Mississippi could face a long-term shortage of affordable housing in the wake of rebuilding efforts from last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes if leaders don’t take action now, a new report urges.

Tens of thousands of Mississippi families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by hurricanes last year will have a hard time finding replacement housing in the state unless government and private sector leaders work to accelerate rebuilding of affordable housing, according to a RAND Corp. study released Thursday.

The study, “Rebuilding Housing Along the Mississippi Coast,” provides an overview of the region’s housing needs and suggests a series of policy options for state and local officials to consider.

Estimates in early January suggested that at least 80,000 housing units in Mississippi sustained damage. RAND researchers say the damage estimates may be low because they include only housing units counted during the 2000 census. Preliminary estimates suggest that more than a third of the damaged housing was occupied by people with incomes below the national median.

An analysis by RAND researchers of damage among 6,400 homes on the peninsular tip of the city of Biloxi found that most of these homes were occupied by people with incomes below the national median.

“There are a lot of people in the storm-damaged areas of Mississippi who don’t have the means to help restore or replace their homes,” said Mark Bernstein, a RAND senior policy researcher and lead author of the report. “In some cases, these people may be renters or they may have lived in a house that was in their family for generations.”

Experience with past natural disasters shows that affordable housing is usually the last housing to be rebuilt, long after more expensive housing, according to the report by the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. This is because in most cases owners of affordable housing have less money to pay for the work, and rental properties do not have access to the same funding sources as owner-occupied housing.

Earlier studies of natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew in Florida and the Northridge earthquake in California reveal that when less money is invested in replacing affordable housing, the result is long-term shortages in the supply of such housing, the report says.

Mississippi needs to obtain more accurate information about the number and types of housing needed to replace homes damaged and destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita before it spends the housing recovery money it already has, the study suggests. The state would benefit from an assessment of the barriers to meeting its housing needs.

To ensure the rebuilding of affordable housing in Mississippi, the state needs to continue taking measures to increase the capacity to coordinate and manage the rebuilding efforts, increase the supply of affordable housing through private-public partnerships and incentives, set goals for affordable housing production, reduce long-term housing costs, and avoid future problems by making sure housing is built appropriately, the RAND study says.

The state of Mississippi and local officials have begun taking steps to rebuild based on recommendations that RAND helped develop in a report for the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, Renewal. These include passing residential building codes for five of the affected counties to minimize losses from future storms.

“Lessons from past disasters tell us that we better figure out how to address the affordable housing issue or it will fall through the cracks,” said study co-author Paul Sorensen. “You need to address the needs of individuals and families who may not be able to fend for themselves under such stressful financial conditions.”

The RAND Corp. is a nonprofit research organization focusing on challenges faced by public and private sectors around the world.

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