Poor Squeezed in Mississippi Housing Shortage

Along Mississippi's coast in Bay St. Louis and North Gulfport, bulldozers are clearing properties and tearing down public housing. Some landlords are trying to get tenants to leave while others are raising rent and bringing in wealthier tenants.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Housing is one of the biggest problems on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina wiped out some communities. In others, people still live in damaged homes. In Gulfport, Mississippi, residents of one low-income government housing complex have been waiting for months for help. As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, they're now being threatened with eviction.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

In some communities, people have been barely hanging on for week after week in what seems like impossible conditions. At Edgewood Manor in Gulfport, a red-brick apartment complex, trash is blowing about everywhere and, with it, a pungent odor.

(Soundbite of banging)

LOHR: The kids who live here play with sticks and pieces of metal, banging them on the ground nearby. There's lots of ruined clothing, decaying food and glass bottles among the debris outside on the ground, things that were once inside these apartments.

Ms. JOSEY NEALY(ph): It's pretty rough around here for us 'cause we don't have nowhere to go, no money to go to nowhere, no money to even get us a U-Haul if we wanted one.

LOHR: Josey Nealy and another tenant, Nelma MacDonald(ph), say the apartment manager left two days after Katrina hit. Since then, they say the owner has made it difficult for them to remain here. No repairs have been made. The trash was not picked up for seven weeks and is still a problem. Finally, they say the owner told them they had to leave.

Ms. NELMA MacDONALD: He's just in a hurry for us to go now. We want to go, too. We don't want to live out here with this trash, you know. You can't breathe. But this is better than on the street. And what we have, the ones of us who are lucky enough to still have something, we want to stay here with it.

LOHR: MacDonald has been paying someone to drive her to Laurel, Mississippi, more than 100 miles away, to try to find a place to live. But apartments are tough to come by, even there. Meanwhile, at home, the situation is dire as her neighbor, Eunice Holiday(ph), demonstrates.

(Soundbite of sweeping)

Ms. EUNICE HOLIDAY: This is the leak from upstairs I had plugged. All of them's rotted out. This coming out.

LOHR: Oh, the ceiling's coming off.

Ms. HOLIDAY: All right? I'm going to surprise you again.

LOHR: Holiday and the others are living with mold that they have tried to scrub away. As you enter, your throat tightens. The smell of cleaning chemicals is overwhelming. Holiday's plumbing is out of order, forcing her to take extreme measures.

Ms. HOLIDAY: Right now my toilet's not working. I can't put no water in the bowl back there to flush. I had to run hot water, Purex, ammonia, Lysol and pump it in here. And I got bad arthritis, and I had to pump.

LOHR: And since the hurricane, that's been the way...

Ms. HOLIDAY: Yes. Since the hurricane, I've been doing it since.

LOHR: An attorney for the owner says there's a shortage of contractors to make necessary repairs, that they're still waiting to settle with their insurance company.

There's no good information on how many homes Hurricane Katrina destroyed, but according to FEMA, more than half a million people in Mississippi have registered for help. An agency spokesman says FEMA has made 192,000 payments for housing assistance of some kind to people in the state, whether that's to fix up homes or to rent a new place, but that's another part of the problem. John Jobling(ph) is with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Mr. JOHN JOBLING (Mississippi Center for Justice): There's a drastic shortage of available housing, and it is very hard for anyone, whether low-income or moderate-income, to find affordable rental property at this time on the coast.

LOHR: Apartments that may have rented for $350 a month before Katrina can go for twice that much now. And Jobling says the coast is just beginning to see its first heavy wave of evictions because the courts are up and running again. The Center for Justice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is now representing tenants at Edgewood Manor, who have some additional federal protection because they live in Section 8 property. But John Jobling says other complexes have already been destroyed.

Mr. JOBLING: In Biloxi, public housing sustained $38.5 million in damage. And in one complex alone, 235 out of 305 units took on 10 feet of water or more, and hundreds of residents were displaced. In Bay Saint Louis, two subsidized housing complexes have been bulldozed, and 36 families were displaced. And so it's happening all across the coast.

LOHR: Others are getting lots of complaints as well. In Biloxi, where Katrina destroyed 5,000 structures, City Councilman Bill Stallworth is hearing from tenants.

Mr. BILL STALLWORTH (Biloxi City Councilman): You know, their landlords are trying to get them out because their relatives may need to come in or they got employees they want to put in, or they can just get higher rents. They try to break the lease, so that they can raise the rents and get more money. Grief had to have set in real hard here. When dollar signs get in the picture, people get greedy, and they don't care about their fellow man anymore. They're just wanting to see the dollar signs come in.

(Soundbite of children playing)

LOHR: Back at Edgewood apartments in Gulfport, tenants are still waiting for conditions to improve. Civil rights attorneys are now working with an attorney for the owner on how to repair the damaged buildings and how to get tenants into safe living conditions in the meantime. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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