Holloway speaks to casino zoning, affordable housing issues

Mayor A.J. Holloway told the Biloxi City Council this week that he’s opposed to any wholesale zoning changes that would create more casino resort districts in Biloxi.

In fact, Holloway said, he thought that Biloxi has adequate casino-zoned land to handle the 15 to 20 casinos that could open in Biloxi over the next several years.

The mayor made the statement during a City Council meeting on Tuesday, when he was presented a draft of community plan for east Biloxi, as created by the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center.

“I’ve vetoed the expansion of gaming more than once in the past,” Holloway said after the meeting. “I realize that gaming revenue taxes had come to account for 35 percent of our annual operating revenue, but at the same time, with the expansion already pending because of the on-shore gaming, we need to strike a good balance, just as we worked to do before the storm.”

Numbers may not add up

Holloway also said he questions some numbers and conclusions drawn in the draft of the east Biloxi survey released this week. For instance, the report states that 20,000 east Biloxi residents have been displaced in east Biloxi – defined as Wards 1 and 2 – while pre-Katrina census data shows the east Biloxi at 12,071 (6,211 in Ward 1 and 5,860 in Ward 2).

The report also said that only 40 percent of the surveyed residents in east Biloxi want to re-build in east Biloxi (25 percent in Ward 2 and 15 percent in Ward 1), while 60 percent or either undecided or will not rebuild in east Biloxi.

Holloway also questioned results about the pre-storm issues in Wards 1 and 2, where tens of millions has been invested in affordable housing programs in the past several years.

Affordable housing was not biggest issue pre-Katrina

In the east Biloxi survey, residents said that affordable housing was the No. 1 issue today and had been their No. 2 issue before the storm, after crime.

However, Holloway pointed out, a pre-Katrina survey of 846 east Biloxi residents, which the city had conducted in 2004 as part of its affordable housing initiatives, showed that east Biloxi residents at that time wanted to see, in order of priority: more neighborhood shopping, crime control, improved infrastructure, code enforcement and employment. Concerns over affordable housing ranked ninth on the list of 15 priorities east Biloxi residents wanted addressed.

Said Holloway: “The biggest issue in east Biloxi before the storm, and maybe some people may have forgotten about this, was getting a major grocery store. And the key to that was to have a stable housing market and to foster homeownership, which creates the economic vitality to help bring in a major grocery store.”

The city, Holloway said, was in the midst of a holistic approach to revitalizing east Biloxi before the storm: “With the Biloxi Housing Authority’s Hope VI program, and two new elementary schools, millions in streets and drainage improvements, and increased police and code enforcement efforts, we were seeing significant progress in east Biloxi was seeing progress. All of these things were helping us meet at that time was the No. 1 priority in east Biloxi – increasing shopping opportunities.

“A good many people say they want to see us return to the Biloxi of old, but to do that, we need an accurate portrayal of where we were,” Holloway said.

“In the years immediately before the storm in east Biloxi, a wealth of programs were underway to address affordable housing, which in a post-Katrina world has shot to the top of the concerns, particularly in east Biloxi,” Holloway said.

“The reality, however, is inescapable when it comes to money.”

Lack of income levels stymies east Biloxi

Before the storm, the mayor said, “we were faced with providing affordable housing in an area of the city where the annual income of 40 percent of the households was below $24,000. You hear different definitions of ‘affordable housing’ but a good definition is: Safe, sanitary and adequate housing – including the cost of rent or mortgage and basic utilities – that is no more than 30 percent of the gross income of the household.

“That was a difficult challenge, but to help meet that challenge, we’d invested around $5 million in the past three years in programs that have seen the restoration or completion of hundreds of homes in east Biloxi. We provided a million dollars to the housing authority in its efforts, where hundreds of housing opportunities were created alone in Hope VI.”

Holloway also noted that in the past three years city programs have seen more than more than $380,000 in down-payment assistance – plus training – to create 25 new homeowners in east Biloxi, along with more than $1.8 million in rehabbing 40 homes, while also providing nearly a half-million dollars for an ongoing Back Bay Mission-administered program in which nearly 60 sub-standard homes have been rehabbed in east Biloxi.

“Today, we’re in the process of deeding 12 parcels to Habitat to Humanity, which had completed about seven new homes in Biloxi.

“There is no easy answer to this challenge in east Biloxi. The private sector investment is needed for the long-term sustainable recovery and economic vitality, but it is also the very factor that drives up the cost of land.”

Where do we go from here?

“We need to look closely at what these surveys and the majority of the people are really telling us,” the mayor said. “We’ll continue employing the many sources of revenue and partnering with the agencies we’ve successfully partnered with in the past, and we’ll have new opportunities to look at in the upcoming Reviving the Renaissance report.”

Said Holloway: “The best thing that we can do for our residents is to make them aware of their options. We need to make sure they are aware of the elevations to rebuild to, and what financing options and pool of volunteer labor is available. People will be able to make sound decisions if we make sure to give them a clear picture of their options. By doing that — and by building on the things that gave us the great quality of life and opportunity we had in the past – we’ll build back better and in a responsible manner.”

Related info available on city web site

–To read the draft of the executive summary of the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center, which was released Tuesday, click here.

–To read the 2004 city-commissioned survey in which east Biloxi residents ranked the myriad issues pre-Katrina, click here.

— To see a citywide zoning map – updated in March of this year – click here.

— To see a map that shows existing flood zones in Biloxi and FEMA’s proposed elevations, click here.

–To hear FEMA’s explanation on how and why base flood elevations are determined, click here.