Aug. 7, 2003 – Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. has written to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development accusing HUD of treating the V.I. Housing Authority unfairly and asking for "a final opportunity to correct the deficiencies" cited by federal officials.
"It is perceived," White told HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, "that the very aggressive manner in which HUD is proceeding against VIHA is unprecedented, does little to restore confidence, and is not in the best interest of the authority or its tenants and would further undermine the credibility of the [V.I.] government as a whole."
For one thing, White wrote, "It appears that other jurisdictions designated as 'troubled' were treated more fairly and given ample time, with technical assistance and financial support, to reverse the 'troubled' designation status and improve the quality of life for their public housing residents."
For another, he said, "It appears as [though] the proper gravity of the situation, as outlined by HUD, was either not conveyed or [not] understood by those in authority at VIHA."
White also stated that the issue of proper notification of the "troubled" designation and "due process" in accordance with federal law "is a source of contention for the authority."
HUD notified the Housing Authority in June of 2002 that it had received a failing score on the Public Housing Assessment System test for Fiscal Year 2001 and so had been designated as "troubled." VIHA received a letter on July 31, 2003, notifying the authority that it had again been designated "troubled" based on its FY 2002 PHAS score.
In the second week of July, Michael Liu, HUD assistant secretary for Indian and public housing, visited the territory, met with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and made an unannounced appearance before the Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee, where he raised concerns about VIHA's financial records and management of federal funds.
The PHAS evaluation, according to HUD documentation, is based on both "an assessment of the physical condition of all PHA properties" and "upon receipt of all required PHA information."
White told Martinez that he was writing on behalf of some 15,000 V.I. public housing residents "whose faith appears uncertain as a result of the anticipated takeover" of VIHA by HUD. He said the "delicate and fragile situation" in the territory has far greater implications than just public housing, and that Martinez' understanding of this "is critical."
On July 28, the Senate gave Turnbull authorization he had sought to dissolve the VIHA board and replace it with an interim body. In so doing, the governor "attempted to restore confidence in VIHA," White said in his letter.
HUD had set a deadline of 5 p.m. Aug. 1 for the Housing Authority to accept voluntary receivership. Also Aug. 1, Liu wrote the governor that the interim board was not acceptable. "Given the fact that some of VIHA's fiscal irregularities involve debts owed to them by the government of the Virgin Islands, we believe that a board appointed by that government at this time presents a potential conflict of interest," he said.
Liu's position is that VIHA is in default of its "annual contributions contract" with HUD, and he has given the authority until Aug. 11 to justify in writing why it is not.
White, unwilling to take Liu's "no" for an answer, has gone over his head to Martinez, his boss. "Your sense of fairness in giving the Turnbull administration a final opportunity to correct the deficiencies … would assist in restoring confidence with HUD and improve the quality of life for Virgin Islands public housing residents," White told the HUD secretary.
When the interim board convened on Monday for its first meeting, representatives of HUD's Troubled Agency Recovery Center showed up, as did White.
The recovery center director told the board that she had brought with her two teams of three experts each prepared to work with territorial officials to address the Housing Authority problems identified by HUD. Their objective, she said, is "the initial assessment of the agency and a voluntary memorandum of agreement which will be used to lay out all goals you'll need to bring it out of 'troubled' status."
White asked Martinez to allow the experts — two engineers, two financial analysts and two generalists — "to complete their assessment of the authority, consistent with established regulations and establish a memorandum of agreement, given a time certain to correct the deficiencies cited."
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