FREDERIKSTED — The last day of a national moratorium on evictions was Friday and the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA) said it is encouraging its residents to enter into a repayment plan if they are behind on their rent — and is giving them an additional month to do so.
The moratorium has been extended to August 31 for public housing residents, VIHA officials said.
“Over half of our residents are working people who may have lost income or jobs because of COVID-19, and therefore fell behind,” VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham said. “We will help them stay in good standing if they’re willing to work with us.”
In March, Congress imposed a 120-day moratorium on evictions under the CARES Act to keep renters and mortgage holders afloat as unemployment rates soared. But while meant to offer relief, the legislation did not intend that rents or mortgages would be forgiven. At some point — July 24 for many — rents and mortgages must be paid.
Anticipating this moment, VIHA has been urging residents to declare any reductions in their income and discuss repayment agreements for rents owed, according to Jimmy Farmer, the Director of Asset Management.
“Although the national eviction moratorium is expiring soon, the impact of the pandemic on Virgin Islands residents is not,” Farmer said. “We are asking those who are behind to come to us and enter into a favorable repayment agreement: to repay a small amount each month in addition to their monthly rent until they have caught up.”
With over $859,000 accumulated in outstanding rent, Farmer launched a campaign called Helping Hands to make repayments easier with smaller monthly installments, longer repayment periods as needed, and adjustments in cases where VIHA should have made timely repairs but did not.
A non-working sink, shower or toilet, for example, has a monetary value that VIHA applies as a percentage deduction to the rent based on its repair valuation guide. Missing or broken windows, doors or stairs are other examples of deductions that can be made if the damage is not repaired.
“Families have an understandable concern about repairs not done timely, and we want to do our part,” Farmer said.
Over 156 people have signed or are in the process of signing repayment agreements. Another 350 residents need to also, he said.
A repayment agreement is a written, signed contract spelling out the amount of rent you owe, how much you will pay each month, and for how long. VIHA residents will remain in good standing as long as they make an agreement and stick to it, Farmer said.
In some cases the pandemic has driven people into public housing who are not on the lease as family members give shelter to struggling relatives or friends, he noted. The Helping Hands program will offer an olive branch to them as well.
“We want to keep families together. Come in and talk to us. We have options to help you make it right,” he said.
Around the country, 19 to 23 million Americans who live in renter households could be evicted by September 30th due to unpaid rent, according to an Aspen Institute report. Some states have responded with extended moratoriums to avoid a housing crisis.
VIHA decided on the August 31st extension because its residents are some of the hardest hit by the “gut punch of COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, the reaction on social media tonight, especially in light of Governor Albert Bryan, Jr.’s 30-day moratorium on evictions was understandably caustic.
“Well this is the thing. VIHA need to stop collect rent for 12 months to allow the Government to get the economy back in order for people to go out and find work. That face on that guy looks like (he) don’t give a F—,” Burton Smith said from Tortola on Facebook. “The economy is hurting bad and this is adding stress. Result is a lot of robberies and killings.”
Whether you are in public or private housing, the CARES Act requires that even when its moratorium ends, an eviction notice must give you at least 30 days to vacate the property.
If you do receive an eviction notice and feel you are being wrongfully served, VIHA offers a grievance process for public housing residents. A legal aid agency like Legal Services of the Virgin Islands may also be able to help.
For more information about VIHA’s rent repayment program, Helping Hands, call (340) 777-VIHA (8442) on St. Thomas or (340) 778-VIHA (8442) on St. Croix. Legal Services of the Virgin Islands may be reached at their COVID hotlines at (340) 718-2626 or (340) 774-6720.