March 8, 2004 – About 50 Virgin Islanders left the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus on Monday afternoon with something far more valuable than they may have anticipated — hope.
It was hope grounded in what they learned during the opening day of the Urban Renewal and Homeownership Fairs being held this week on both UVI campuses.
The fairs — Monday and Tuesday on St. Thomas and Thursday and Friday on St. Croix — are sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hansen II, chair of the Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee, in partnership with UVI, Home Depot and Columbia Equities.
On Monday, fair participants learned the value of the aesthetics of a neighborhood and how to become a home-owning member of such a neighborhood. That has not been an easy process for many Virgin Islanders, some participants said. Many do not have the collateral to offer for a bank mortgage on a first home, and many say they are intimidated by the loan and credit processes.
The goal of the fairs is to give prospective first-time homeowners the tools to break down such barriers. "Bricks and mortar will never be more than inert materials if we do not infuse them with the character, personality, flavors of our heritage and the pride of ownership," Hansen said in his opening remarks on Monday morning.
Hansen has made several trips to Washington, D.C., in recent months to secure a piece of the "American Dream Down Payment Initiative" for the Virgin Islands. The federal initiative to assist first-time homeowners was to have been limited to communities of at least 150,000 residents.
The program opens the door to home ownership for more low-income and minority families by helping to offset the up-front costs, providing families an average of $5,000 toward downpayment or closing costs. The Virgin Islands has been granted $1.3 million for this purpose.
Hansen visited Roy A. Bernardi, assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, and was able to get the territory included in the Bush administration initiative. And he was able to persuade Bernardi to participate in the fair — he will be the keynote speaker Thursday on St. Croix.
For the complete schedule for the two fairs, see "Two-day programs focus on home ownership".
Plan needed to preserve 'what islands are about'
Carlos Cacciamani, an architect with Urbanika International Housing's San Juan office, stressed the importance of a community's personality on Monday. "Homogenization ruins communities," he said. Communities without solid zoning laws wind up looking alike, with the usual ugly buildings and fast-food outlets, he said.
"The terms the government uses for affordable housing, like 'habitational' institutions, sound creepy," Cacciamani said. He sees a more personal future for housing, with a community's character coming through.
"You need to protect your communities," he said. "You need a master plan so developers cannot come in and just do what they want."
Cacciamani remarked on the natural beauty of the territory and the beauty of its architectural heritage, which he sees as not being maintained, being ignored. Particularly in Frederiksted, he said, "I was impressed at all the old buildings. They should all be restored. That's what the Virgin Islands are about."
When visitors come to the territory, he continued, they want to see the Virgin Islands, not a Wendys. "They wonder, 'Where is the V.I.?'" he said. "Coral Gables has one of the highest architectural and zoning codes, and visitors pour in to appreciate the town. Key West is another town that values its architectural heritage. It sells."
Cacciamani said he regularly tells people "you can make a difference. You are part of your heritage. Invest in your heritage, and it pays back. Quality pays off."
Although administration after administration and Legislature after Legislature have chewed on the matter, the territory still has no comprehensive water and land use plan. Hansen said on Monday that he and Sen. Louis Hill are working on a new plan.
Cost of homeowners insurance is a problem
Anthony Weeks, Columbia Equities Ltd. regional manager, took up a more pragmatic concern — the ABC's of prequalifying for a home loan. "Simple as it sounds, people don't know what a credit report does, how to handle your credit," he said. "There are many ways of financing homes. You have to work with people to give them an idea of what they can afford."
One of the biggest barriers to home owning in the territory, and one which puts Virgin Islanders at a disadvantage, Weeks said, is the high cost of homeowners insurance. Since such insurance is mandatory to obtain a mortgage, "it puts owning a home out of reach for many people," he said.
Weeks said his company will "bring $300 million to the V.I. before this decade is out. We are a vehicle to bring capital to this market. Education is the key."
