ST. THOMAS – Convening at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, the Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications, under the leadership of Senator Marvin A. Blyden, received an early update from the Virgin Islands Housing Authority regarding its 2024 Annual Plan.
Lydia Pelle, the Chief Operating Officer of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority delivered testimony on behalf of Robert Graham, its Executive Director. The plan is effective for the beginning of its Fiscal Year, beginning January 1, 2024. The PHA Plan is a comprehensive guide to the public housing agency’s policies, programs, and strategies to meet local housing needs and goals. The plan has two parts, the 5-year plan, which every housing authority submits to the Department of Housing and Urban Development every 5th PHA fiscal year, and the Annual plan, which is submitted every year. The plan is due on October 1, 2023. This is 75 days before the start of the PHA’s fiscal year. The 45-day access public comment period ends on September 5, 2023. At the end of this period, public comments will be accessed, and modifications will be done as necessary in the plan and will be submitted for the Board of Commissioners for review at the regularly scheduled board meeting on September 27, 2023. The Department of Housing and Urban Development designated VIHA a standard PHA performer on the most recent public housing assessment system (PHAS-62 Points), and Section Eight management Assessment program assessment (SEMAP-64 Points). These assessments were done in Fiscal Year 2022.
There are four categories in the PHAs. The Virgin Islands Housing Authority scored below the required score of 60 points in three of the categories which required an improvement plan. There are fourteen categories in the SEMAP. The Virgin Islands Housing Authority scored below the required point threshold in four of the fourteen categories which required an improvement plan. Improvement plan have been prepared for both assessments and will be sent to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to correct any deficiencies to make sure that a passing score will be achieved in all categories in the next assessment for Fiscal Year 2023.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the PHAs to report inventory to the public in the plan. Current inventory consists of 4,612 combined units: 2525 public housing units, and 2087 housing choice vouchers. Pelle reminded the body that the current public housing inventory available, averaging 60 years old, was poorly designed, cheaply built and inadequately financed to replace building systems. According to testimony, the cost to replace building systems is more than $200 million, with the authority only receiving $10 Million a year. Based on a 2015 housing demand study, the affordable housing need in the US Virgin Islands was 5,000 units, with the demand more than likely increasing 20% after the passage of the 2017 hurricanes. The authority plans to replace the existing 3,000 units of obsolete housing in ten years and expand the use of vouchers.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been refining a new policy that will affect public housing residents that have higher incomes. On June 14, 2023, all PHAs are required to confirm with the final rule of the Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act. (HOTMA). This rule requires PHAs to implement a policy change to account for over income households. All PHAs must update their admission and continued occupancy policy and offer those over income households the option to stay in public housing for a 24-month grace period, but they must pay an alternative rent, which is the higher of fair market rent or per unit month subsidy. The final policy is to provide a household with every opportunity to stay in public housing and give the family the ability to pay an alternative rent. If the family declines, the tenancy would be terminated. Grievance policies are expected to be improved with the engagement of two neutral vendors that would provide neutral third-party grievance hearings. VIHA is also proposing to increase the security deposit from $205 to $500, or one-month’s rent, whichever is higher.
The policy of conducting inspections at the housing authority policies will be changed. The frequency and methods of conducting inspections through HUD’s new inspection model called the National Standard for Physical Inspection of Real Estate (NSPIRE), expanding home ownership options, and increasing technical support for special voucher programs. Property inspections will be increased to twice a year when necessary. Remoted video inspections will be done that will allow landlords to self-certify repairs of units that would require on site re-inspections. Landlords and voucher leaseholders will be educated in the third quarter of 2023. It hopes to focus strongly on health, safety, and functional aspects of building systems.
The Authority also hopes to focus on homeownership. To facilitate families, program modifications are expected to be made, such as the elimination of the one-year requirement to be eligible to use a voucher for home ownership. This could potentially assist households that are over income to combine the voucher homeownership option with the VI Slice Homeownership incentive program. Section 8 homeownership program will be amended to allow for twenty-five vouchers for elder and disabled residents of Williams Delight in St. Croix. Basic information about this program is included in the annual plan to familiarize families with the options while the housing authority develops the written plan for implementation in FY 2024.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Marvin A. Blyden, Marise C. James, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Samuel Carriόn, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Donna A Frett-Gregory, Ray Fonseca, and Carla J. Joseph.
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