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Friday, October 30, 2020
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Housing Authority Gives Senate a Glimpse of What’s to Come

VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham updates senators on the agency’s plans. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, V.I. Legislature)

The Virgin Islands Housing Authority unveiled a portfolio plan for lawmakers that spans 10 years, requires an investment of $830 million, will generate or impact 3,300 jobs and create more than 2,700 affordable apartments between St. Thomas and St. Croix.

During a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunication, VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham updated lawmakers on five matters: the safety of residents in public housing, the Authority’s new preventative maintenance program, demolition of the storm-damaged Tutu High-Rise Apartments, the implementation of the portfolio plan and the Urban Land Institute’s Advisory Services program that issued a panel report with recommendations of how to use the funding from the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief program “as a catalyst for revitalization of public housing.”

“The challenge for VIHA is to advocate for a change in the territorial mindset that the current public housing communities, as originally designed, are appropriate for today’s standard of living. We have an opportunity to transform the entire old public housing portfolio to lower density, energy-independent, attractive, amenity-rich environments designed to support family self-sufficiency,” Graham said.

On Jan. 17, FEMA approved a fixed-cost estimate of $69 million through its Public Assistance Alternative procedures, Graham said.

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“Although there were many bureaucratic setbacks to obtaining maximum and flexible funding,” Graham said, this approval provides the use of funding for demolition and replacement housing, which was needed to start the demolition of the 17 buildings which comprise the Tutu High-Rise community.

The demolition marks the beginning of VIHA’s portfolio plan. To accelerate the progress, Graham said the Housing Authority will recommend a contract award to the Board of Commissioners in February to demolish the first five buildings. These first five buildings have a projected demolition completion date by the end of the year. He added the VIHA plans to secure additional contractors to demolish the remaining buildings near the end of 2020.

“What is needed in the territory is a cohesive planning effort that aligns affordable housing goals with broader economic development initiatives,” Graham said.

In the rebuild efforts, VIHA plans to transform its entire public housing inventory by expanding the use of Housing Choice Vouchers, which will provide more choices to families and create economic opportunities for landlords.

“This is not a simple task,” Graham said. “It requires a huge amount of coordination, especially funding, political actions, the buy-in of our residents to no longer desire to live in old, unsafe and unsanitary conditions and of course, that of our community.”

To accomplish these goals Graham said the Housing Authority must effectively manage its housing assets and utilize funds received from FEMA, HUD and private sector financing “to deliver lower density, energy-independent and attractive affordable housing options in the territory.”

Keeping with the concept of building smaller developments and not isolating buildings, Graham said the Tutu apartments in the Estate Donoe site that previously had 300 apartments, will now have 84 units separated into 14 buildings, with six apartment per building. Having the apartments grouped in such a manner, Graham said, will build more of a sense of community than a large apartment complex could.

He added the VIHA also plans to create a large recreational trail by the newly constructed community, which will feature parks and provide a space for people to walk, run, cycle and play.

Phase Two of the Tutu concept plan will allow for a designated senior building that provides 120 units, potentially a community center and, possibly, the VIHA executive offices.

Graham said the VIHA also has prioritized performing regular preventative maintenance.

The new preventive maintenance program has been funded through an increased allocation in the VIHA operating budget, originally $1.2 million and now $8.1 million, which was approved in December 2019.

Graham said this can be done on a building-by-building, floor-by-floor basis and the VIHA is taking into consideration the severity of the repairs needed to better prioritize what gets accomplished first.

He said this type of maintenance will allow for “fixing everything in the unit that is broken, out of alignment or in need of work. Each building’s envelope, units and grounds will be inspected, and necessary repairs and adjustments made.”

The Housing Authority anticipates that after the program has been operational for six months there will be a significant reduction in tenant work requests.

While senators appeared relatively pleased with the update, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory demanded specifics that Graham couldn’t furnish. She wanted to know what buildings the preventative maintenance would start at, and a timeline of completion to be provided to both the senators and residents. She also asked for data on the success rate of the Housing Choice Vouchers, a plan in conjunction with WAPA to resolve the inadequate lighting in the existing housing communities, and more complete information on the housing developments on St. Croix.

“We have been having this conversation,” Frett-Gregory said, “this is not a new conversation. The individuals living in these communities continue to complain.”

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