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Frustrations Erupt at Townhall Over VIHA Homeownership Hurdles

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At a townhall coordinated by the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications, Virgin Islands locals aired their grievances over persistent hurdles in their transition from public housing to homeownership.

The gathering was meant to address the V.I. Housing Authority’s (VIHA) anticipated 2024 plan. Many attendees spotlighted the systemic barriers that have made homeownership an elusive goal.

Senator Marvin Blyden, Chair of the Committee, expressed the importance of the event. “While this might seem like an unusual move, our purpose is to aid the Housing Authority and the public in crafting a plan tailored to our community’s needs,” he explained.

Residents of the Williams Delight community were especially vocal about their difficulties in this transition. Ms. Maynard from the Resident Council sought clarity for those who had been on home purchase waitlists for years. She feared that many, now classified as “over-income”, might be jeopardized by new federal regulations.

VIHA’s COO, Lydia Pelle, addressed this by stating that a mere 45 individuals fall into the “over-income” category, with most not residing in Williams Delight. She mentioned that the new policy would see such families pay higher rents from 2024. Simultaneously, Jimmy Farmer, Director of Asset Management, commented on the substantial incomes of some of these households.

Another Williams Delight resident, Simone James, expressed her challenges in accessing assistance programs due to poor credit. Despite her low salary and family responsibilities, she’s been consistent with her rent. She pleaded, “Why should credit and bank bureaucracy hold me back?”

Ashel Belardo, also from Williams Delight, shared her lengthy struggle since 2013 with the homeownership process, emphasizing the bureaucracy and time constraints that halted her progress.

From the private housing sector of Williams Delight, Troy Mason ardently defended public housing residents. He was skeptical of VIHA’s intent, noting the minimal turnover of homes in the past decade. He urged for a direct property sale to these long-time tenants.

Raven Phillips of St. John drew attention to the potential wage increment as a solution for public housing inhabitants. Ms. Pelle acknowledged the wage concern but indicated that the VIHA’s focus was on enhancing the skill set of its community for better job opportunities.

Senator Marise James brought up the query of purchase price concessions for long-time inhabitants. Ms. Pelle confirmed that direct loans were under consideration for those who might not qualify for other aids.

Another participant pointed to the existing Virgin Islands Rent to Own Public Housing Conversion Program. This provides a structured approach for public housing tenants to achieve homeownership, and he believes this might be the answer. Senator Blyden pledged to delve into this existing legislation.

Addressing other concerns, Ms. Pelle guaranteed that displaced residents from Estate Tutu and Donoe High-Rise would get priority when new constructions are finalized. She acknowledged the scarcity of affordable public housing in St. John and noted that housing construction for the island isn’t on next year’s agenda, which drew criticism. In response, Senator Blyden committed to probing the VIHA on this matter.

Mr. Krigger informed attendees of an impending expansion in the Housing Choice Voucher Program across the territory, which aims to broaden voucher availability and housing stock.

To conclude, feedback from this discussion will be vital for VIHA’s plan finalization for the upcoming fiscal year. Senator Blyden encapsulated the broader issue, highlighting the Virgin Islands’ significant affordable housing crisis, which he believes jeopardizes community development and families’ livelihoods.

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Government

New Legislation Proposes Electing Attorney General in US Virgin Islands

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Following the departure of Ariel Smith from the office of attorney general, a renewed focus has been placed on the high turnover rate among appointees to this position. This situation has spurred legislative action aimed at allowing the residents of the Virgin Islands to elect their attorney general, a proposal brought forth by Senator Alma Francis Heyliger. During a legislative session on March 25, Heyliger introduced Bill 35-0248, emphasizing the necessity to diminish the political influences on the attorney general’s office.

The forthcoming committee discussions will determine the feasibility of requesting Congress’s permission for the USVI to hold elections for the attorney general’s position, a timetable for which remains to be established. Heyliger highlighted the urgency and the widespread desire for this change, noting the successful implementation of elected attorneys general in over 40 states across the nation. She also referenced a past referendum where a significant majority of Virgin Islands residents—76 percent—voted in favor of electing their attorney general, indicating a strong local push for this amendment.

Currently, Ian Clement serves as the acting attorney general, succeeding Ariel Smith, who held the position for less than a year. Smith had been appointed by Governor Albert Bryan Jr. in March 2023, following Denise George’s dismissal, who had served for four years. This legislative proposal marks a pivotal step towards aligning the Virgin Islands with the broader trend of electing attorneys general, aiming to enhance the office’s independence and accountability to the public.

