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V.I. Housing Authority Highlights 2024 Annual Plan to Senators

VIHA CEO Lydia Pelle testifies Thursday on 2024 Annual Plan. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature live stream)

Members of the 35th Legislature met on Thursday to discuss the Virgin Islands Housing Authority’s 2024 Annual Plan, less than seven days in advance of its deadline for public comment.

Lydia Pelle, CEO of the V.I. Housing Authority, discussed revisions for the fiscal year 2024 annual plan, strategies, and her goals for the authority with senators.

Currently, the Housing Authority has placed these projects as priority in its 10-year development plan:

St. Croix — Walter I.M. Hodge, Wilford Pedro Home, D. Hamilton Jackson Terrace, Alphonso “Piggy” Gerard, John F. Kennedy Terrace, Nicasio Nico Apartments, Ludvig E. Harrigan Court, Candido Guadalupe, Marley Homes, and Additions, and Williams Delight.

St. Thomas – the redevelopment of the Estate Tutu Hi-Rise Apartments in three phases at three site locations, including the Donoe site, Tutu North and Tutu South, as well as Lucinda Millin replacement.

Inventory for the V.I. Housing Authority consists of 2,525 public housing units and 2,087 housing choice vouchers. Goals for the authority include increasing affordable housing in the territory, assisting residents with finding jobs, implementing computer software for housing operations, increasing security deposits, and implementing and expanding homeownership programs. There is also a plan of action to replace 3,000 units of obsolete housing in 10 years and expand residents’ use of vouchers, which will be supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, providing 20 years of voucher funding for each new project.

According to Pelle, accomplishing many of the goals set forth by HUD, however, is “maddening” and oftentimes impractical for the territory.

“The last few years have been very challenging from the hurricanes, pandemic, supply-chain issues, worker shortages, affordable housing shortages, and construction cost increases all have contributed to a somewhat mixed perception of VIHA,” said Pelle. “When the cost to replace your building systems for a 3,000-unit inventory is $200 million and you receive $10 million a year, you can’t realistically catch up without fully replacing all of the buildings and projects.”

One of the V.I. Housing Authority’s goals, a deconcentration of poverty policy, is to have properties with a balance of lower-income households with that of higher-income households.

“Achieving the goal is complicated because our waiting list contains over 73 percent of lower-income households. Moreover, this year HUD is requiring PHAs [public housing agencies] to enforce higher income households in public housing to pay higher rents or face evictions,” said Pelle.

Jimmy Farmer, director of asset management for the V.I. Housing Authority, said that HUD recognizes people are living in places with households that are over income and must therefore pay higher rent for their unit. However, that, in turn, causes the housing authority to lose the subsidy on that rental unit.

Relating to homeownership, according to the chief operating officer, the Williams Delight 300-unit public housing community is the only homeownership program that is active. She addressed that the resident council of the Oswald Harris Court community has also expressed interest in a similar program. She mentioned that the homeownership plan was approved by HUD in 1995 and to date, 35 units have been sold, 183 have been identified for demolition, and 82 units for renovation and subsequent sale. During the hearing, Pelle also encouraged more families to use vouchers for homeownership.

The idea of selling obsolete homes for Williams Delight was mentioned as being considered for the authority. Sen. Marise James warned, however, of transferring “as is certified demolished homes to people” and shared an anecdote about the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo and the placement of trailers by Castle Burke.

“Less than 25 houses have been built,” said James.

Additionally, Pelle highlighted the $1,000 incentive program for landlords to lease to waiting applicants and the $50,000 repair program for hurricane-damaged units. According to her, the authority has been seeing a transition of units from Airbnbs to public housing rentals.

Regarding security deposits, the V.I. Housing Authority wants to increase the $250 security deposit to $500 for renters, which Farmer says is not a HUD-mandated policy but a V.I. Housing Authority policy.

According to members of the V.I. Housing Authority, it currently has $898,000 in outstanding rent for both districts and cannot charge more than a certain percentage for household rent so as to not put the household in a financial burden. Terminating leases will be put into place for households that do not abide by the plan; however, Farmer said that the authority tries to work with residents and “meet them where they are.”

Additionally, there is a five-year plan to accommodate seniors and disabled residents.

“We are moving forward with our development team to rebuild the second phase of the redevelopment of Estate Tutu Hi-Rise,” said Pelle. It will be a 60-unit senior development. The authority is also looking into building 40 units in the Oswald Harris Court area to transition for Lucinda Millin Home families.

Sen. Ray Fonseca said that the government must take a part in assisting the housing authority. He added that a former Government Employees’ Retirement System land loan program is a successful program that can be imitated and said that programs like the V.I. SLICE are not receiving a lot of qualified locals.

Launched by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in October, V.I. SLICE provides up to $200,000 in gap financing to Virgin Islanders who qualify for a conventional mortgage through participating banks and meet the other program requirements.

“You’re correct. It’s not working,” said James, referring to Fonseca’s anecdote about the V.I. SLICE program.

There is a town hall next Wednesday, Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Chambers on St. Thomas, in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix, and the Cleone H. Creque Legislative Annex on St. John to discuss the 2024 Annual Plan. The last day for public comments is Sept. 5.

The plan can be accessed at: https://vihousing.org/viha-fy2021-annual-plans/

Sens. Marvin Blyden, Angel Bolques Jr., Samuel Carrion, Diane Capehart, Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Novelle Francis Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Marise James, and Carla Joseph were present at Thursday’s hearing.

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