Institute's Capitol Hill testimony on post-Katrina housing needs

This afternoon, Institute for Southern Studies Executive Director Chris Kromm was among a panel of experts who spoke at a congressional briefing titled "Addressing Remaining Low Income Housing Needs for Hurricane Evacuees and for the Gulf Coast." Here are Chris's prepared remarks:

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to this important briefing on the housing crisis in the Gulf Coast.

I am Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies -- a non-profit research and education center that has been closely following the Gulf Coast recovery since Katrina struck.

I and many others across the country are very encouraged by this briefing and this week of debate about the Katrina recovery.

We also agree with many others who believe that Senate Bill 1668 is the single most important measure Washington can act on now to help thousands of people still struggling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Shortly after Katrina, the Institute launched a special project -- Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch -- to investigate the hurricane's aftermath and promote a recovery that was accountable, fair and wouldn't leave behind the same people who suffered most when the hurricane struck: our children, the elderly, and poor and working families.

Gulf Watch has led over a dozen fact-finding trips to the Gulf, and published 20 investigative reports and in-depth studies on the recovery.

Just last month, we travelled across Louisiana and Mississippi, and talked with more than 40 community leaders working in the trenches, to ask what message they'd like to send to leaders in Washington.

These voices, together with reams of statistical research and agency data, were the basis for our most recent report, Blueprint for Gulf Renewal, published last month in partnership with Oxfam America and the Jewish Funds for Social Justice.

The picture that emerged was shocking. You've heard or will hear testimony that speaks to the scope of the tragedy, but two things are clear.

One, I think most Americans would be horrified to know that, two years after the hurricanes, countless miles of the Gulf Coast still lie in ruins, and that over 60,000 hurricane victims are still living in "temporary" FEMA trailers.

And second, it's important to realize that, for tens of thousands of families, the Katrina crisis never ended -- and I believe the word "crisis" is appropriate when homelessness has doubled in New Orleans, and an International Medical Corps study has found that suicide attempts among residents of Mississippi FEMA camps have skyrocketed 79 times over pre-disaster levels.

This is not what the citizens of the Gulf Coast and our country envisioned when, in September 2005, President Bush pledged from Jackson Square in New Orleans that our country would "do what it takes, and stay as long as it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

In fact, during the Katrina anniversary last month, President Bush was repeatedly asked about the dire state of the Gulf Coast and why the Katrina recovery has left so many behind. He defended his administration's response, saying Washington has written a "big check" for the Gulf Coast, up to $116 billion dollars.

But many of the Gulf Coast leaders we talked to wondered if the check bounced.

The reality is that the widely-cited figure of $116 billion doesn't give an accurate pictures of hurricane spending, and Washington continue to invest in the people of the Gulf Coast if there is to be a full and fair recovery.

According to our analysis of federal spending for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the amount appropriated by Congress and the White House to date comes just short of $95 billion.

That's a significant sum -- although it's important to understand it's still far short of what's needed to truly revive the Gulf Coast. For example, most estimates place the value of infrastructure damage in Louisiana alone at about $100 billion.

But the most important finding of our analysis, which was conducted with the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights, was that out of the $95 billion, only about 30% of that money has been aimed at the long-term rebuilding projects the Gulf Coast so desperately needs to get back on its feet. That's through FEMA's Public Assistance program and HUD's Community Development Block Grants.

More than two-thirds of federal spending for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to date has been slated for short-term emergency needs -- vital items like the Coast Guard, providing shelter and debris removal.

But that has left only a fraction of the "big check" -- $30-$35 billion -- to tackle big, long-term projects like building and repairing roads, schools, hospitals and -- the focus of this hearing -- housing.

Even more surprising, our analysis revealed that, as of August, less than half of that 30% allocated for long-term recovery had actually been spent.

We can see the impact of these funding shortfalls and bottlenecks in the housing crisis, which every Gulf Coast leader we surveyed said was the #1 barrier to a real recovery.

Out of the $16.7 billion in HUD's Community Development Block Grants in Louisiana and Mississippi, spending plans have included $12 billion for housing -- 69% of the CDBG money in Mississippi, and 84% in Louisiana.

That's still not enough -- the most recent estimates are now that the shortfall facing the HUD-approved Louisiana's Road Home plan alone could reach $6 billion.

What's more, aid going to Louisiana and Mississippi hasn't been in line with the housing needs of each state. Although Louisiana suffered nearly 70% of Katrina's housing damage -- with 40% of damage "major or severe" -- it has received just over 60% of HUD's CDBG funding.

Mississippi, which withstood 20% of Katrina's housing damage, is in line to receive one-third of the program's funding.

And again, money has been slow to reach those in need. As of July 2007, only $4 billion for housing rebuilding had been disbursed.

So it's not surprising that, when we asked Gulf leaders what they thought about the $116 billion "big check," to a person they responded like Tanya Harris, who works in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans: "Where did it all go?" Harris asked us. "Show me the money!"

These facts reveal three central points about what's needed now to address the Gulf Coast housing crisis and jump-start the lagging Katrina recovery.

First, now more than ever, the Gulf Coast needs a real commitment from Washington to fully fund the Katrina recovery. Given the staggering scale of the crisis -- especially with housing -- the check Washington has written is still too small, and has left the region starved for the resources it needs to rebuild and bring people home.

Second, a "trickle down recovery" won't work. The strength of Senate Bill 1668 (and its House counterpart) is that it replaces a scattershot array of tax-breaks and half-measures with targeted assistance to the full range of people who need relief, from homeowners to renters and residents of public housing.

Finally, oversight and accountability are crucial. Congress must exercise its oversight powers and ensure federal aid reaches those most in need. S 1668 streamlines and clarifies our Gulf Coast housing policy, and builds in critical new safeguards to ensure spending for housing is well-spent -- a valuable model for other Katrina recovery appropriations.

This year, new leadership in Congress has given hope to many of us working for a better future in the Gulf Coast. But there's still much unfinished business, and the lack of decent, affordable housing the crucial "lynchpin" to a vibrant recovery.

Our nation must live up to its promise to rebuild the Gulf Coast. And Washington must take a stand against special interests who threaten to undermine vital legislation like Senate Bill 1668 and its practical vision of a recovery that works for all.

Tanya Harris and thousands of Gulf Coast families will be watching in the coming weeks to see if we make good on that promise.

Thank you.

For more details about the briefing as well as other events that took place this week to draw attention to post-Katrina housing issues, click here.