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Revitalized Loan Program Set for Launch, GERS Showcases Financial Strength and Announces Enhancements to Havensight Mall

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Retirees of the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) are on the cusp of receiving comprehensive details next month regarding the eagerly awaited revival of a loan program. At a recent assembly, GERS Board of Trustees heard from Administrator Angel Dawson Jr., who announced that specifics of the loan initiative will be disclosed in a press release scheduled for April 8. This program, resuming after a significant hiatus, already showcases a portfolio of loans exceeding $6.4 million across St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Plans are in place to extend this figure to a maximum of $10 million per district, starting with an interest rate of 8 percent.

In addition to financial solutions, Dawson shed light on the advancements in the Havensight Mall renovation effort. Recent discussions have revolved around the creative process of reimagining the mall’s identity, with a focus on naming and design concepts set to resonate within the community.

The financial health of GERS remains robust, despite challenges such as notable arrears in rental and electricity payments, with the Department of Justice highlighted for its outstanding dues. Dawson emphasized the organization’s commitment to rigorous collections, maintaining that GERS operates with financial prudence, not as a credit facility for tenants. “We exert consistent pressure on all tenants, underscoring that financial arrangements should be sought through banks,” Dawson stated, reflecting GERS’s stance on managing receivables.

Amidst these operational challenges, Dawson proudly noted the pension system’s financial status, highlighted by a cash surplus exceeding $63 million. This fiscal accomplishment is attributed to the system’s disciplined approach to managing expenditures, currently reported at only 26 percent of the yearly budget, significantly below the anticipated 42 percent.

The dedication to fiscal responsibility also extends to the management of the Havensight Mall project. Despite a minor cash shortfall due to ongoing capital investments and a temporary decrease in rental income owing to Covid-related concessions, Dawson assured stakeholders of the project’s solid financial grounding, with expectations of rental abatement expiration next year bolstering future revenues.

The board also approved an additional allocation for a new vehicle in St. Thomas, which will be partly funded through the sale of four older vehicles from the agency’s fleet, showcasing GERS’s commitment to optimizing assets for operational efficiency and sustainability.

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Virgin Islands Legislation Proposes Employment Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

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In a significant step towards rehabilitating formerly incarcerated individuals in the Virgin Islands, Senator Angel Bolques Jr. has hailed new legislation as “the epitome of a second chance.” The initiative, spearheaded by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, introduces “The Fair Chance for Employment Act” (Bill 35-0115), aiming to dismantle employment barriers for ex-offenders. This legislative effort mandates the Division of Personnel to craft policies promoting fair chance hiring practices.

Senator Frett-Gregory, addressing the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, emphasized the need to dispel the longstanding stigma against former inmates in the Virgin Islands. She argued that the bill is crucial for reducing recidivism rates and fostering economic stability by ensuring access to gainful employment for rehabilitated individuals. “The Virgin Islands must move beyond mere talk of rehabilitation and reentry to actual policies that open doors for our community members,” Frett-Gregory argued.

The proposed Fair Chance For Employment Act would not eliminate the possibility for employers to conduct background checks but would shift this step to occur after the extension of a conditional job offer. This approach aims to balance the integrity of the hiring process with the rights of individuals seeking a fresh start.

The bill received a warm reception from both lawmakers and advocacy groups. Dr. Kendra Roach, representing the Society of Human Resource Management’s local chapter, praised the bill for its potential to provide equitable employment opportunities, including for those with criminal records, stating that it embodies the principles of equity.

Echoing the support were Senators Bolques Franklin Johnson, Ray Fonseca, and Alma Francis-Heyliger. Francis-Heyliger highlighted the commonality of human error and the bill’s pragmatic approach to considering the nature of the applicant’s past offenses when determining employment eligibility.

Winnie Testamark, Bureau of Corrections Director, underscored the bill’s alignment with the Bureau’s reentry strategies, including educational and vocational training programs designed to ease the integration of former inmates back into society.

The Department of Labor acknowledged the bill’s potential to boost employment, but suggested amendments for clarity and safety, notably around the conditions for withdrawing job offers based on past convictions. Senator Frett-Gregory agreed to revise the contentious provision.

However, the Division of Personnel expressed reservations, particularly about the bill’s requirement for the Division to enact fair chance hiring policies, fearing an undue burden on HR practices. Assistant Director Florine Audain-Hassell argued for maintaining these policies within the Department of Labor and raised concerns about potential discrimination.

Senator Frett-Gregory and Committee Chair Senator Kenneth Gittens addressed these concerns, emphasizing the government’s existing commitment to nondiscriminatory hiring practices and the bill’s focus on enhancing these through explicit policies.

The unanimous backing by the Committee members propels Bill 35-0115 to the next stage of legislative review by the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, marking a hopeful advancement towards integrating formerly incarcerated individuals into the workforce and society.

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