As the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA) prepares to auction off properties built in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Terry Downey has filed two lawsuits against its board accusing members of refusing to turn over public records and improperly blocking his recent board appointment.
Built with $17 million in federal grants, Safe Harbor opened in 2009 to provide housing for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina and provide affordable homes outside historically flood-prone areas.
Though there were several issues along the way, the requirements of those grants were met in 2014 — giving the city full ownership over the property. In 2016, the city officials agreed to conveyed ownership of Safe Harbor to the BLBHA with the idea that the board of commissioners would be better suited to finance improvements to the existing homes and expand to build new houses if they owned the property outright.
For a while, that seemed to be where things were headed, and according to BLBHA Executive Director Virginia Huddleston, the board even had some rough plans drawn up for an expansion. However, Board President Marcia Stork told Lagniappe BLBHA kept running into problems with the city over a lingering zoning issue.
According to Stork, the city has refused to grant any building permits for construction on Safe Harbor lots, which prevented the board from moving forward with its initial plans to expand the development. In 2019, the board decided it would be better to sell the property altogether and use the proceeds to invest in other affordable housing options. The property is currently scheduled to be sold at a public auction in early November.
“If we get an investor to come in, they would have the funds to improve what we have now and still continue building there because there’s up to a 30-home capacity,” Stork said. “The board’s intention is to take the money we get from the sale and invest it back into affordable housing in the area.”
Stork said the board envisioned using the proceeds to invest in and repair blighted properties throughout the city and surrounding areas at prices low-income individuals and families can afford — something she says is still “desperately needed” in Bayou La Batre. Yet, moving forward with the sale hasn’t been smooth sailing, either.
Problems with the city have persisted and have already delayed the planned auction at least twice. The city has maintained that, until the zoning issue is resolved, a new owner wouldn’t be able to obtain a building permit either. That has the potential to significantly impact Safe Harbor’s value.
Downey claims the initial zoning was approved by the Bayou La Batre City Council when Safe Harbor was created, but never went before the city Planning Commission. Now, a hearing on a proposed rezoning of the Safe Harbor property is currently scheduled for Aug. 10 before the commission.
Members of the board and Huddleston have suggested the city is intentionally delaying the process.
On top of the zoning issues, Downey is the board’s sole appointing authority. Yet he claims he’s also had trouble getting records from the BLBHA. In a lawsuit filed last week, Downey claims the city hasn’t received information about BLBHA’s day-to-day operations in years and can’t get answers about the upcoming sale of Safe Harbor.
“My concern is for the people that live out there. It’s hard to find a place to stay, and affordable housing is a big issue here,” Downey said. “Now, rather than trying to move forward and get some grants or build some new houses, they’ve all of a sudden decided that they can’t maintain it and have to sell the property.”
Complicating matters, the board has refused to recognize Downey’s most recent appointment.
At a July 21 meeting, board member John Wayne Hatcher was told by Huddleston he would not be seated because he was convicted of three counts of third-degree burglary in the early 1990s. Hatcher, who was appointed to the same position by a former mayor two years ago without ever being seated, was fully pardoned by the state for his conviction in 2017. Regardless of the pardon, Stork said that does not change the board’s position.
“On our application, clients can’t have a criminal record,” Stork said. “Why would I sit someone with a known criminal record on the board if I will not rent a house to someone who’s done the same?”
In addition to the lawsuit seeking records, Downey has asked a judge to force BLBHA to recognize Hatcher’s appointment. He believes the board does not want Hatcher as a voting member because he will ask questions and seek records about the board’s finances and operations.
As for Hatcher, he openly acknowledges his criminal record but maintains those days are long behind him.
“It is no secret that in my youth I got into serious trouble and served time in a boot camp program, but that was roughly 30 years ago. For me, that was a lifetime ago,” Hatcher said. “Since that time I had all my rights as a citizen restored and have every right to be seated as an active member of the [BLBHA].”
Also at its July 21 meeting, the board unanimously approved an addendum to the contracts held by Huddleston and her husband, Darryl Wilson, who handles maintenance for the authority. Board members also agreed to extend their contracts for another year after voting to cancel the upcoming board meetings in August and September because Huddleston and Wilson will be taking those months off work.
Huddleston told the board she and Wilson would be “burning our vacation days and our accumulated personal and sick leave.” She added, “For us to be here on Oct. 1, we need to discuss the contract renewals.” The board approved both unanimously.
Safe Harbor resident Linda Blake and Lagniappe both requested a copy of the contracts and addendums approved by the board and were told to submit a “public information request form” — a form Huddleston refused to print out for Blake at the meeting and could not provide to Lagniappe afterward.
According to Blake, she attempted to pick up the form the next day but the office was closed. When Lagniappe followed up on its request, Huddleston said she would attempt to provide copies of her and her husband’s employment contracts, but may not be able to until she returns to work in October.
Citing the advice of BLBHA’s attorney, Huddleston declined an opportunity to comment on this report.
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