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Open Forum: Rebuilding the Foundations: A Call for Government Action in the Wake of Devastation

Operation Blue Roof workers install tarps on storm-damaged homes in the territory. (Source file photo)
Operation Blue Roof workers install tarps on storm-damaged homes in the territory in October 2017, following two Category 5 hurricanes the previous month. (Source file photo)

In the wake of two Category 5 hurricanes that unleashed unparalleled havoc on our once-vibrant communities, the aftermath is marked by a stark reality: widespread homelessness and an unparalleled housing crisis. As the debris is cleared and the scars of the storms begin to fade, the glaring issue of homes lying in disrepair and a diminishing supply of habitable dwellings persists.

Adlah A. Donastorg Jr.
Adlah A. Donastorg Jr. (Submitted photo)

This dire circumstance propels a significant portion of the men and women who make these islands so great into a desperate struggle for shelter. In these challenging times, the crucial role of government intervention in providing affordable housing cannot be overstated. The resilience of our friends across the USVI has been tested in the most trying circumstances. The hurricanes not only left a trail of destruction but also shattered the foundations of countless homes, leaving families displaced and communities shattered. Today, a distressing number of Virgin Islanders find themselves without a roof over their heads, forced to seek refuge with friends and family or, worse, left to endure the harsh elements in makeshift shelters. The urgency of the situation demands immediate and sustained action from the government to address the housing crisis created in the wake of the storms. Even six years later, recovery is ongoing, emphasizing the imperative for a concerted governmental response.

One of the most pressing issues in the USVI is the substantial number of homes that remain in disrepair due to widespread hurricane damage, leaving many residences uninhabitable and exacerbating the shortage of available housing. While rebuilding efforts are underway across our beautiful islands, the sheer scale of the devastation demands a comprehensive and sustained commitment from our elected officials. This commitment is necessary to ensure that every affected individual has a safe and secure place to call home, involving not only repairing existing structures but also implementing measures to safeguard against future natural disasters, creating a more resilient and sustainable housing infrastructure. The depletion of habitable dwellings has resulted in a tier of homelessness that includes not only those directly displaced by the hurricanes but also individuals now living with friends or family due to the lack of viable housing options. This hidden crisis highlights the interconnectedness of the housing problem, emphasizing the need for a multifaceted approach to address the diverse needs of the affected population. The solution doesn’t just entail rebuilding homes; it requires fostering a sense of community to better ensure that those who have lost everything can rebuild their lives with dignity.

Recognizing the pivotal role of the government and its instrumentality, in particular the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority and the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, is imperative. In their capacity as the chair of the Banking Board and Commissioner of Insurance, the Lieutenant Governor bears the crucial responsibility of actively engaging in initiatives aimed at fostering a more open market with affordable options for housing insurance. Additionally, the Lieutenant Governor must champion fairer lending practices within financial institutions, advocating for policies that ensure locals have access to loans without exorbitant down payment requirements. It also involves revisiting the availability of construction loans in banks and addressing the current challenge where homeowners are unable to secure rehab loans for property repairs. The resolution of homelessness and our housing crisis necessitates a collaborative effort from elected officials, banking institutions, and private stakeholders. Such measures are essential for fostering an inclusive and equitable financial landscape that supports the diverse needs of the community.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, leveraging its industry expertise and intricate understanding of building codes, is strategically positioned to propose nuanced updates that can significantly contribute to addressing housing issues, particularly within the languishing blue roof program. Beyond the creation of housing opportunities and allocation of federal funds, they should play a leading role in suggesting legislative measures to the Senate’s Committee on Housing. By actively participating in legislative endeavors, the authority can pave the way for comprehensive solutions to the housing crisis, promoting the efficient utilization of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for shelters and the strategic deployment of low-income housing tax credits to foster the development of more mixed-income homes. It is imperative that the government interests, represented by the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, recognize its central role in shaping legislative measures capable of authentically addressing the multifaceted challenges presented by the housing crisis. Only through a concerted, multifaceted effort extending beyond immediate relief and encompassing enduring policy changes can we aspire to rebuild communities, provide stable housing, and establish a more resilient foundation for the future.

In conclusion, the provision of affordable housing transcends the mere provision of shelter; it is a fundamental human right essential to the very fabric of a thriving society. The government of the USVI bears a moral and ethical obligation to ensure our citizens have access to safe and secure housing, particularly in the aftermath of profound natural disasters. Beyond the immediate concerns of homelessness, the absence of affordable housing perpetuates a cycle of poverty and despair, exerting enduring impacts on our social and economic well-being. The U.S. Virgin Islands stands at a critical juncture, where the government’s actions in response to the housing crisis will decisively shape the future of the islands and the lives of its inhabitants. It is incumbent upon us to collectively champion policies that prioritize and realize the right to affordable housing, fostering a resilient and equitable foundation for the prosperity of our community.

— Adlah A. Donastorg Jr., St. Thomas, is a former senator and gubernatorial candidate.

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