With no local or federal eviction moratorium to protect her, Wendy Myers, a St. Croix mother of two in need of emergency rent assistance, is one of 500 or more Virgin Islanders who could face eviction unless a new moratorium is issued or the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority delivers.
When the COVID pandemic plunged households into economic crisis, the federal government, fearing an avalanche of evictions and foreclosures, sent emergency rent assistance to the states and territories. VIHFA, on behalf of the USVI, received $39 million to keep landlords and cash-strapped renters afloat.
That was six months ago. Since then VIHFA has processed only 23 checks totaling roughly $140,000, out of over 500 applications received, spokeswoman Keva Muller reported. The deadline to use the funds is Sept. 30 unless the U.S. Treasury issues an extension. Myers meanwhile has a court date next week.
Myers said she had regularly paid her landlord with help from her boyfriend, the father of one of her children, until his assistance dried up and she underwent a disabling surgery for several herniated discs. A WAPA employee told her about the Emergency Rent Assistance Program run by VIHFA.
Shaleen Gumbs, a crisis counselor at the Women’s Coalition Of St. Croix, helped her fill out an application. Gumbs knew Myers as one of her clients. Her organization is one of 10 nonprofits across the territory that VIHFA enlisted to handle the initial ERAP applications.
“They haven’t been doing much with the distribution of the funds. Because of that, we are having some people being evicted or who have had their utilities cut off,” said Gumbs, who’s working with about 40 ERAP applicants. Several others in her office are taking applications, too.
Muller acknowledged VIHFA received Myers’ application but hasn’t processed it. Asked the reason for the delay, Muller blamed the challenges of launching a new program, including hiring and training staff, and “the need to chase down additional documents in order to complete eligibility determination. VIHFA continues its efforts to bring additional staff on board. As the staff overcomes the learning curve and becomes more proficient at processing, we anticipate that the ‘throughput’ will increase,” she wrote.
But the documentation VIHFA is demanding and chasing is neither desired nor required by the Treasury, according to the guidelines on its website and an email to the Source from its staff.
VIHFA on its website requires such time-consuming and, for some, impossible requirements as a signed copy of the lease agreement, past-due notices of utilities owed, a 2019 tax return, job letter, layoff or furlough letter, and at least two months’ worth of paystubs.
“We have repeatedly encouraged grantees to adopt Treasury’s guidance around reducing unduly burdensome documentation requirements,” a Treasury official wrote the Source. “Two weeks ago we made our language even more explicit. We’ve also posted sample, simplified forms on our website that are being used effectively by programs across the country and encouraged other programs to use them.”
The simplified forms, like the one found here, consist of a single page.
The Treasury went further, allowing VIHFA to provide advance payments to renters who are in arrears based on estimates of the eligible amount. It can even allow its nonprofit partners to deliver advance assistance to households at risk of eviction while their applications are still being processed, the guidelines say.
“This is so frustrating,” said Sen. Marvin Blyden, who said he’s been urging VIHFA for months to streamline its process and release the funds.
“I told him (VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith), ‘Let it move forward. It’s up to the individual who fills out the form. Why are you holding back?’”
Blyden said he also wrote to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., urging him to issue an emergency local eviction moratorium because of the VIHFA delay.
On Thursday Bryan emailed the Source, “We will be issuing one this week. Standby.”
While “over 500” is the official count of how many Virgin Islanders have applied for assistance, given the impact of COVID on the territory’s economy, “over” could well be the operative word.
“Of course not,” Blyden responded when asked if 500 sounds correct. “I would imagine, easily, 1,000 to 2,000.”
Both the federal and local eviction moratoriums expired on July 31, 2021. VIHFA and Government House Communications Director Richard Motta insist ERAP applicants are protected. The Source could find no documentation to support this. Blyden’s office said they are not.
Knowing she would be disabled for the foreseeable future, Myers applied for subsidized housing with the Virgin Islands Housing Authority to secure a place she and her children will be able to afford.
“They have told me I qualify because I’m disabled,” she said. “But if my landlord files and wins the eviction, it will show on my credit and I won’t be eligible. So where do me and my children go?”
Besides the governor and VIHFA, Blyden this week reached out to local Haitian and Hispanic pastors, enlisting them to help sign up their congregants in need with the Treasury’s one-page forms.
“I have so many questions (of VIHFA),” Blyden said. “Time is running out on us. It really bothers me because it shows me they don’t care. Why are they there if not to help the people?”