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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, May 18, 2024
HomeCommentaryHousing Crisis Part III: Time to Demand Clarity and Create a True...

Housing Crisis Part III: Time to Demand Clarity and Create a True Culture

This is the third in a three-part series. See the first two here and here.

U.S. Virgin Islanders have short-changed themselves since 1954 when we became self-governing. The many ways in which we have done this are not deliberate or necessarily obvious.

We could go on about terms in office for senators and other things that several constitutional conventions have tried unsuccessfully to address, but that’s not productive. We have to start where we are.

Our lack of enforcement officers and inspectors and investigators doesn’t have to be an excuse for lack of oversight. In a conversation with a highly placed attorney with the U.S. government who understands U.S. Virgin Islands law, it was revealed that the U.S. government contracts out investigative work all the time.

(Photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

So, let’s start with that. Since we have no idea how many people are doing short-term rentals because they haven’t come forward, it seems that we could contract out a few people to do data searches for short-term rentals being advertised on the internet. You can compare those with our cadastral maps and find out who the homeowners are. That is unless they are an LLC, which becomes another issue to be addressed later. The great part about the contract scenario is these people do not have to live here and therefore are not facing the housing crisis. As a side note, we can do this with a lot of other investigative work as well.

But back to the housing crisis.

In this way, we could do several things. We could compare the tax records with the cadastral maps, which are all online and provide ownership information. In this way, we can determine if these folks have actually applied for a business license, filed the income earned from short-term or even long-term rentals, and send them a quick notice that they need to pay the taxes. Paying taxes on income is our civil obligation. Renting property under all circumstances is an income-producing business, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Since bona fide residents are already getting very low property tax rates the only way they can contribute to the coffers for the public services and the infrastructure needed to support their businesses is by paying income tax.

For the others who are not V.I. taxpayers, there’s another solution.

While the U.S. Virgin Islands has a homestead law, it’s time to revamp that. How that works both in the U.S. Virgin Islands and elsewhere is that you raise the property taxes but you give abatements to those who claim the U.S. Virgin Islands as their primary residence. However, the minute you say raise anything, which has to be done by the Legislature, the anticipated response frightens those senators who would have to actually pass these laws. It’s the problem when people never read past the headlines.

Senators need to get some guts and get moving before it’s too late. They need to explain the details to their constituents in comprehensible ways instead of posturing by screaming at the testifiers that they call in for regular abuse. But much more than that they need to work together to build a better community and to provide detailed legislation that benefits their constituents. As an aside, and as mentioned earlier, if their terms were four years instead of two they would be much more inclined to do that instead of spending the bulk of their time in office running for office. But again, that’s for a constitutional convention.

And speaking of guts, the executive branch needs to do its own work. It’s time for the government to do two things: add more judges to the probate court so we can finally get settlements on the abandoned properties that no one has paid taxes on ever, and if that doesn’t work, take those properties by eminent domain and repair them so we have housing. There is a way to do this that would not completely leave out the original owners, but we have to collect those taxes or we have to sell the properties or we have to own them ourselves and fix them. I am told this is in the works. I’m hoping what I am told is true.

Not only are we missing housing opportunities but these crumbling structures are a blight on all of us. And that leads to the historical preservation issue. While it’s really nice that there’s a lot of people who want to see our properties in towns restored to their original historical conditions, it’s not financially realistic, and that should be obvious by now.

So let’s use two more C words. Along with constitutional convention let’s add compromise and cooperation. Can we please, please, please find a way to move forward, whatever that means. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Let’s own it and get past it.

Someone highly placed in the government very familiar with the operations of the Legislature pointed out how difficult it is for seven people to agree on anything. That would include finding and addressing the reams of documents detailing clear-cut legislative solutions to our zoning and environmental challenges that have been collecting dust for decades on shelves somewhere in the back of Legislative chambers. Something that could have been addressed a very long time ago that might have eliminated once and for all the ongoing dilemma that has led to our current crisis didn’t happen thanks to politics, the potential for ending backroom deals by establishing defining legislation and not wanting to address something complicated.

We acknowledge that cooperation and focus is not easy to attain. But failure to do so is degrading our community and making a mockery of the legislative branch. In fact, whether we want to acknowledge it or not it’s making a mockery of the Virgin Islands as a whole in the wider world and that relates back to housing, which leads to another C word: Corruption.

Whether or not corruption is as widespread as people both in and out of the territory believe it to be, the end result is yet another C word: Cynicism. In two identical Source polls done over the last 20 years, readers rated corruption as either their number one or number two concern.

Cynicism, which may seem like nothing more than clever cocktail party banter to some, has devastating results. It leads to passivity, apathy and hopelessness, thus continuing a vicious cycle of doing nothing including not voting or even registering to vote – especially young people who already feel hopeless thanks to climate change.

When you add to that the fact that federal agencies have repeatedly given the V.I. very bad grades – most recently the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary who visited in May – for misusing or even not using federal funds at all, which led over the years to returning tens of millions of dollars to our benefactors on the mainland, we are on the brink of a funding disaster if we don’t clean up our act.

So that leads to another C word: Clarity. That is not the same as the word “transparency,” the use of which only adds to the cynicism.

We, as a people, need to get clear about what we want for our community and we need to make that clear to our elected officials in the coming months as we lead up to another election.

It is time to set aside petty self-interest and look at the final C word: Community. We love to throw around yet another C word: Culture. But what does that really mean? Culture isn’t about historic buildings being restored; let us remember those historic buildings were part of our history of slavery. It’s time to shed that false narrative and begin to create a new culture. A culture steeped in community. We need to ask ourselves what are our values? How do we look out for each other, which was the second commandment I would like to point out. How do we care for those people on the margins? How do we show respect for each other, and our environment? Those are the things which reflect what culture really is.

In the United States of America, which we are part of, I believe with all my being that housing is a human right. So, what are WE going to do about it?

Remember something: those people from away buying up property and building palatial mansions don’t vote here. I think the thing that we forget in the glitter and gold of the one-percenters among us is that most of us are much closer to being homeless than we are to living in one of those marble mansions or floating around on those multimillion dollar yachts.

In the depression created by subsisting on the brink of economic disaster while watching those more fortunate frolicking on our shores, we lose track of our power. Despite the depression around the specter of a disappearing democracy, we still hold all the power when we use our right to vote. But only if we do. It’s a real thing which requires being truly informed as opposed to influenced by mere rhetoric.

So, it is worth repeating. Are we actually ready as a community or culture to set aside our petty self-interest to do what is necessary for the betterment of everyone in our tiny little territory?

In the end, what will our history suggest we decided?

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