Nov. 1, 2003 Hundreds of public housing residents converged at tenant meetings on St. Thomas this week to hear details about revised leases being distributed by the new management at the Virgin Islands Housing Authority. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department assumed control of the local authority Aug. 20.
The leases take effect Nov. 1, and Frankie Hoheb, aide to St. Thomas-St. John Sen. Celestino White, says he thinks the agreements will go into effect quickly with most tenants signing on with few problems.
White, a longtime advocate for better public housing, sent members of his staff to stop in on some of the nine parlays held on St. Thomas Oct. 29 and 30. According to Hoheb, the meetings were arranged because the senator felt the notification process started earlier this month was not getting the word out fast enough for residents to be fully informed.
"The notice that went out had asked people to go to the management office and review the lease and we thought that was not very opportune, that in fact people would not do that and people would not be apprised and a lot of these things would come into effect without their knowledge," White said Friday.
Over Wednesday and Thursday tenant managers met with residents of of Berg's Home, Contant Knolls, Paul M. Pearson Garden, Pollyberg Garden, Tutu Hirise, Boboni Development, Oswald Harris Court and the Michael J. Kirwan Terrace. More than 100 tenants packed the Tutu meeting, Hoheb said. Similarly high turnouts were also reported at Contant Knolls, Oswald Harris Court and Kirwan Terrace.
"The reason the numbers were so big is the lease affects their tenancy," Hoheb said. "The people were very grateful that they came out and explained it in detail."
Another round of meetings is planned for smaller groups as the VIHA management effects the signing of individual leases, he said. The dates for those meetings were not available.
"I think the new lease was important for the tenants to know about," said Carmencita Donovan, a veteran housing advocate and former member of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and the interim board of commissioners named by Gov. Charles Turnbull earlier this year. "My only concern was why it had to get out so late."
Donovan pointed out that a similar set of meetings was held earlier this month for housing residents on St. Croix. As a tenant council leader, she knew of the notification by HUD receiver Donna Ayala about the new leases last month.
Also of concern for the former housing commissioner was a new system for residents to pay the rent. That, said Donovan, took effect Saturday, although she was not sure if rent notices had been sent out at least 10 days before the first of the new month.
"The lease takes effect today," Donovan said Saturday, "which means the rent is due by the 10th of the month. Otherwise they're going to get a $25 late fee."
Discussions at Wednesday's Tutu Hirise meeting touched on the new rent system, which discourages payment at the tenant managers' offices and directs residents to pay their rents at designated banks. Seniors living at the Lucinda Millin Home for the Aged have expressed concerns about the system. Some of those collecting Social Security don't receive their checks until the middle of the month or later. In the case of government employees, the Legislature has passed a bill re-ordering the payroll to the 15th and the 30th of the month rather than biweekly.
Donovan is among a handful of public officials trying to ease the transition for those who face problems with the new agreement. Sen. Shawn Michael Malone has reportedly written to Delegate Donna Christensen on behalf of seniors in public housing asking her to intervene with HUD and spare the seniors the possibility of paying the $25 penalty every month. Donovan said she and others would prepare a letter to send to Ayala on Monday expressing their concerns about the timing of the rent notices.
Donovan said she was generally satisfied with the way the discussions went, once the round of lease orientations got under way. However, she remained unhappy that more was not said about the "one-strike" eviction provision, which calls for eviction of people living in housing who commit crimes, whether within or outside the housing communities.
The eviction of criminals is not a new lease provision, she said, but until now it has not been enforced. "That's very important," she said. "The managers should have brought it up with the tenants" because heads of households whose children or house guests get involved with crime can find themselves and their families being put out of their homes.
Donovan said her only wish after the successful round of meetings that took place this week is that housing tenants remain active and interested in the affairs of their communities, especially with tenant council elections coming up by mid-November. With less than three weeks left to go, and a Nov. 7 deadline for the submission of qualifying petitions, Donovan said, several housing communities on St. Thomas have yet to have anyone come forward and offer his or her services as a tenant leader.
"I think our tenants don't realize the importance of having a tenant council in each community," she said. "It's important, because I feel HUD is here, and in the United States when I go to conferences, I see tenant council leaders running their own housing communities.
There are 7,000 housing units 4,000 on St. Croix and 3,000 on St. Thomas with more than 20,000 residents, according to Donovan.
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