Residents of the only low-income housing on St. John met with Senator at Large Carmen Wesselhoft’s chief of staff last week to vent frustrations and share concerns over the future of the 20-unit community.
Tenants in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development (USDA RD) loan-funded Cruz Bay Apartments shared “horror stories” with Wesselhoft’s chief of staff, Kim Lyons, on Thursday, March 8, at the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay, according to a press release issued by the senator’s office.
A St. John Tradewinds reporter was not allowed to attend the meeting.
“Cruz Bay Apartment tenants had a list of horror stories about the lack of maintenance, surprise inspections, nasty notes, intimidation and being forced to sign back-dated leases and questionable documents,” according to the release. “There is also a level of uncertainty about who is actually in charge. The tenants are not sure of who to turn to or what their rights are.”
The building, located behind the V.I. National Park Visitor’s Center, is owned by stateside-based Cruz Bay Apartments Company Limited Partnership, which financed the building through USDA RD loans.
The St. John Community Foundation has managed the property for the past four years, with the group’s executive director, Carole DeSenne, having direct oversight.
When contacted by St. John Tradewinds, DeSenne declined to answer questions about the low-income apartment complex, saying only that the units were messy.
“Those apartments were pig sties,” said DeSenne.
DeSenne also explained she had not been informed of any problems.
“They aren’t being harassed — I’m not going to answer those questions,” said DeSenne. “If someone from the senator’s office wants to talk about this they should call me. I haven’t heard anything about this.”
Tenants in the buildings, however, disagree and paint a far different picture of what is happening at the low-income housing site.
Consisting mostly of single mothers and elderly citizens, the Cruz Bay Apartment community is especially vulnerable to intimidation, according to one tenant.
“We, the tenants, do not need the extra stress of a twice-monthly inspection of our apartments to determine the physical condition,” said the tenant. “As far as the repairs go, there have been pictures taken, and there already has been a report on the physical condition of our homes. In reality, these inspections serve as nothing but a tool of intimidation to make us feel as if we are in the wrong somehow.”
“It also adds to the fact that we have no privacy, and complete strangers are walking all over our apartments when we are not home doing inspections of our cleaning habits,” the tenant continued. “This leaves us inconvenienced, vulnerable and insecure instead of safe in our homes.”
Adding to the confusion, Cruz Bay Apartments Company Limit-ed Partnership is seeking to repay their USDA RD loans early and a long bureaucratic road must be traversed before the future of the apartment complex can be determined.
There are a number of possibilities for the apartment complex and the final outcome won’t be determined for months, if not years, from now.
The owner can continue to operate the apartments as affordable housing; sell or operate the apartments as conventional, market rate apartments; prepay their USDA loan and then either sell or operate the apartments as conventional, market rate apartments, or sell the property to a new owner who is willing to continue to operate the apartments as affordable rental housing.
USDA officials will first offer the owner financial incentives to keep their loan active, which would ensure the apartments remain affordable. If the owners decide to repay their loan anyway, the first issue is appraisals.
A series of up to three appraisals can be conducted before a price tag is reached, at which time the owners would advertise the property to non-profit companies — who would ensure the affordable housing remains — for six months. If there are no takers, the owners are then allowed to prepay their loan and any restrictions are removed.
Cruz Bay Apartment tenants were first notified about the owner’s intent to sell in a vague November 2006 letter. Since then there has been no indication of how the issue is developing.
With the bureaucracy so complex, Cruz Bay Apartment residents have been confused for months about the future of their homes and don’t feel they are being represented, according to a tenant who asked to have their name withheld.
Need for Advocacy
“There is a need for advocacy within our management — currently there is no one,” said the tenant. “There are demands made for paperwork along with threats and mishandling. Just because we are labeled ‘low-income’ families does not mean we are low-class.”
The property manager does not have the tenants’ best interest in mind, according the tenant.
“Our management, which has some affiliation with the St. John Community Foundation, is functioning not as an advocate for us, but rather as a business partner, with the owner’s best interest at hand,” said the tenant. “Since being informed by the USDA about the owner’s interest in paying off his loan, there has been a rush of repairs made, and the management has created the paperwork to cover their own delinquencies.”
The state of affairs at Cruz Bay’s only low-income housing, highlights the need for additional opportunities for many residents, according to one tenant.
Additional Affordable Housing Needed
“The supply for affordable housing on St. John is already not meeting the demand, and this is not going to change overnight,” said a Cruz Bay Apartments tenant. “The only affordable housing that currently exists is in jeopardy, and this means more of our community is being threatened. The answer is not to move us out, or stand by and watch the owner sell the units to later become high-priced condominiums.”
“The answer is to create more affordable communities like ours,” the tenant continued. “These are our homes at stake — we are not invisible and will not just move away silently.”
Wesselhoft has written a letter to Senator Celestino White, the chairman of the committee on housing, sports and veterans affairs, to request that he immediately set a date for a public hearing regarding the Cruz Bay Apartments.