Born white in America in 1949 I grew up assuming that everyone had the privilege of if not homeownership at least a solid roof over their head. Back then, there was probably some truth to it. Not anymore. The unthinkable income disparity that has crept into everyone’s reality in my lifetime is playing out in a way that is becoming disastrous for the Virgin Islands. I hope this three-part series will awaken our community and our leadership to the desperate need to address this crisis now.
An article in one of my news feeds caught my eye recently with the following quote from Shannon Van Zant, professor of Architecture and Urban Planning, Texas A&M University: “Disasters can wipe out affordable housing for years unless communities plan ahead – the loss hurts the entire local economy.”
I have been acquainted over the years with young people who had come home to try and build a life in the place they were born. All of them were suffering from the same problem. The wages they were able to make here in the Virgin Islands were not enough to cover the cost of living, particularly the cost of housing. It was depressing to watch them, one by one, give up and go back to the U.S. mainland or elsewhere.
That was before our last major natural disasters that occurred back-to-back in 2017. Rebuilding has been frustratingly slow. Nearly five years after hurricanes Irma and Maria blew our roofs off and houses down, only a smattering have been repaired enough to be livable. Information on how many and how much is almost impossible to ascertain. In fairness to the territory, it took almost three years for the mountains of paperwork required to obtain federal disaster funds to be completed.
Meanwhile, in a conversation recently with one of the housing officials in the territory, I was told there were as many as 9,000 people on a waiting list for affordable housing – 3,000 of which will be satisfied when the projects being rebuilt are finished. That still leaves 6,000 people without a living space to call their own; that is after thousands of people abandoned the territory in the wake of the 2017 devastation.
The unforeseen double whammy that the Virgin Islands experienced two-and-a-half years after Irma and Maria flattened or seriously damaged homes across the territory was COVID.
With borders closed across the Caribbean, scantily clad tourists flocked by the thousands to our shores on historically cheap airfares. The United States Virgin Islands was one of the few places whose borders remained open. We had no choice as a U.S. territory but to accept them at any cost.
Throughout the onslaught, several major hotels remained closed – and continue to be closed – due to the severe damage caused by the storms coupled with bureaucratic bungling and, in some cases, the second part of our dilemma, the lack of construction workers needed to rebuild.
An example is that at one point, workers were actually housed in the dilapidated structures they were brought in to reconstruct.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the contract games that are rampant in our community which always slows progress while the underbelly of our society finagles a way to dip into the pot of federal gold.
Meanwhile, landlords seeing the influx of these overnight guests as their own gold mine too good to pass up, began evicting long-term tenants in order to make room for the overnighters. They could double, if not triple, their income with short-term rentals. The immigration included federal employees overseeing the disaster recovery who were able to pay exorbitant nightly fees – again on the federal dollar – to secure housing (with air-conditioning) across the islands.
Meanwhile, much more recently, Virgin Islanders wanting to return home to escape the various situations on the mainland that exacerbated the potential for contracting COVID had no place to go unless they were fortunate enough to have family with empty apartments. These were also highly qualified young people who longed to come home to find meaningful work or to continue working virtually in the jobs they had held elsewhere.
A Rwandan friend of mine, very familiar with the concept of countrymen having to leave their homeland due to genocide and then returning to support the country after the war ended, remarked as I was telling her about our situation, “That doesn’t build community.”
The sudden surge in housing value creates a double-edged sword. One of the few ways that middle-class Virgin Islanders have to build wealth since, in general, they lack the access to the large caches of capital that creates wealth for those with access is land ownership. Housing shortages are not new to the Virgin Islands. As those who are familiar with the territory know, most houses built by local people are multiple dwellings. And even with that, and even before the storms and even before COVID, there were still periodic housing shortages.
Many neighborhoods are zoned R2, meaning they allow for two residential units or dwellings per 10,000 square feet (slightly less than a 1/4 acre). As far as anyone considered in the past, this meant long-term tenants. Increasingly, short-term rental units are being built in R2 zones that one might assume would be considered commercial, particularly since the intent is blatantly not long-term rentals.
So, it was enlightening when at a recent gathering dubbed as a “town hall,” Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. commented that if participants and the citizens of the Virgin Islands didn’t like short-term rentals being allowed in R2 zones, they should ask him for an ordinance. It is not clear if the governor has the power to wave a magic wand and change the parameters of the zoning, but it was a clever way of taking the focus off two separate “two-family dwellings,” as he put it, that have been recently constructed just feet from a beach where the meeting was held. The recently constructed units are being listed across the internet as short-term vacation rentals.
Extending such a limiting ordinance to the entire island – specifically those dwellings that were never originally intended for short-term rentals – is an idea not palatable to the average Virgin Islander.
While one can chuckle at Bryan’s cleverly contrived conundrum, in this election year, there are serious repercussions of the housing shortage affecting the infrastructure and underpinnings of the community that must be considered.
Among them, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the V.I. Police Department, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Licensing and Consumer Affairs, the Inspector General’s Office, and others we rely upon in order to have a community that basically can count on living within, if not the rule of law, at least the spirit of it.
When I started researching this series in late March 2022, there were 108 vacancies listed on the USVI personnel website. When I picked it up again two months later, there were 188 vacancies. These are positions that were filled in recent times that, for one reason or another, are currently open. This does not account for hundreds of other positions, particularly in the inspection, investigations, auditing, and enforcement areas that have been vacant for so long that they may have become unfunded, or the agency has simply given up trying to fill them because there’s nobody living here qualified, interested or available to fill them.
The article from The Conversation perfectly lays out the economic problem that we are facing here. “Researchers have found that housing recovery is strongly linked to business recovery. Workers need housing so they can return to work, and businesses need workers so they can resume operations.”
It goes on. “Rockport, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, offers a cautionary tale. A year after the hurricane, hotels, and restaurants – even those that were part of national chains – struggled to reopen for Rockport’s critical tourist season due to the loss of affordable housing for workers. Many of those workers had relocated to San Antonio, two and a half hours away.”
While it is possible in Texas or elsewhere on the mainland to drive a few hours a day for a high-end job, and in a country where many people, because they can’t afford housing, have taken up “van life,” in the Virgin Islands those options do not apply.
Further consequences of the housing shortage in the Virgin Islands will be addressed in part two of this series.