Cochran, left and Cong. Gene Taylor, right)

Some of the money in the money the state has received from the federal government will be spent on Community Develop projects. There is also a pending request to HUD to get approval to use some of the money to help provide more rental housing for Katrina survivors in Mississippi. Information on that program is pending.

The governor praised Sen. Thad Cochran for his help in moving the funding through the Senate and Congress. Cochran is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee.

Cochran praised the  Sen. Trent Lott, and Cong. Gene Taylor for their help in Congress to get the funding passed, but it was Barbour that Cochran thanked for his work on the program.

"It was very important that we had the support of both sides of the Congress, He personally came to the Congress and we went together to see the Speaker of the House and the leaders of the House of Representatives.. to convince them of the importance of this legislation. Haley Barbour is the one I give credit to for getting the response," Cochran said.

Cochran also praised the help of President Bush. "He's been down here with so many visits, he probably could vote without having to register."

More Information:

Steps Coalition Welcomes Revisions to Homeowner's Assistance Grant Program

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