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.
Not all Americans rushing to the Virgin Islands trying to escape the scourge of COVID over the last couple of years were tourists.
When the virus sent people scurrying out of their offices to their homes and internet connections, it didn’t take long for some to realize that anywhere there was a connection could be called home, at least temporarily. The sun-drenched beaches and balmy breezes were also a deterrent to the virus that seeks dark, clammy, and cold places to proliferate.
These highly employed people were able to snatch up rental properties and even purchase or build houses that were spectacularly out of range for the average middle-class or even upper-middle-class Virgin Islander.
In the early days of the COVID lockdowns, a realtor told me there were only 87 properties in the inventory on St. Thomas for sale – lower than anything she’d ever seen before.
It wouldn’t be long before there were none.
It’s hard to say at this point how many homes for the rich are being built right now that will eventually become nothing more than hotel rooms in residential neighborhoods, but it is happening.
Meanwhile, most of the regulations around commercial enterprises in residential neighborhoods is left up to murky laws accompanied by haphazard oversight of the few regulations that do exist – think back to the lack of housing for employees that could be filling critical enforcement and inspection roles.
Much to its credit, the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs created a short-term rental license, and if anyone applied for it, it would also involve fire inspections, proper insurance, and other crucial regulatory requirements.
Requiring licensing is a great step in the right direction. However, it clearly relies upon residents willing to pay the hotel tax, which is not collected and paid to the V.I. government by any of the short-term rental websites except Airbnb.
But there’s much more to concern us as neighbors and friends.
When these short-term renters show up next door and party all night, leave their garbage for somebody else to clean up, or even smoke cigarettes or anything else that wafts into the nearby bedroom windows, it degrades the sense of community that is such a powerful force in the United States Virgin Islands. It is the community that comes together after a natural disaster. It’s a community that comes together to feed the homeless. It’s a community that, before COVID, hugged on the street even when we didn’t necessarily know each other’s names. We knew each other’s faces.
It is being remarked widely in the community how many faces there are that we’ve never seen before.
These are not necessarily the short-term renters. I recently met a new homeowner who remarked that people here weren’t very friendly toward newcomers. When I came here 40 years ago, that was far from the case. It was remarkable, in fact, how welcoming most Virgin Islanders were. It is the reason that I chose to make these islands my home.
But this “just come” was right. I pointed out that our lack of a welcoming committee might have something to do with him ignoring our environmental protection laws by bringing a backhoe to his property to dig what appeared to be additional parking space without a permit and therefore without the required silt fences or other environmental protections.
But ignoring or circumventing our local laws and customs is just the tip of the iceberg.
One ramification that is not far off and which grows more obvious every day is the dramatic lack of qualified employees in both the public and private sectors due to the fact that it’s impossible for them to live within the Virgin Islands economy on the paltry pay they receive.
In part one of this series, I noted there were 188 vacancies and growing on the Personnel jobs list. I have since learned from a highly placed government official there are actually 1,200 vacancies in the V.I. government.
Whenever an executive director or CEO or even CFO from away is appointed to a high-profile position in the Virgin Islands, there is widespread screeching about their remuneration. However, if you want someone to come from away because there’s no one locally who can fill the position, you must pay them wages commensurate with other jurisdictions, not to mention in line with the cost of living that rivals New York City and San Francisco.
The lesser positions in the $30-$40,000 range remain unfilled because of the well-known exodus that occurs every year when the number of high school graduates far exceeds the number of available jobs. And even when there are jobs available, which there are, many wage earners, particularly since COVID, realized they’re not willing to work for the money or conditions offered. They can leave their home and go somewhere else and do better.
What happens to community? Who is left with institutional knowledge and memory to guide our young people in the ways of respect and nurturing for each other and our environment? These are the more subtler ramifications that we need to consider. I cannot begin to count the number of times after natural disasters, tragic and untimely deaths, and, more recently, with COVID raging across the globe that I’ve remarked and heard many others remark that in a crisis, there is no place on the planet we would rather be than the Virgin Islands.
That is because of an abiding sense of community. It is our greatest commodity, and we need to protect it. Having addressed the grave concerns about the crisis in housing and its undermining consequences, stay tuned for some solutions in part three.
Be prepared; we all have a part to play if we are going to begin to solve our dilemma.