Virgin Islands housing officials and policymakers welcomed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in a stopover visit on Friday. The secretary came to St. Thomas at the end of a four-day tour of public housing communities undergoing disaster recovery in Puerto Rico.
Fudge’s Friday agenda included stops at the Donoe reconstruction site and at a St. Thomas senior center, with time in the afternoon for closed-door talks with local nonprofit leaders.
HUD spokesperson Shantae Goodloe said the purpose of the stopover tour was “viewing some of the properties, talking about construction after the storms, and talking about the commitments of HUD and the federal government.
‘We’re committed to rebuilding after the storms,” Goodloe said.
The HUD secretary is an attorney and former Congresswoman representing Ohio, where she also served as mayor of Warrensville Heights. She was appointed to the post by President Joe Biden in 2020 and sworn into office by Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021.
Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham and Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory were among those greeting Fudge at the site of the former Donoe Housing Community. Senator Marvin Blyden, former Senator and Housing Finance Authority Director Clifford Graham, and representatives for project developers Pennrose LLC and Jackson Development Company were also on hand to greet Fudge.
The end of Donoe’s life as a public housing community came during the destruction wrought by Hurricane Marilyn in September 1995. It was slated for demolition around the time the last HUD delegation — led by Deputy Secretary Gloria Cousar — visited the territory in 1999.
Donoe is also the first site to move towards development after the destruction brought by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett were among those breaking ground for the Estate Donoe Apartment Community in January 2021.
In a statement issued by the Office of Disaster Recovery at the time, the site was the first development in a public housing renewal plan. As Fudge settled into a seat in a contractor’s trailer for the first orientation, Graham gave an overview of the plan.
In anticipation of $1 billion in federal aid, Graham said housing officials in the Virgin Islands plan to either repair or rebuild all 3,000 public housing units — 300 at a time — over a 10-year period. He added that the prospects of achieving this have received positive signals from the Biden Administration, which has restored and even increased funding for different federal housing programs.
Graham told Fudge the rebuild taking place at Donoe is part of a three-phase replacement plan for nearby Tutu Hi-Rise. “The first double hurricanes … destroyed Tutu Hi-Rise. That was 10 percent of our public housing inventory,” the housing director said.
And while the initial plan at the time of groundbreaking was to have 14 new buildings and 84 apartments done by December 2022, the work has been stalled by delays.
GEC, LLC. Project Manager Bruce Lee said construction crews did not get started until the spring of 2021 because footings leftover from the Donoe demolition still had to be removed. Graham mentioned there were also environmental problems discovered on-site, and those are still being assessed.
“A lot of soil abatement has taken place,” Lee said. Once it’s completed, the footings for the 14 buildings and a new community center can begin. According to information shared at recent legislative hearings, the Housing Authority is asking for $5 million to cover environmental remediation and increased construction costs, bringing the to-date cost of the project to $34 million.
They also set a new completion date of August 2023.
The next stop on the Friday morning tour was the Celestino A. White Independent Living Community for low-to-moderate-income seniors. Fudge and a small group of those in the entourage entered the community center and spoke with four to five residents while a security officer guarded the outer door. Outside, gathered on benches in the outdoor plaza, sat four or five more seniors who said they did not know about Fudge’s visit and, when they asked the housing office about a meeting, were told there was none.
A few minutes later, local officials and their visitors were gathered in the scenic second-floor meeting room, where Graham continued presenting details of the housing rehabilitation plan. The housing director also told Fudge his agency, along with Housing Finance, plans to build a similar independent living community in Frederiksted.
The HUD secretary listened and asked a few questions. Some had to do with how well local stakeholders are informed about plans such as the one Graham pitched to Fudge.
So far, the Virgin Islands has been awarded $1.9 billion for disaster recovery and mitigation projects by the federal government. The funds are to be released in five separate disbursements from the Community Development Block Grant fund.
Money for the Tutu Hi-Rise Phase One development at Donoe — $34 million — is included in the block grant funding.