By: Arthur M. Wedding, Affordable Housing Program Officer, May 4, 2020
Welcome to the initial STEPS Coalition Quarterly Newsletter – “STEPS’ LADDER.” The Ladder will focus on information, resources and interviews pertinent to the underserved communities of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as update the actions and progress of STEPS Coalition initiatives.
The STEPS Coalition is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit started in 2006 to give voice to low to moderate income communities in the restoration process following Hurricane Katrina and has continued its work through the 2008/09 recession and BP oil spill of 2010. During this time STEPS has advocated for underrepresented communities like East Biloxi, North Gulfport and Moss Point/Pascagoula/Gautier under our guiding principles which are Affordable Housing, Environmental Justice, Human Rights, Economic Justice and preservation of Historical Communities. Consequently, it is our objective to undertake redevelopment projects in these communities that reflect their cultural heritage and the dignity of the people that reside in them. We hope to keep you informed with knowledge of what has been done and what will be done as we partner with you in the development of your communities. So again, Welcome!
STEPS response to COVID19 Pandemic: First and fore-most, every organization and corporation on the Gulf is doing what it can to lend assistance in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and STEPS is no exception. The STEPS Coalition, with the blessing of our Census 2020 Complete Count funders, has reprogrammed funds to provide resources for COVID-19 mitigation services, with a focus on Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties. For more information regarding available resources, you can contact one of our community partners near you – Back Bay Mission, Boat People SOS, Program Believe, Climb CDC, Disability Connection, Hancock Resource Center, Moore Community House, and Morning Star Baptist Church.
2020 Census Initiatives: STEPS Coalition, along with our Complete Count Committee Co-Chairs – Back Bay Mission and Boat People SOS - has been a prime facilitator in getting the word out about the importance of the 2020 Census. As you may have heard, the decennial census, which is mandated by the US Constitution, will help determine the state’s legislative apportionment in congress and the amount of federal funds that our region is entitled to, based on a complete count of our population. Consequently, in the fourth quarter of 2019, STEPS in collaboration with our co-chairs, secured census program funds for partner NGO’s on the coast who have and are putting in the leg work to ensure all residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – especially those that are hard to count – are included in the 2020 Census. Shape your Future, Start Here! 2020Census.gov. STEPS has also been promoting Census employment opportunities for community members in conjunction with the Census Bureau. For further information, apply online at 2020census.gov/jobs or call 1-855-job-2020.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING, ECONOMIC JUSTICE & PRESERVATION of HISTORICAL COMMUNITIES
Main Street redevelopment project: Since last Fall, STEPS along with its community partners – the NAACP Biloxi Branch and the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio – has been exploring several redevelopment project scenarios that will yield an increased inventory of quality, mixed-use, affordable, rental housing and small business development opportunities in East Biloxi. Our focus has been influenced by existing community assets on Main Street between Division Street and Esters Boulevard, and an extremely informative “Community Needs Assessment” produced by the East Biloxi Community Collaborative (EBCC) in 2019. STEPS Actions to date have included:
Definition of Project Scope: We have Identified Main Street in East Biloxi between Esters Boulevard and Division Street as the “Gateway” to the “East Biloxi Civil Rights Cultural Corridor.” The area is significant because it is home to several properties that were pivotal in the NAACP wade-in movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s including the Jordan, Schwan, and Harrison Building at 260 Main Street, the Marshall & Fannie Nichols House at 270 Main Street, and New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church at 255 Main Street. Each property was featured in the “East Biloxi African American and Civil Rights Historic Resources Survey 2017” which was commissioned by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Historic Preservation Division and the City of Biloxi, and each is eligible for historic preservation designation. Consequently, the area is prime to be a center of “cultural tourism” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Likewise, each property is also prime for redevelopment and/or renovation into a resource that can meet the needs of the community today in the form of affordable housing, small business incubation, and walkable communal space. Finally, we believe that redevelopment of this area will catalyze other development projects throughout East Biloxi.
Community Stakeholder Engagement: On Thursday, February 27, 2020 STEPS convened a “Stone Soup gathering”: “What…” you may ask “…is a Stone soup gathering?” STEPS invited property owners on Main Street between Esters Boulevard and Division Street to a dinner meeting to share our ideas about the areas potential for redevelopment and get their feedback regarding property/community needs and desires. Desires expressed by participants included preserving and promoting the area’s history, “Branding” the area as a tourism destination, redevelopment of commercial and housing spaces, provision of resources for property improvement, and the implementation of streetscape improvements (lamp posts, banners, arches, receptacles, planters, and traffic calming designs). The conversation was engaging and overwhelmingly positive and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with the community as we continue to draft a predevelopment plan for the area. We would like to thank New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church for hosting the event and Exclusive Dining & Catering for their excellent service.
Engagement of Local/State Resources: In February, STEPS traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to meet with the Mississippi Home Corporation team. The meeting was informative, and our proposals were received positively. Information was shared regarding available resources for affordable housing development on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well as the types and scale of projects that the organization would support. We also participated in the Historic Preservation Toolkit workshop hosted by the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, and the City of Biloxi, and we had preliminary discussions with the Community Development Director of the City of Biloxi. STEPS also participated in the first of several public information and comment meetings with the City of Biloxi regarding its five-year (2020-2024) and 2020 annual plan for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. To date, all conversations have yielded positive support from civic and community leaders.
CHDO/CDE/CDFI Certification: STEPS coalition, with assistance from our funding and technical assistance partners including NeighborWorks America and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, is currently pursuing several certifications, including Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) with the state of Mississippi, Community Development Entity (CDE) with the US Treasury Department, and Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), also with the US Treasury Department, that will facilitate the financing of affordable housing development projects in our service area. It is our goal to complete the certification process for each of these designations by the end of 2020.
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND CLIMATE RESILIENCE
Community Solar Project: The STEPS Coalition, in collaboration with the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club and Gulf Coast Community Foundation, is in the process of developing a $3.0 million Community Solar Farm that will serve low to moderate income (LMI) residents in Mississippi Power’s service area on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties). The goal of the project is to provide low-cost power generation that can be converted to on-bill discounts for LMI residents. To date, STEPS and its partners have engaged a Community Solar technical assistance provider to help with the development of a comprehensive project plan including, but not limited to, site location, power grid interconnection, technical specifications, utility tariff structure, and project construction. This is a very early stage project, but we will provide additional details as they come into focus. We are very excited to be a leader in the drive to create a more resilient Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Thank you for taking the time to read our first issue of "STEPS' Ladder." With the assistance of our community partners, we are confident that we will come out of the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic with healthy residents and quality, community-driven, development projects for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Jonathan A. Green,
Executive Director & Editor In-Chief