PASCAGOULA — Josh Church is usually just the messenger, but that doesn’t make him any more popular among city homeowners.
Church is a building official. And in post-Katrina Pascagoula that has meant years of informing homeowners federal rules meant to protect them won’t allow them to spend the needed funds to repair their homes or keep them up to code.
The city cannot grant the needed building permits if a home or building’s repairs cost more than 50% of what the property is worth. But property values in Pascagoula have plummeted, city officials say, meaning that “50% rule” doesn’t stretch far. Many homes in Pascagoula, built in the 1940s and 50s, are now valued below $100,000.
“It’s literally making people homeless,” Church told Mississippi Today.
Pascagoula has a growing number of deteriorating homes that wind up condemned, according to city leaders. So on Tuesday, Pascagoula’s mayor, economic development director and other city stakeholders launched a coalition demanding congress change the rules set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency they say have devastated Pascagoula’s housing market.
“We have to get some relief,” Pascagoula Mayor Jay Willis said during the Tuesday press conference. “They’re slowly killing neighborhoods in Pascagoula.”
In 2009, in response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA put 90% of Pascagoula into expanded flood zones. Pascagoula leaders say before that shift only about 20% of the city was in flood zones. As a result, in the last 17 years the bulk of Pascagoula home values have dropped dramatically.
“It’s not easy to tell someone that has lived in their house for 30 years that after a small fire, it’s going to cost 60% of their house value for repairs, so we can’t let them fix it,” Church said.
The FEMA rules are intended to protect people from investing in properties that are likely to flood again. City leaders say that in Pascagoula, homes aren’t in a high-degree of danger.
“These neighborhoods have only flooded one time in history and that was during Katrina,” Willis said.
The coalition has support from state leaders – Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, former Gov. Haley Barbour and Rep. Steven Palazzo – and some of Mississippi’s largest businesses.
Alan Sudduth, a corporate affairs manager for Chevron, took to the podium Tuesday to give the company’s support but also to point out his workers cannot find homes in Pascagoula. The same sentiments have been echoed by Mississippi Power. It’s common for Ingalls shipbuilders to live out-of-state.
“Prior to Katrina, we had a healthy percentage of employees who lived in Pascagoula,” Sudduth said. “Since the application of these rules, it’s been a sharp decline.”
Church said realtors are fielding calls regularly from people who want to live in Pascagoula, which has invested recently in building up its downtown.
“But we don’t have many for sale because we cannot fix them,” Church said.
The “50% rule” covers a 10-year span. In the case of a $100,000-valued home, the city cannot permit more than $50,000 in repairs over a decade – that includes everything from roofs, electrical issues to plumbing.
The coalition calls its campaign “S.O.S Pascagoula” with the slogan: “Don’t leave our neighborhoods behind.”