Tenants of St. John’s only low-income housing apartments finally got answers about ongoing frustrations and concerns on Thursday evening, March 29, at a Senate Committee of Housing, Sports and Veterans Affairs meeting at the Cruz Bay Legislature Building.
Senator at Large Carmen Wesselhoft, co-chair of the committee, requested the meeting after a number of tenants contacted her regarding problems including maintenance, privacy and concerns about the future status of the units.
The 20-unit building, located behind the V.I. National Park’s visitor’s center, was constructed about 20 years ago. The complex is owned by Virginia-based Thomas Runquist, who contracted Florida-based Southwind Management to manage the buildings.
Community Foundation In Charge Locally
About four years ago, Southwind in turn contracted the St. John Community Foundation (SJCF) to act as the local property manager. The foundation’s executive director Carole DeSenne handles day-to-day operations as the on-site property manager. DeSenne is also the property manager of Bellevue Village.
The apartment complex was built in part with United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development (USDA RD) loans which required the apartment complex be rented as federally regulated low-income units.
Runquist has recently decided to divest himself of the buildings and is requesting to pre-pay his USDA RD loans. The process of selling the complex is a long and tenuous one, which has not been approved by the federal agency.
Even if the sale is approved, the process can take months, if not years. First the owner must advertise the buildings to other non-profits who would continue to operate the units as low-income.
Southwind, Runquist Are No Shows
Housing, Sports and Veterans Affairs Committee chair Celestino White requested the V.I. Housing Finance Authority have right of first refusal on the buildings.
Runquist, USDA RD officials and Southwind Management representatives were not present at the committee meeting.
Eight tenants testified at the meeting about excessive inspections, ongoing maintenance issues, privacy concerns and disrespect from property manager DeSenne.
“I feel deprived and that I have no privacy,” said a 17-year tenant of the complex. “I found my door open after one of the inspections and got no apology from Carole (DeSenne), only rudeness. She doesn’t respect us.”
“Lack Of Communication”
The meeting was the first time it became clear to tenants who actually owns and who operates the buildings, according to three-year tenant Zarah Bunner.
“There is a lack of communication — this is the first time I am clear about who to contact about problems,” said Bunner. “Carole DeSenne is not an advocate for the tenants of Cruz Bay Apartments but she is a manager for Southwind
Management, therefore she serves the management company’s needs and advocates for them. I personally feel that holding these two positions is a conflict of interest and also does not help assist our needs as low-income tenants.”
DeSenne apologized for recent comments in the St. John Tradewinds, in which she called the units “pig sties,” and for offending tenants.
DeSenne Apologizes for “Pig Sty” Statement
“I apologize for my statement in the Tradewinds,” DeSenne said. “That’s my southern expression. I want to apologize if I’ve done anything to offend you — and I’m sure I have offended you.”
Tenants described light fixtures hanging by duct tape, termite-ridden cupboards in dire disrepair, stained and scratched tiles and dangerous porches where it is unsafe for children to play.
“The railing on my porch is so loose, my son can’t go out there,” said a tenant. “We are human. They need to do better than that.”
Despite the numerous maintenance issues, residents were subject to twice-monthly inspections and received bad write-ups for unmade beds and mops in closets, tenants explained.
Monthly Inspections Excessive
Monthly inspections are excessive, according to V.I. Legal Services Attorney Kathleen Navin, who has recently gotten on board to help Cruz Bay Apartment tenants.
“Usually you have annual inspections,” said Navin. “I would like to meet with the management and review their policies to help determine what is actually in compliance with federal regulations. Legal services is committed to working with the tenants and management.”
“There should be no more inspections until we can review the federal regulations,” Navin added.
Calling the mandate from Southwind “ridiculous,” White called for an end to the monthly inspections as well.
“Leave those people up there in Florida with their nonsense,” said White. “Monthly inspections are ridiculous and excessive.”
Foundation Promises Improvement
SJCF representatives pledged to work with Cruz Bay Apartment tenants to improve conditions at the site and communication about the future of the units.
“The Cruz Bay Apartment situation has hit us hard,” said Harry Daniel, president of the SJCF’s board of directors. “I apologize from the Community Foundation to the tenants. We play a limited part in the process, but we will take a more active role now that we have heard all of this.”
“Whatever is necessary to make you comfortable, we’ll do it,” Daniel continued. “We really want to work with you.”
While the meeting brought many issues at Cruz Bay Apartments to light and fostered dialogue between tenants and management, some residents questioned what was next.
“It’s nice to have a meeting, but what is the Senate going to do about Cruz Bay Apartments,” said Lorelei Monsanto. “It’s their job to pass laws. What is their next step?”
“I hope they are not just having a hearing for the sake of having a hearing, but they actually pass a law and do something,” Monsanto added.