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VIHA Survey Seeks Info From Landlords To Expand Affordable Housing Options

FREDERIKSTED — As rents continue to outstrip the average family’s income, the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA) is surveying private landlords to help improve a program that could increase the territory’s affordable housing supply.  

Through September 4, the HCVP Landlords Survey is inviting landlords to share their experiences and concerns about the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8.   

The federally funded program provides rent assistance in the form of vouchers to almost 2,000 Virgin Islanders who could not otherwise afford to live in market-rate housing. Thousands more are waiting in line because of a high demand for affordable housing, according to VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham.   

“With a voucher to help with rent payments, families earning lower wages could theoretically afford to live almost anywhere in the territory,” Graham said.  

But the Housing Choice Voucher program relies heavily on landlords to accept families with vouchers, Graham noted.   

Feedback from the survey will be used to strengthen the program’s appeal and attract more landlords.   

The VIHA initiative parallels efforts at the federal level to encourage more private-market landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

The need could not be greater as communities across the country face affordable housing crises made worse by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Rents in the Virgin Islands have more than doubled since the hurricanes of 2017, according to a HUD report, while the estimated median household income fell 16 percent to $31,000. (The report doesn’t take into account the effects of COVID-19.) Nationwide, the median household income rose nine percent from 2017 to to $63,179, according to the Census Bureau.  

Families should spend no more than 30 to 40 percent of their income on rent, experts agree. This means the average Virgin Islander can afford $775 to $1,000 a month for housing.  Zillow and recently listed only a handful in the entire Territory in that price range.    

“A voucher not only gives the family more purchasing power to afford private sector apartments,” Graham said, “it also gives the landlord more financial security in today’s pandemic economy.” 

Ninety-nine percent of landlords who accept vouchers from VIHA  receive rent payments on the first of the month via paper check or direct bank deposit. 

“While we think we know the primary issues facing landlords, we are anxious to hear directly from them,” said the program’s director, Akala Anthony.   

“Our objective with this survey is to understand landlords’ perceptions and misperceptions about the program and seek to make the necessary improvements,” Anthony said.  

VIHA also supports the EnVision grants offered by the Virgin Islands Finance Authority and encourages landlords to apply in order to rehabilitate their storm-damaged units. The grants offer property owners $50,000 toward the repair of each unit, provided it is used as a year-round rental for low- to moderate-income tenants for a set period.   

“The EnVision program is a godsend for affordable housing because it will increase the number of private sector apartments available to families,” Graham said. “We will do everything possible to match landlords with eligible families, as all of our participants meet the low- to moderate income requirements.”  

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