Last week the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved Mississippi's plan to expand the Port of Gulfport, which the state hopes to begin work on next month, reported the Mississippi SunHerald. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced that the Mississippi Development Authority has allocated $570 million to rebuild the port.

Facing South has been covering the controversy surrounding Mississippi's move to divert emergency federal funding from a housing program created to help low-income homeowners to expand the State Port at Gulfport.

Affordable housing remains a formidable barrier to rebuilding along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Housing advocates have rallied against the State of Mississippi's decision to divert this funding away from critical housing needs. As we previously reported, advocates point out that thousands of Mississippians remain displaced nearly three years after the storms. Reilly Morse, senior attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, has twice testified before Congressional committees regarding the use of CDBG funds for purposes other than the adequate restoration of safe, affordable housing for low and moderate-income residents.

"HUD has abdicated its oversight role -- it has failed to ensure that housing needs of thousands of low- and moderate-income families decimated by Katrina come first," Reilly Morse, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, told the SunHerald. "We have been concerned HUD would take this action and we will pursue all available options to ensure the promise of housing recovery for all is kept."

Last month the STEPS Coalition, an alliance of Mississippi nonprofit groups promoting affordable housing and human rights, also issued a statement on the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the Port of Gulfport.

In an open letter sent to the media last month, the STEPS Coalition explained their position:

The Mississippi Port Authority's ambitious proposal to expand their facility in Gulfport is ultimately the wrong plan at the wrong time.  Residents of South Mississippi still are not fully recovered from Katrina. The seed money for this project is $570 million dollars that congress awarded in good faith to help fund hurricane housing recovery efforts.  Because we still have neighbors living in FEMA trailers, unrepaired homes, and with relatives, this funding should be applied to housing needs first.  If there were no other problems with the proposal, we would have to object for this reason alone.

There are other problems, however.  The State Port expects us to approve a conceptual plan-and to do so quickly-that leaves many questions unanswered.  Will the land in North Gulfport be purchased for a transportation terminal, endangering wetlands and the adjacent, largely lower-income African-American neighborhood? Is there a plan to prevent the increase in air pollution caused by the added ships, trains, and trucks?  The Coast already has high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases exacerbated by chemical pollutants and is on the verge of non-compliance for smog-causing ozone.  What will the true costs of the project be and how will it be funded? In this worsening economy, it is too risky to put a $570 million down payment on a plan that will require hundreds of millions of dollars more in public or private funds to accomplish. If the money runs out before completion, we will lose jobs and housing both. It is better to target something within our reach- doors into permanent housing for our fellow citizens.