With an impending decision on the management of a city-owned subdivision and an election on the horizon, some officials in Bayou La Batre are looking to make changes at Safe Harbor sooner rather than later.The future of Safe Harbor Estates and its manager, the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA), has become a point of contention between incumbent Mayor Annette Johnson and her political challenger in the Aug. 23 municipal election, Terry Downey.
Built with federal grants, Safe Harbor opened in 2009 to provide housing for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. However, the project eventually led to multiple lawsuits for the city and the arrest and conviction of former mayor Stan Wright on corruption charges.
Specifically, nine residents filed a lawsuit after federal funding ran out in 2011 and the housing authority was forced to raise its rental prices. At the time, they also claimed to have been baited into the subdivision with a promise that they would have an opportunity to purchase the homes after renting for 24 months — a promise that has never come to fruition.
Despite only being involved as the landowner, the city of Bayou La Batre paid $41,000 in 2014 as part of a settlement reached out of court in the case. The BLBHA reached a settlement as well, though that amount was never disclosed.
Fast forward two years to last week, when Johnson made the controversial recommendation to immediately offer any original tenants still residing in Safe Harbor the option to buy the properties they are currently renting.
“I’d like to make a motion tonight that the city of Bayou La Batre honor the original intent of this grant as it was proposed to our tenants — that we give them the opportunity to decide whether they want to continue to be renters or apply for ownership of their properties,” she said. “This situation needs to move forward so we can begin, after eight years, to meet the obligations of this grant.”
Because Safe Harbor was planned and constructed with grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there have been questions about the city’s ability to authorize the sale of those homes and use any revenue those sales might net.
However, while making her motion, Johnson provided city councilors — many of whom are also facing election next week — with recent correspondence from FEMA acknowledging the city’s “authority to donate, sell, lease, rent or otherwise have people occupying the units” at Safe Harbor.
Council members were also given a copy of a presentation from the early planning stages of Safe Harbor, which showed claims “the city [would] accept applications for the purchase of the houses” at the beginning of a renter’s second year at Safe Harbor.
Much has changed at Safe Harbor since those initial “promises” were made, though, including the residents themselves. Johnson said the city was “told there are still 40 percent of the original tenants” in Safe Harbor, but added attempts to get accurate records from the BLBHA have been unsuccessful.
“At this point in time we don’t have a list, but if it’s just one — and we have one young lady that came to me and asked about this specifically — if it’s for that young lady and nobody else, this situation needs to move forward,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s motion ultimately died for lack of support, though, with the majority of the council moving to table it for further review. Still, the motion prompted a strong reaction from some attending the meeting.
One woman shouted, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re not doing this for the people,” which prompted Johnson to strike the gavel to regain control of the floor. Others simply asked that the council study the issue further before making a decision.
BLBHA member and mayoral candidate Terry Downey, speaking on behalf of the BLBHA, addressed the council about several issues related to Safe Harbor. He also asked that the council not consider selling any of the lots in Safe Harbor without taking more “time to study it out.”
“I’m speaking as a board member, and I’m here to ask that the city either give us [ownership or] a long-term lease so we might acquire some loans and create some more rentals,” Downey said. “We asked starting off for ownership of the board like other boards do, but if that’s not agreeable, we would like a long-term lease so we could do some things on our own.”
In recent months, Johnson has publicly discussed the possibility of selling some of the vacant lots in Safe Harbor to private owners, while the BLBHA and its employees have argued that would make it impossible to enforce existing covenants in in the subdivision.
Those possibilities, as well as the future of BLBHA’s lease at Safe Harbor, have already been discussed at length in a series of public meetings and in statements on social media from officials on both sides. The council is set to vote on a renewal or termination of the lease in November.
However, while there’s still three months and next week’s municipal election between now and then, Johnson has already said she’ll be revisiting her proposal to give Safe Harbor’s original tenants the option of home ownership as early as next week.
“These people have waited eight years for this to resolve, so I ask your due diligence in reading this material because I will be bringing this up at the next meeting as well,” Johnson told the council. “If we only honor one, then we’ve done our job. The authorization may come from the council, but they have to make that final decision. Do they want to be homeowners or renters?”