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COMMITTEE UPDATED ON THE EMERGENCY RENTAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM, FIRST-TIME HOMEBUYERS PROGRAM, AND ENFORCEMENT IN HOUSING

Published: Jul 26, 2022

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications, chaired by Senator Marvin A. Blyden, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building. Lawmakers received testimony from officials from the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) on the status of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, the First-time Homebuyers’ Program, and the administration and enforcement of the V.I. Housing Code.

Senator Blyden stated that in the aftermath of the state of emergency and with the expiration of the eviction moratorium, it is necessary to be updated on the status of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) program as it begins to move toward completion. Furthermore, Senator Blyden mentioned that the Authority will update policymakers on the status of the First-Time Homebuyers’ Program and about how we can move to begin carrying out the Authority’s responsibilities in regard to the enforcement of housing standards in the Virgin Islands.

Pertaining to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Dayna Clendinen, Interim Executive Director and Chief Disaster Recovery Officer of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, noted that in March 2021, VIHFA received $21.3 million and allocated the funds to pay 479 households an estimated $4 million in direct and indirect assistance. The funds were appropriated to VIHFA by the 33rd Legislature from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund. Senator Novelle Francis asked if administrative costs are included in the $4 million. Valdez Shelford, Chief Financial Officer, mentioned that out of $4 million, a total of $615,000 is appropriated for administrative costs. Clendinen added that VIHFA offers secondary financing up to $250,000 for first-time homebuyers, out of the $4 million. Chairman Blyden expressed his serious concern at the fact that of the $21.3 million received, over $16 million had to be returned to the federal government. Blyden and other senators urged the Authority to be more aggressive and creative in making sure that we maximize the use of federal dollars to assist our residents. “It is unacceptable to have federal dollars going back while there are still people facing eviction that need assistance,” the Democratic senator said. Separately, Senator Dwayne DeGraff queried the challenges facing the department. In response, Clendinen indicated that due to the lack of staff, it takes a longer time to process applications, some applicants submit incomplete applications which delay the process, and the Treasury has restrictions on the use of funds.

Some of the qualifications for the First Time Homebuyers Program are the status of the household income eligibility, marital status, residency, and first-time home buyer eligibility. Clendinen further added that VIFHA provides funding or administers loans up to $40,000 for home construction and repairs. Meanwhile, VIFHA offers loans up to $50,000 for homeowners to acquire land to build a single-family home, according to Clendenin. When senators inquired about the number of successful applicants in the program, total participants per district, and pending applications Territorywide; Darin Richardson, Chief Operating Officer, stated that the information was unavailable at the time of the hearing. Senator Blyden expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of details in the testimony. Senator Janelle Sarauw shared similar sentiments.

Lastly, Stephan Adams, President, and CEO of viNGN, Inc. shared the status of funding pertaining to the USVI Broadband Strategic Framework. Adams stated that some of the goals are to fulfill federal and local mandates to deploy free Wi-Fi, so Internet access is available everywhere, to install fiber at all public and subsidized housing units throughout the Virgin Islands, and to facilitate the Treasury’s Affordability Connectivity Program. Senator Angel Bolques voiced concerns that St. John needs more than just the eight Wi-Fi access locations. Senator Janelle Sarauw mentioned that fiber optic cables to the premises are needed to increase the speed of affordable internet services to homes and businesses.

Adams indicated that viNGN qualifies for two public grants and one national competitive grant provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program increase the accessibility of high-speed internet access and its usage; while supporting infrastructure deployment, adoption, and mapping. The projected award is $24 million. Additionally, the projected total for the Digital Equity Program (DE) is $7 million. DE requires the development of technical job training and computer literacy in the Virgin Islands. Lastly, Adams indicated that the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program reduces the cost of building high-speed Internet for unserved and underserved communities.

Senators present at the meeting: Marvin A. Blyden, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Genevieve R. Whitaker, Samuel Carrión, Kurt A. Vialet, Janelle K. Sarauw, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., and Dwayne M. DeGraff.

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