Thousands of residents of the Gulf Coast are unable to exercise their right to return more than four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made landfall because of a lack of affordable housing. In Mississippi, however, hundreds of federally funded modular homes like those pictured here sit unused because local jurisdictions are employing zoning ordinances that have a discriminatory impact on displaced residents.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designed a program to build cottages that would initially be used as emergency housing, but could eventually be used as modular homes when placed on a permanent foundation. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) received over $270 million in federal funds to build these one, two and three bedroom homes. Although MEMA has built 2,800 of these “Mississippi cottages,” hundreds of them are sitting unused today despite a desperate need for affordable housing for those who are still displaced by the hurricanes.
According to the Mississippi Center for Justice, the problem is that many local jurisdictions have passed zoning ordinances that effectively prevent placing these modular homes on private property. In Gulfport, Mississippi, a local ordinance was passed in January 2009 that, among other things, prevents any new cottages from being brought into the town and, more egregiously, allows any resident living within 160 feet of a proposed cottage site to prevent permanent placement of the cottage by vetoing the building permit. Under Mississippi law, however, these modular homes are entitled to permanent placement. At this time, a fair housing complaint has been filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging that these zoning ordinances have a discriminatory impact. Essentially, the zoning ordinances are severely restricting several protected classes from having permanent housing. One example of a protected class impacted by these zoning ordinances, are individuals with disabilities who currently reside in one out of three occupied cottages.
By employing zoning ordinances that have a discriminatory impact, local governments are preventing displaced people from rebuilding their lives and hampering recovery efforts. Amnesty International is calling on Congress to amend the Stafford Act to bring it in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Using the Guiding Principles as a model for amending the Stafford Act will help ensure that the human rights of those displaced by disasters are protected at every stage of displacement, from the immediate aftermath of the disaster through the return, resettlement and reintegration processes. This would include protection from laws that have a discriminatory impact on those displaced by disasters. As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina so painfully demonstrated, people displaced by disasters are not adequately protected by existing U.S. law. With a proper framework in place, the government can insure both that the Gulf Coast is rebuilt and that the human rights of people displaced by future disasters are properly protected.
You can learn more about the status of recovery in the Gulf Coast and what you can do to help here.
This post was contributed by Shefaali Desai, Advocacy Coordinator.