Land rush in Biloxi

Stephen Smith Jun 14, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Even though much of the Gulf Coast is still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina, there’s a land rush of sorts going on down in Biloxi, Miss. Parts of that city were leveled by the storm. Now they’re prime turf. The casinos are coming back. And landowners are getting big bucks for their storm-ravaged lots. Others won’t be able to cash in for years, if at all. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Stephen Smith has more.

RONALD BAKER: OK, that’s my boat, King Arthur, which is a 40-foot, single-rig shrimp boat.

STEPHEN SMITH: Ronald Baker is a fisherman. His family’s been working the Gulf waters some four generations now. Baker actually grew up on a slender island just off the Biloxi coast.

BAKER: When I dated we didn’t have cars, so we dated in sailboats, you know. Boats just been my thing. When I had to go to school in a boat. Went to church, ballgame, we’d row across. I mean, boats have just been my life.

Hurricanes have been part of Ronald Baker’s life as well. In 1969, Hurricane Camille washed Baker’s family off the island. So he resettled in East Biloxi just a few blocks from the water. Last August, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house and most of the neighborhood. But not the big shed at the back of his lot. That’s where you’ll find Baker, with his suntanned arms spattered with paint. He’s lovingly rebuilding vintage wooden sailboats.

BAKER: I got eight of them. This is my brother’s. And this is my brother’s. That’s my son’s. And all the rest of them are mine.

Some might call Baker lucky. His lot is smack where casinos want to build. At current prices he could sell for more than a million dollars. Some of his neighbors didn’t even try to rebuild. They sold and moved on.

BAKER: Not another soul out of 34 houses that was on my block . . . there’s not another soul even thinking about building.

Though Baker stands to make a lot of money on his property, he’d rather stay put. He doubts he can find another place so close to the water with the room he needs for the boats. But if he stays, the property taxes would get too high and the casino traffic too thick. So Baker reckons he’ll sell when the right offer comes along. Other homeowners may have to wait a lot longer.

A couple miles away, Lee Street cuts across the center of East Biloxi. Here’s where a lot of black and Vietnamese Americans have historically owned modest bungalows. This house is getting a new roof, but the place next door was wrecked by Katrina’s flood waters. Local real estate investor Rip Daniels is buying up property in this part of Biloxi but not paying the top-dollar casino prices found over near the shoreline. Daniels says this central part of the peninsula will take off more slowly.

RIP DANIELS: It takes awhile to compilea€¦commercial environment.

In addition to the real estate business, Rip Daniels runs local radio station WJZD and hosts a popular morning talk show.

[SOUND: {Daniels’ radio show} . . When we come back, for those of you concerned you could be evicted from your apartment . . . ]

Daniels’ show is a mix of music and talk aimed at a mainly African American audience. He’s been warning his listeners that a decade from now the old Biloxi of quaint and often ramshackle bungalows will be gone. That will be good for the people who kept up their properties because developers will have to pay the full value for a house even to tear it down. Others won’t fare so well.

DANIELS: I think whose losing out right now are the descendents of many, especially African Americans who just refused to come back and clean their mama’s house up.

Daniels explains that the mortgages on many of these homes were paid off by the previous generation of housemaids, fishermen and factory workers. Those parents passed along the hard-earned wealth to their children. He says some of those children did not protect the investment and now don’t have the money to rebuild.

DANIELS: I wish I could sit here and tell you my heart breaks because Negroes are being run off their land. No. Prior to Katrina many of those houses were in serious disrepair and they shouldn’t have been.

Over the years, East Biloxi has been an ethnically diverse neighborhood where working people of African, European and Asian descent could afford to live. If many homeowners do sell out to developers, that cultural complexion may be one more of the casualties from Hurricane Katrina.

From American RadioWorks, this is Stephen Smith for Marketplace.

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