Housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast: A Civil Rights Issue

The slick, freshly-painted expanse of the IslandView casino hotel looms over its surrounding neighborhood in Gulfport, Mississippi. Only a few yards away, beyond the vast parking lot, dilapidated houses still mark their territory, bearing the now familiar signals of Katrina’s destruction: spray-painted messages of condemnation, blown-off roofs, heaps of rubble.

The coexistence of these disparate circumstances reflects an ongoing conflict on the Mississippi Gulf Coast between the interests of economic development and community preservation, the encroachment of large commercial developers upon regions and communities traditionally and historically occupied by local residents. In other words: corporate enterprise at the expense of the disenfranchised. Taken a step further, these problems can also be framed in the terms of race. Why? Because the poor local residents who have been displaced as a result of the Katrina disaster also happen to be largely African-American, who, despite generations of adversity, have nevertheless thrived as a community and as a culture in that region. It is true that this community and culture has been in jeopardy for some time now with the development of large scale commercial enterprise on the Gulf Coast. It is true that the Katrina tragedy compounded the hardship. But it is also true that the Katrina tragedy has finally shone light on this matter as a civil rights issue.

With the large scale destruction of personal property and real estate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there has been a great risk of large corporate enterprises and developers buying out property owned by small local landowners. And with this large scale commercial development, local activists fear the loss of communities that have created the culture, ambiance and lifestyle of the region, as the historical aspects of community development are replaced with larger scale development targeted at more affluent demographic constituencies.

The Mississippi Center for Justice has led the way in pursuing an equitable rebuilding process – one that recognizes the importance of both community preservation and economic redevelopment. The MCJ recognizes that the most critical threshold issue in the rebuilding process is the one of attaining affordable housing for low income people, because the current housing shortage and the price gouging of remaining rental properties have forced the eviction of many local residents, which allows for the dissolution of the communities which in turn will pave the way for further corporate buyouts.

Other than providing representation in eviction cases and negotiating settlements on behalf of evicted tenants, MCJ seeks to educate evicted renters of their eligibility for federal grants, as many residents are unaware of their entitlement to federal monies. They have even promoted a plan to provide landlords with an incentive to keep rents down by allocating portions of the state’s relief grants to them.

In conjunction with the MCJ and the Turkey Creek Community Initiative, the North Gulfport Community Land Trust has developed its own method to preserve the community while developing the local economy: it strives to reverse the effects of economic distress through the creation of permanently affordable housing and community reinvestment. By transplanting donated houses of historical and cultural significance to the culture and community, the Land Trust sells these houses at no profit as an endeavor to increase home ownership within the North Gulfport community.

A Drive through Pass Christian

Pass Christian is the town just east of Gulfport. The devastation here, even 16 months after Katerina, is unspeakable. Photographs of this area cannot capture the panorama of destruction and desolation here. Many houses were simply blown off of their foundations. In some cases, the only indication of former habitation are front stair fixtures sprayed with paint indicating an address.

An abandoned and condemned low-income housing community.

A rainbow...

Courtney, Alicia, and Annette in North Gulfport compiling data from land surveys and the tax assessor's office.

We compiled this data on a database that will assist in both the economic redevelopment and the preservation of the character of this historically African-American community. Instead of demolishing older, local houses that sustained minimal or no damage from Katrina, some local land owners have donated these houses to the Land Trust in order that they be transplanted to vacant lots. These houses are then being refurbished and sold at cost, in order to promote ownership amongst those who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy their own property. The North Gulfport Community Land Trust is one of several initiatives in the movement to provide affordable housing to low-income residents of Gulfport displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Jason MacKenzie, executive director of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, oversees the moving of a house from Pass Road in Handsboro to Martin Luther King Drive in North Gulfport.

pictures from the lower 9th ward

destruction of the lower ninth

Here are some pictures from the area we have for the FEMA Trailer Park Survey and Mapping Project for spring break 2007. The picture's here are north of N. Claiborne Ave, and while you're crossing the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, going east, the few blocks close to the water are just gone. Barely any houses stand, and even as you move inside, there aren't many standing. This area is a ghost town. Only a few people live here, and there doesn't appear to be much rebuilding. Most of the activity was focused on cleanup.

Our group is looking at "objective indicators..." things like schools, hospitals, blocked roads. But there's far far too much of that for 3 people to document in a week. So we're trying to make an interactive map so people can see exactly what neighborhoods look like at street level. Here are a couple snapshots...

(the chair and nurses office sign are from hardin elementary. the gun was on a lawn in the 9th ward. the home movie reel was on another front lawn near the 9th ward. the "wet umbrellas" sign is from clairborne elementary and very clearly below the high water mark...)

Forty-three Brooklyn Law School students will spend their spring break volunteering in and around the Gulf Coast as part of the Student Hurricane Network. These are their stories.

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