Homeownership remains troublingly out of reach for many Virgin Islanders, while the twin disasters of COVID and the 2017 hurricanes have others homeless in the territory, said experts testifying before the Legislature.
Andrea Shillingford, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, said homelessness isn’t only those who find themselves sleeping on park benches. Many Virgin Islanders have to move every week or so, are sleeping on relatives’ couches, or are fleeing domestic violence.
“Homelessness is not a choice. We must not judge homeless persons because we do not know their stories or experiences,” Shillingford said at the Senate hearing Monday.
In 2021, Catholic Charities helped shelter and feed 716 people in need in the territory. The pandemic limited bed space the charity could offer. Men make up the majority of the sheltered as women are more likely to be taken in by a family member, she said.
Still, the pandemic has created a troubling new normal: People further displaced by the pandemic have been couch surfing for too long, she said.
“Individuals who lost income, and as a result their permanent housing, have been living with family or friends. It has been at least 18 months. So it is time for you to leave,” Shillingford said.
The problem, she points out, is that existing house stock, especially on St. Thomas and St. John is inadequate for these people’s needs. Much of the long-term rental supply has been converted to short-term vacation rentals.
Erma Chase, executive director of The Methodist Training & Outreach Center, said there was a pronounced uptick in the need for food and housing services since the pandemic.
“As a community, we can do better in providing better service and assistance to both the homeless and mentally ill. The missing pieces are far more than the programs we currently have. More effort and funding are necessary to get the homeless off the streets and referred to the services that they need. These services include general healthcare, mental healthcare, counseling, general hygiene, a place to take a bath and get out of the elements are all necessary components that should be available for the homeless,” Chase said.
Through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, managed by the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, the charity — which is unaffiliated with the Methodist church — has processed more than 242 families, she said.
Emergency housing in the territory was blasted by the hurricanes just as demand spiked. The storms reduced the territory’s 71 emergency housing units to just 44. While efforts are underway to rehab and/or replace these units, new projects are underway as well.
ERAP is just one of an alphabet soup of well-meaning but difficult to implement programs meant to assist Virgin Islanders in finding permanent housing, including buying homes.
The Housing Finance Authority also administers the Community Development Block Grant, comprised of the Disaster Recovery, CDBG-Mitigation, CDBG-COVID, the Emergency Solutions Grant-COVID, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Financing, and the federal HOME funds, Federal USDA Rural Development Direct Lending Program, in addition to the ERAP.
All of these programs, and many others, are set up to help Virgin Islanders find appropriate housing. But all of these programs and more are beset by issues with organization, implementation, or broad availability, said experts addressing the legislature’s Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications.
As much as $1.9 billion in approved funds for the vast array of Virgin Islands housing needs awaits processing and allocation, Dayna Clendinen, the authority’s interim executive director.
While expressing the need for more housing units was urgent, Clendinen noted her organization was hampered like others.
“VIHFA is plagued with the same issues delaying recovery efforts: capacity — human capital and available contractors — coupled with the increased cost and availability of building materials,” she said. “We’re working through the process with various entities to spend that money.”
Darin Richardson, the authority’s chief operating officer, said another program to assist first-time homebuyers would ramp up in April.
Act 8465, the First Time Home Owners Program, offers assistance with down payments for qualified buyers unable to meet banks’ required cash up front. Would-be buyers need to complete an online or in-person skills class then apply for the program. If approved, they are supposed to have an easier time with the lender, but confusion on the Senate floor had legislators asking how the process works, if it works, in real practice.
Richardson said advertising for the program would start in April but also asked to meet informally with Senators to go over implementation.
Robert Graham, executive director of the similarly-named Virgin Islands Housing Authority, asked repeatedly for a roundtable discussion to address the territory’s shortfall of 6,000 affordable housing units.
The Housing Authority is in the process of helping low-income renters become affordable-home owners. The plan is to convert the Williams Delight public housing community into the privately-owned Williams Delight Villas, giving priority to current residents. Crucians can buy the homes as they are or pay a higher price and get help from the Housing Authority making repairs, Graham said.
The authority plans to build or renovate 3,000 new affordable housing units over the next 10 years, Graham said. Some of the construction workers will be participants in the Skills For Today Program, which helps low-income people gain job skills. In conjunction with the Department of Labor, the program has graduated 15 people and is training another 23. A total of 215 people have expressed interest in the program, he said.
Sen. Marvin Blyden, chair of the Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications Committee said the rising cost of living in the territory, coupled with the low availability of affordable housing, has taken homeownership prospects in the wrong direction.
“Since 2010, the rate of homeownership in the Virgin Islands has fallen from nearly 50 percent to just 42.8 percent,” Blyden said.
“We know that homeownership is essentially important in turning income into wealth,” he said. “When a person pays rent for 30 years, they do not have anything to show for those thirty years of payments. When that same person pays a mortgage, at the end of 30 years, they will have built equity and wealth, which can be used to finance other activities in their lives. What makes this low rate of homeownership so painful and unacceptable is that the statistics tell us that many Virgin Islanders are paying more each month in rent than they would pay to mortgage a similarly sized and located home.”