Blyden’s Housing Committee Learns There Are 353 Homeless People In USVI
CHARLOTTE AMALIE — The Committee on Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Telecommunications, chaired by Senator Marvin A. Blyden, received updates Tuesday from government and non-profit agencies on housing issues in the territory.
Blyden in his introductory statement outlined the extreme responsibility that he holds as the Committee’s chairman.
“This committee has an awesome set of responsibilities, as we have oversight over matters involving housing, roads, ports, telecommunications and waste management. In short, this committee will be dealing with many of the issues that affect all of us on a daily basis,” Blyden said. “The territory is still suffering from a housing crisis in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and thousands of Virgin Islanders are still struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives. I, along with my colleagues and members of my staff, are among them.”
As significant deadlines approach in the area of housing, particularly the March 31 deadline for the Emergency Home Repair Program, Chairman Blyden expressed that Tuesday’s hearing was imperative in addressing deadlines that require immediate attention.
In its testimony, Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, the operators of the only facilities providing emergency shelter in the territory, reported that there are several new factors affecting homelessness as a result of the 2017 hurricanes.
Some of these factors include: persons doubling up or “couch surfing” facing eviction due to not being on leases, increased rent beyond tenant’s financial capacities and unpaid utility bills due to unemployment, among other factors.
The 2019 bi-annual count registered 353 homeless individuals in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a response to homelessness, Catholic Charities will soon open 11 new efficiency units available for single adult males in Christiansted and refurbish and remodel a facility in Frederiksted, transferred by Catholic Diocese in the Virgin Islands, into a new emergency shelter for the homeless.
Once an application is approved for 2019 funding under the Community Development Block Grant Program, the new Light of Christ Shelter for the Homeless will become a permanent facility with a minimum of 40 beds, as well as cooking, dining and community areas.
On St. Thomas, Bethlehem House will be upgraded and replaced by a consolidated emergency shelter and transitional housing facility with more space than its current capacity of 40 beds.
A nearby building, formerly used for transitional housing, will be demolished to accommodate this new facility. The organization awaits a notice to proceed from the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority to solicit bids for architectural services for the facility’s design.
The update from the faith-based agency was followed by updates from the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA). VIHA’s Executive Director Robert Graham discussed the Authority’s challenges while maintaining 3,000 units of public housing and servicing 1,600 Housing Choice Voucher families.
Some of these challenges include an unmet capital need of approximately $200 million; aged facilities, mostly built before 1980, lacking proper infrastructure and subjected to natural disasters, environmental deterioration, and poor upkeep and maintenance; and a combined waitlist of 3,000 applicants that are rent-burdened, or paying more than 50 percent of income for rent.
Graham also provided updates on the Tutu Hi-Rise Housing Community and Lucinda Millin Homes.
“As of February 26, 2019, VIHA has successfully relocated all 284 households residing in Tutu Hi-Rise,” Graham said. “We are currently waiting for final FEMA approval of our Project Worksheet 390 in order to proceed with demolition. Additionally, VIHA’s Portfolio Repositioning Strategy will replace Tutu Hi-Rise units with senior and family units at three locations.”
Lucinda Millin Homes, said the VIHA executive director, “was poorly designed and built in 1970 with small units, cheap building systems, inadequate amenities and lack of adequate healthcare space [that is unacceptable] in today’s design best practices.”
The facility will be replaced with new senior housing at Oswald Harris Court. VIHA estimates to increase its affordable housing inventory by 1,000 units over the next ten years.
Daryl Griffith, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA), also offered updates under his agency’s purview. The Emergency Home Repairs VI (EHRVI) Program, for example, will have assisted approximately 7,000 Virgin Islanders with home repairs by the program deadline of March 31.
Although the program has found much success in assisting the people of the territory, quality control failures and issues pertaining to the payment of subcontractors continue to persist.
Although the EHRVI program will soon end, the Executive Director offered details on new programs potentially coming on-line.
“Subject to FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) authorization of the 408 Permanent Housing Construction (PHC) Pilot Program, the territory is prepared to immediately transition at the end of March from the EHRVI program to this new PHC program, ensuring a seamless transition for reconstruction of homes too badly damaged for the EHRVI program,” Griffith said. “The U.S. Virgin Islands Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Action Plan proposes a portfolio of programs to address unmet housing, infrastructure, and economic needs for the first allocation of CDBG-DR funds of $242,684,000.”
In addition to facilitating repair programs, the Authority’s mission is to increase access to affordable housing and community development opportunities by developing innovative programs and projects, Executive Director Griffith said.
Some of these projects include the further development of The Meadows at Bonne Esperance, Cotton Valley, Estate Mount Pleasant, and Estate Solitude on St. Croix; Whispering Hills, Estate Nazareth, Estate Fortuna, and Ross Taarneberg on St. Thomas and Estate Bethany on St. John.
These developments have allowed and will continue to allow opportunities for new home owners and access for individuals and families with moderate income. Hundreds of sites and homes will become available in these communities over the next few years.
Committee Members present were Senators Alicia V. Barnes, Novelle E. Francis, Kenneth L. Gittens, Myron D. Jackson, Javan James and Janelle Sarauw. Non-committee members, Senators Donna Frett-Gregory, Athneil “Bobby” Thomas and Kurt A. Vialet, also attended Tuesday’s hearing.