St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive testimony on an update of the V.I. Housing Authority (VIHA) regarding housing challenges and the V.I. Department of Public Works on roads and public transportation. Invited testifiers are officials from the VIHA, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIFA), the Division of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Regulation of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, the Methodist Training and Outreach Center, Inc. and the V.I. Department of Public Works (DPW).
Post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria 2017, VIHA in conjunction with the VIFA, are in the process of executing a comprehensive Redevelopment Plan. The plan intends to seek funding for the development of multi-family rental units, demolish former public housing units damaged by the storms, purchase land, and increase the availability of homeownership opportunities to low and middle-income families; according to the written testimony of VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands and read into the record by VIHA Chief Operating Officer Lydia Pelle. There are five phases for the implementation of the Redevelopment Plan slated to construct 3,000 units of which 1500 are new units and 1500 are hardened units. Required funding for the Redevelopment Plan totals $1 billion. Pelle noted that the Redevelopment Plan will address issues of the Housing Voucher Program to include the lack of available units to lease to tenants.
Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, a total of 400 public housing community households endured a COVID-19-related financial crisis and requested rent adjustments. To date, under the eviction moratorium, none of the residents were evicted from their homes. Pelle indicated that ongoing challenges facing VIHA include hurricane-damaged repairs, curb appeal, resident support services, exterior lighting, outdoor space, and maintenance and service requests. Sen. Blyden stated that the hearing was informative, and the goal is to continue to work with VIHA and all housing entities to discuss recommendations and resolve housing issues. “Our focus is to bring solutions and legislation that will mitigate challenges that are affecting the status of housing in the Virgin Islands,” said Sen. Blyden.
Subsequently, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith shared an update. Regarding the Emergency Rental Program (ERAP), the Territory was awarded $21,315,497.10 to provide rental and utility assistance for tenants whom finances were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline to expend funds is December 2021. To further reduce the risks of homelessness in the Territory, VIHFA has partnered with the St. Croix Mission Outreach Inc, St. John Community Foundation, the Methodist Training & Outreach Center, and Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands (CCVI) to conduct intakes for ERAP. Separately, CCVI Board Chairman Attorney Richard Bourne-Vanneck indicated that Bethlehem House Shelters on St. Thomas are operable despite structural damage post-storms. However, Bethlehem House Shelters on St. Croix is in the design phase to rebuild. A total of $230,000 was approved in CDBG funding. The deadline to complete construction is 2023.
Meanwhile, to further protect the finances of homeowners in the Territory, Gwendolyn Brady, Director of the Division of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Regulation noted that all the banks complied with federal guidelines. The Pandemic Response Plan and Business Continuity Plan were implemented to protect the financial assets of consumers, hosted online educational courses, and provided safety measures for bank employees. Furthermore, Brady mentioned that although homeowners were offered the option of loan moratoriums/forbearances, only a few utilized those services.