Flood buyout help might be sought|[04/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A new home buyout program will likely be pursued by the City of Vicksburg and Warren County, but even if it’s successful there remains the problem of where residents – the majority of whom are impoverished – will relocate.

“We’ve got a crisis here,” said Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens of people flooded out of homes who may not be able to return. “The reality is most of the people affected live in substandard housing and have no money.”

In years past federal funds have been obtained by the City of Vicksburg to buy frequently flooded homes in Hamilton Heights subdivision where flash floods were a problem and in the low-lying areas west of North Washington Streets where backwater flooding from the Mississippi River often finds people seeking shelter.

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The math on the buyouts, however, is a problem because the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays the market value of a home the day before it flooded plus a relocation stipend.

“A FEMA buyout means nothing if you have a house that’s worth $10,000, but you owe $8,000, and so you end up with a check for $2,000 and no home,” Leyens said

A committee composed of the directors of various affordable-housing agencies was formed Monday to tackle the housing problem that will face residents when floodwaters subside in coming weeks. The committee took shape during a meeting among the Vicksburg Mayor and Board of Aldermen, several local agencies and about a dozen displaced residents.

The Mississippi River stage was at 49.9 today, a fall of 0.4 from Monday. Flood stage of 43 feet at Vicksburg was topped on March 29, and the river crested at 50.9 feet on April 21.

Leyens stressed urgency in pursuing a buyout and coming up with a long-term housing solution for residents in Ford subdivision who will most likely not be able to return to their homes due to federal requirements that permits to rebuild not be issued if a home has lost more than 50 percent of its value to a flood. The stipulation is part of the taxpayer subsidized National Flood Insurance Program. The rationale is to keep costs under control by eliminating claims for buildings in areas known to flood.

“It takes about 16 months on average to get buyout money. We did a huge flood buyout during my first administration, but, by the time the paperwork went through, the people weren’t interested anymore. The flood was gone, the sun was shining and people were outside barbecuing. We’re hoping for a quick solution now,” Leyens said.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Womack said he will try to hasten the process, but reminded Leyens the city and county have yet to apply for the buyout program.

“I will personally do everything I can to expedite the city’s application, so we’re talking about 60 or 90 days instead of 16 months,” Womack said.

Malinda Jones, a Ford subdivision resident, discusses her living situation since having to abandon her home. (Meredith Spencer * The Vicksburg Post)Gertrude Young, who served as the North Ward alderman for 12 years until 2005, was informally selected to head the committee that formed Monday. She said the committee spoke with city and county officials immediately following the meeting and said both are on board with applying for the buyout program as soon as possible. Before they can do so, the city and county boards must approve an agreement to a 25 percent local funding match to any FEMA funds received for a buyout.

Leyens said his goal is to have 25 families moved from their homes within six months. He estimated 71 homes have been affected by the flooding, of which about 50 are “substandard homes that flood repeatedly.”

Of the dozen residents who attended the meeting, Violet Carlisle was one of few who lives outside the city limits on Chickasaw Road. She said a previous buyout program failed her.

“They appraised my house at $87,000, and after the tearing down of structures and cleanup, my share was going to be $47,000,” she told Leyens. “When it came time to get me out, the wind went down to the Coast instead. They ran out of money here for the buyout.”

Renia Myles, who lives on Ford Road, has been displaced for weeks and attended the meeting. She said she was concerned about having to take on another mortgage if her home is bought out.

“I just finally paid off my house,” she said. “It might not be a mansion on the hill, but it’s my home and it’s paid for.”

Mississippi RiverTODAY’S STAGE: 49.9 feetFELL: 0.4 footFLOOD STAGE: 43 feetSTEELE BAYOU:Landside: 91.3Riverside: 98.9If you goThe newly formed committee whose purpose is to help find housing for displaced flood victims will meet again Monday at 1 p.m. in the City Hall Annex Board Room.Jeff Johnson, who attended the meeting on behalf of his mother, said she, too, would be unable to afford taking on a new mortgage should her Ford Road home be bought out. Currently, Johnson said his mother is still staying with his sister in a cramped house.

“She just wants to get this resolved as soon as possible so she can get back to living by herself,” he said, noting the meeting left him with some hope a solution will be found. “I have a little confidence something will be worked out.”

Two tracts of land outside of the floodplain were identified by the committee as possible relocation areas. One is a 7-acre parcel just east of Kings, on North Washingon Street, that was deeded to the Mississippi Regional Housing Authority 6 by Ergon Marine in 2003. The second is much larger tract of land owned by an Alabama resident, John Currey, who has previously offered to donate the land to the city if it agrees to provide the infrastructure. Currey’s land is also located north of downtown Vicksburg, at North Washington and Sherman Avenue.

“Whether or not we get federal funding for a flood buyout it should not deter what we’re trying to achieve here. We can do this locally if we have to,” said Leyens,

Public funding of private housing projects is not legal, and therefore Leyens said he needs a nonprofit agency to act as a legal conduit for donated dollars from the city.

Many of the housing agency representatives said they were on board with the idea but had troubles with the logistics. While Leyens repeatedly said the Vicksburg Housing Authority has the legal authority to act as a conduit for the city, James Stirgus Sr., executive director, expressed reservations about supplying short-term and long-term housing needs for flood victims.

“We do not provide emergency housing, period,” said Stirgus. Although he acknowledged it is possible the housing authority could purchase housing for the city, he speculated that “by the time it goes through it will probably be five years from today.”

Habitat for Humanity was represented at the meeting, but Leyens said the group could not provide enough homes in an adequate timeframe to solve the city’s problem.

Flood PhotosSlideshowGalleryDr. Hickman Johnson, executive director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional 6 in Mississippi, said HUD will do all it can to help flood victims, but acknowledged there are limitations, such as the waiting list for Section 8 housing being closed.

“Can we help people who have been displaced by the flood? The answer is ‘no,’ unless they are already on the waiting list,” he said. “HUD’s regulation is that we serve people on the waiting list as opposed to people who have been displaced. We don’t have emergency housing systems. That’s going to be FEMA.”

Gov. Haley Barbour has asked President Bush to declare Warren County and three others in Mississippi federal disaster areas, allowing individuals to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds through its Individual Assistance Program. Womack said the president’s response should come in two weeks.

The newly formed and unnamed committee will meet again Monday at 1 p.m. in the City Hall Annex Board Room.