Housing advocates file federal lawsuit over port funding

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX)-Gulf Coast housing advocates filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday over the controversial diversion of nearly $ 600,000,000 in HUD money to pay for port improvements.

The lawsuit was filed in Washington against the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the current Secretary of Housing. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say it's time to hold HUD accountable for what they say is an illegal diversion of funds.

Local attorney Reilly Morse is among the lawyers for the plaintiffs, which include the Gulf Coast Housing Center, Mississippi State Conference NAACP and four individuals: two home owners and two renters.

The lawsuit contends that $ 570,000,000 allocated for port improvements should have been spent to increase affordable housing post-Katrina.

"The most basic thing is that employers aren't able to fill jobs here now because there is not enough housing," said Morse.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast attorney and housing advocate has long argued that those millions of dollars diverted for port improvements, should be paying for affordable housing instead.

The lawsuit says HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson erred in saying he lacked the discretion to review it.

"He said if he'd had that discretion, he would have turned this down and required Mississippi to spend more on lower income housing needs. We think Secretary Jackson was mistaken. He did have that discretion and we're asking the court to look at that issue," said Morse.

"This suit is not about telling the State of Mississippi what to do. It's about telling HUD that it had an obligation under its own rules that it set, where certain things had to be, certain requirements had to be met before HUD could say yes state, you can use the funds. They didn't do that here," said plaintiff attorney Jim Wodarski.

You may recall this controversy attracted national attention this year. In early May, some members of Congress held a hearing questioning the diversion of HUD funding to the port. Then, in late June, the New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the allocation of funding.

Yolanda Howze is a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs.

"When these kind of funds have been dispensed to the state, we want to make sure that the funds are used for the purpose they were intended for. Here, that purpose was housing, not commercial development," she said.

"This is pro housing. And it is also not anti the concept of the port, it's talking solely about the financing of it. How it's being paid for," says Morse.

The plaintiff lawyers say it's likely the issue will be resolved out of court.

"We're hoping like with all litigation, we'll file it and create a context in which we can have an immediate and constructive dialogue with all the parties and try to find some way to resolve this as quickly as possible," said Wodarski.

Port of Gulfport director Don Allee had no comment, at least until the port's lawyer has a chance to review the lawsuit.

Governor Haley Barbour did make a statement.

"The port project has been part of the recovery plan detailed in November 2005 to the Congress, Administration, Mississippi legislature and the news media. It's always been in the plan. Restoration of the Port of Gulfport is critical to recovery of the Gulf Coast from the worst natural disaster in American history," said the governor.

The federal government has two months to respond to the lawsuit.