St. Thomas

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COMMITTEE UPDATED ON CYBERSECURITY, THE EMERGENCY RENTAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM, AND HOMEOWNERSHIP OPTIONS

Published: Jul 9, 2021

ST. THOMAS – The Members of the Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications chaired by Senator Marvin Blyden, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and received an update on cybersecurity regarding confidential information and records kept by the Government of the Virgin Islands (GVI), the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), and homeownership opportunities as it relates to financial assistance for first-time homebuyers. Invited testifiers are officials from the Bureau of Information and Technology (BIT), the Virgin Islands Virtual Information System (VIVIS), the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA), and bank representatives.

“Cyber-attacks can impact our everyday lives in ways that go beyond financial cost. We must take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from cybercriminals,” said Sen. Blyden. “It requires the expenditure of time, effort, and resources, especially since sensitive data is transmitted and stored on technological devices and networks.”

In addition to streamlining the quality of technical services to agencies, BIT continues to work towards upgrading the cybersecurity system, improving the foundation for digital citizen services, and providing solutions at a low price, according to BIT Director and Chief Information Officer Rupert Ross. In response to Sen. Samuel Carrión’s inquiry regarding whether there were cyberattacks in the Territory, Ross stated that the system was breached within the last two years. However, to prevent cyberattacks, BIT collaborates with federal partners and the global IT community to strengthen the security infrastructure, provide secure emergency communications, and identify risks to GVI’s most critical data, of which there are twelve alerts weekly. Furthermore, Ross noted that BIT conducted security risk assessments for agencies and developed policies shadowing the guidelines of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Senator Blyden stated, “In light of all that is taking place, governmental institutions, businesses non-profit organizations, and private residents must all take the steps necessary to protect ourselves from cybercriminals”.

Separately, the Virgin Islands Department of Education Director of Planning Research and Evaluation James Richardson shared the status of VIVIS. Presently, one of the major goals is to enhance the living conditions of Virgin Islanders through the provision of accurate data, track academic trends, and resolve issues within the educational system. However, Richardson noted that obtaining funding is a challenge. A total of $721,000 is required for VIVIS to effectively operate. Similarly, VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith updated lawmakers on the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority oversees two federal awards of an estimated $39 million to ERAP. The deadline for expenditures for the first award is September 20, 2022, and September 30, 2025, is for the second. Thus far, there are over 400 applicants of which 150 have been reviewed and  95% currently meet the qualifications of ERAP. However, Griffith mentioned that challenges are inclusive of constantly publishing updated guidelines due to the newness of the program, ongoing communications with applicants to prove eligibility, and the lack of staff and the use of existing staff at VIHFA to effectively operate ERAP. Blyden urges residents experiencing rental and utility hardships due to the COVID19 pandemic to contact VIHFA or one of their intake centers to apply for assistance so that the funds are not returned to the Department of Treasury.

Senator Blyden urged a reminder that “The Government of the Virgin Islands has a responsibility to protect renters in the territory”. Blyden also stated “A home is more than four walls and a roof. It is our bedrock-a place that serves as a bridge to greater opportunity and a better life. It is a place that can help build wealth that can be passed down to generations to come. The dream of homeownership and the security and wealth creation that comes with it is out of reach for too many. This is especially true in the wake of the economic devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortage of available affordable housing inventory in the Virgin Islands”. Regarding first-time homeownership financing opportunities, Griffith indicated that VIHFA guides potential buyers through a process that entails informing, prequalifying, educating, counseling, and ultimately purchasing their first home. Options of financing a home are inclusive of primarily qualifying with creditworthiness for a loan with the USDA Rural Development. Furthermore, Griffith stated that VIHFA offers loans such as the Homestead Loan, the Veteran Loan Program, and the Moderate-Income Loan that assists with down payments and/or closing costs of vacant land and single-family homes.

First bank Vice President and USVI Market Manager Dina Perry expanded financial options to potential buyers who are interested in multi-family homes, end-loans, and affordable homes. In response to Sen. Dwayne DeGraff’s inquiry about the average time for getting a final sign-off on purchasing a home, Perry stated that it can take from 90 to120 days to closing on a home and this is due to limited appraisers and surveyors. Sen. DeGraff noted the number of days to finalize the homeownership process is discouraging especially since it took 30 days in the past. Sen. Francis stated that the financing opportunities are good but there is a need to increase local homeownership and there are a lot of obstacles that prevent that from happening. Sen. Blyden urged the reconsideration of residential construction loans, stating that much of the prospective homeowners in the territory are “land rich and cash poor” and he encourages the options of home loan opportunities in the territory.

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