Safe Harbor was built in Bayou Le Batre, a historic shrimp fishing community in Mobile County, Alabama (population 2,500) with over $17 million in FEMA and HUD funds to provide Katrina victims with safe affordable “permanent” housing with promises of “rent at 20% of income” and “rent-to-own”. (See the Safe Harbor case study on FEMA’s website and YouTube video sponsored by FEMA and HUD.)
The approximately 100 homes consist of single and double wide modular houses. After the community was built and turned over to a city housing authority, complaints of fraud and misuse appeared. Assurances that residents would be able to eventually purchase their home, or that they had entered into a lease-to-own contract, have been disregarded. The city’s grant writer was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud, embezzlement and money laundering in regard to the community’s funding, and is now awaiting sentence. The City’s current mayor has been indicted on federal charges involving land that he owned which was purchased with federal funds for the community.
Soon after the mayor’s indictment residents in the community complained of doubling or tripling of rents, and unfair and arbitrary evictions.
Many residents, including Lydia Swift, claim threats have been made against those who have organized or attempted to exercise their personal rights. In response, several current and past residents have come forward and filed a consolidated suit against the city and its housing authority. Two representatives of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office joined Alabama Legal Services on a recent Housing Co-op Steering Committee’s weekly phone conference. They heard directly from the residents that Safe Harbor’s management and lawyer have tried to pressure them off the Legal Services lawsuit.
The same residents had earlier informed HUD Chief Advisor Fred Tombar of their complaints on a phone conference, preceded by hand-written statements emailed to Mr. Tombar, including one from Belinda Wilkerson, who like many low-income homeowners had to agree to have their homes demolished before they were allowed to move into Safe Harbor: “As much as half of a resident’s total paid rent can be forwarded to a down payment on the house, officials said…. Bayou La Batre residents whose condemned homes still stand must have the structures demolished to be eligible, and the city has federal funding to pay for the demolitions…” (November 29, 2007, Mobile Press: New housing to be offered to Katrina victims, by Katherine Sayre, Staff Reporter)