In Senate hearings Friday, Bournefield residents’ representative Josephine Lindquist and others complained the V.I. Port Authority is not repairing their rental units as they would like and suggested VIPA could divest itself of the problem by giving them title to their apartments free of charge.
The work is part of a redevelopment plan to fix up some units and gradually relocate tenants through attrition. Many of the 43 occupied Bournefield units are substandard, with structural, electrical and plumbing problems.
In 2010, Port Authority announced it was going to evict all the residents, giving them four months to find new housing. Residents protested, saying similar moderately priced housing is next to impossible to find on St. Thomas, and the VIPA governing board reconsidered and began working on a more nuanced, gradual approach. It has allocated at least $500,000 to rehabilitate the salvageable units.
Appearing before the Housing and Labor Committee, Lindquist objected to the slow pace of repairs; complained workers were not always giving residents at least 24 hours notice before showing up for work, and were not doing the work using the materials and methods she believes are most appropriate.
She also objects that Port Authority may limit how much it spends on repairing the rental units. "Nowhere in that document does it state there is a cap placed on the cost of repairs," she said, referring to the Port Authority’s plan for rehabilitating some units, suggesting Port Authority has an obligation to spend whatever it costs.
The V.I. Port Authority was invited but was not not represented at the hearing.
"If they need to make all these repairs where you live, do you think it is wise to continue to make your homes there?" Sen. Usie Richards asked. Lindquist said the buildings themselves were very solid, despite needing repair.
"I feel safe in there," she said. If there is a bad storm, "you just clean the water out and move on," she said.
Lindquist was born in one of the Bournefield apartments, and many of the residents have been there for decades, she said.
Lindquist suggested the units could be sold to the residents for a nominal sum, like one dollar, along with past rent.
"If you were told the units had a value of $40,000, say, why should you pay a dollar?" Sen. Celestino White asked. "In essence, I believe we are like renting to own," Lindquist said.
"If you had those units for the cost of a dollar, would you be able to insure those units and do the repairs?" White asked. Lindquist said Port Authority does little upkeep now, and so many residents have already been doing repairs.
No bill was before the committee, but White said he had recently drafted and proposed a bill to do essentially what Lindquist asked. Bill 11-1273, introduced by White in December, would set the price of units at whatever rent was paid thus far, according to its description on the Legislature’s bill tracking system at its website.
In other business, the committee held a bill to eliminate the first-time homebuyer requirement in V.I. Housing Finance Authority programs, after its Executive Director Adrienne Williams testified the change might open the program to some scams, and would take the program out of conformity with federal norms.
"You make a strong argument," White said, before withdrawing the bill he sponsored. "We’ll take this back to the drawing board."
No votes were taken.