Potential first-time homebuyer Ulyn Marsham took the day off work to attend the fair and felt her time was well spent. "I learned the value of beautifying your home, using our culture," she said. "And I learned how you can clean up your credit and not be intimidated. I'm very comfortable with what I've learned." And, she added, "I'm going to do it."
Relaxing between presentations, Debra Washington and Joelle Petersen were enthusiastic about the morning offerings.
"It's been real good," Washington said. "It's important to build a nice home, not a junk home. We can get credit. Mike Toussaint [Columbia Equities representative] sat down with me and gave me hope. I'm going to own my own home. Last Friday, I was to the point of tears. And after today, I'm not going to let anybody take this dream from me."
Petersen said she had learned things she "wouldn't ordinarily know" about home buying. "I want my own home," she said, at which point Washington grabbed her arm. "Not want. You're going to do it!" she said, and Petersen nodded in agreement.
How HUD can be of help
In an afternoon session, Michael Colon, HUD Caribbean field office director, talked about how his office can work with not-for-profit groups. For instance, he said, if enough people got together in the territory and put together a plan to seek a federal grant for a faith-based housing initiative, HUD would do everything possible to help.
"The key," Colon said, "is in having a good application, good planning." He said his office would willingly supply assistance in that regard.
"Federal dollars go back to the states," he said, "and most of you don't even know it's taken place. We have opportunities. You have to unite."
Colon said subsidized housing has changed since he was a boy. "I grew up in public housing when it was viewed as temporary, a stopgap before owning a home," he said. "Now, this is not the case." The audience was right with him, agreeing on his every word: "Now there are four or five generations in the same apartment."
Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson made impromptu remarks about local housing programs, noting that on St. Croix, 101 low-income homes have just been completed. "They sell for about $60,000," he said.
His audience wasn't particularly responsive. "Where are the St. Thomas homes?" they asked almost as one. Hobson assured them that more affordable housing is in the works for St. Thomas, too.
The community component
Elie Finegold, vice president of Island Capital Group, the parent company of IN-USVI, which is redeveloping the Yacht Haven property on St. Thomas, gave the closing remarks on Monday. He said that
embarking on the redevelopment project was "a unique responsibility to the community, having been entrusted with one of the most visible, economially important, and, yes, cherished and painful, sites in the territory."
The Yacht Haven Hotel and Marina, heavily damaged by Hurricane Marilyn and subsequent storms, has sat as a blight on the community ever since. The first step in the razing of the derelict structures that will lead to rebuilding is scheduled to take place on Saturday. (See the St. Thomas Source report "Yacht Haven demolition set to begin March 13".)
Finegold said the three core principles that have guided the redevelopment are that:
– It must be comprehensive and holistic, coordinating physical, economic and social issues.
– It must be of, for and by the people, based on the values, hopes and ideas of the surrounding community.
– The community must be prospering.
On Sunday, an example of what Finegold was talking about was in evidence. As earth-moving equipment dotted the Long Bay road, palm trees from the Yacht Haven property were being transplanted into the landscape of Paul M. Pearson Gardens as part of the company's commitment to the neighborhood.
Bryan T. Moore, associate director of Tulane University's National Center for Urban Communities, will give the fair's keynote address on Tuesday. Moore, a lawyer, has taken a special interest in the Virgin Islands since "coming down on a whim" a few years ago. While visiting on St. Thomas, he looked up his old college buddy Hansen, who invited him to St. Croix.
Since then, Moore has returned a couple of times. "I fell in love with the islands," he said at lunch on Monday. Hansen put that love to practical use when planning the housing fair events.
Moore has been instrumental in securing several multimillion-dollar federal grants for a program which assists individuals moving from welfare to work situations. The program of Individual Development Accounts with occupational skills training, could be applied in the territory, he said.
Moore is passionate about helping youngsters, particularly public housing residents, to get a good education. He will discuss the "people-first method of urban renewal" on Tuesday.
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