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Housing Authority Grapples with Federal Adjustments to Public Housing Rents and Income Balancing

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Recent federal policy shifts are posing significant challenges for public housing in the Virgin Islands, as the V.I. Housing Authority (VIHA) navigates the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) latest regulations. Lydia Pelle, the VIHA’s Chief Operations Officer, shared her concerns with the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications in preparation for the 2024 fiscal year.

Central to the discussions is HUD’s “deconcentration of poverty” initiative. This policy is designed to diversify income levels within public housing properties by creating a balance between lower and higher-income tenants. Given that over 70% of Virgin Island public housing applicants fall into the low-income category, the challenge of achieving this balance is significant.

Adding to the conundrum, HUD initiated a policy in June mandating higher rents for households with higher incomes. If these households opt out of paying the revised rent, their tenancy would be terminated. Senator Dwayne DeGraff expressed strong concerns regarding the policy’s enforcement, suggesting that HUD’s approach was impractical.

Acknowledging the challenges, Ms. Pelle indicated VIHA’s proactive stance. While the transition will be challenging, the authority is exploring collaborations with other entities to mitigate the impact on families accustomed to subsidies. One potential solution is streamlining the process for “over-income families” to access housing vouchers, facilitating homeownership. By removing the one-year eligibility requirement for these vouchers, families could potentially combine them with the VI Slice homeownership incentive, creating a pathway to owning homes.

Another avenue that the VIHA is pursuing is job creation for residents. They are focusing on retaining and expanding their group of 30 Section 3 workers and actively recruiting them for permanent positions. Furthermore, in collaboration with the V.I. Department of Labor, there’s an initiative to equip VIHA tenants with skills needed for “active recovery projects.”

Senator Marise James also raised concerns, highlighting the unique position of the Virgin Islands and the need for tailored solutions. She emphasized the distinct nature of life in the Virgin Islands and the necessity of advocating for more flexibility at the federal level. In response, Ms. Pelle mentioned that the Office of Congressional Delegate Stacey Plaskett is actively seeking increased funding for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.

On the local front, while there is consensus on the need for more support, particularly for the Housing Trust Fund program, tangible results remain elusive. Ms. Pelle emphasized the need for concrete steps and support, rather than just verbal affirmations.

As the VIHA works diligently to navigate these changes, the overarching sentiment remains: a one-size-fits-all approach may not serve the unique needs of the Virgin Islands, and collaboration at all levels will be key to success.

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Senate

Senate Supports Revised “Serenity’s Nest” Project Following Amended Proposal

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The vision of Positive T.A. Nelson, known as the “Cannabis Czar,” to create a social hub at his St. Croix residence has gained new momentum with significant backing from legislators. Nelson’s revised proposal for land use, aiming to build a space for outdoor events and various activities in Estate Morning Star, has successfully garnered legislative favor.

Initially endorsed during a December Committee of the Whole Meeting, Nelson’s plan promised to mitigate potential noise disruptions with strategic tree planting and a commitment to conclude all activities by 2 a.m. This plan was bolstered by Nelson’s assertion of having alleviated the concerns of a previously dissenting neighbor through dialogue, suggesting a consensus had been reached.

However, subsequent revelations highlighted the continued resistance from several neighbors, concerned about preserving the tranquil nature of their surroundings. This led to a withdrawal of support from senators, including Alma Francis Heyliger, who emphasized fairness and the importance of maintaining residential peace, alongside Senators Franklin Johnson and Donna Frett-Gregory.

A shift occurred three months later when an amendment to the proposal, which removed the amphitheater component and adjusted the event curfew to 1 a.m., convinced 10 out of 11 attending lawmakers to approve the project. Senator Carla Joseph chose not to vote.

The adjustment to the bill came after Senator Angel Bolques Jr., following advice from peers, took the initiative to revisit and amend the proposal. Senator Novelle Francis, presiding as chair of the Committee of the Whole, was instrumental in addressing the concerns of the neighbors.

During a legislative session on Monday, Senator Johnson expressed satisfaction over the resolution between Nelson and the opposing neighbors, highlighting the legislative visit to the site to understand the nuances of the conflict better. Senator Javan James Sr. conveyed to Nelson the assembly’s intention to balance the project’s benefits with the well-being of local residents.

Senator Bolques praised the revised bill as a foundational step towards establishing “Serenity’s Nest” as a vibrant locale for cultural celebration, community vitality, and unity, reflecting a significant turn in the project’s journey towards realization.

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The Committee of Rules and Judiciary Endorses Governor Bryan’s Three Nominees

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The Committee of Rules and Judiciary recently expressed unanimous support for three distinguished nominees proposed by Governor Albert Bryan Jr., underscoring a promising direction for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Harold Willocks is set to grace the Supreme Court as its newest justice, Averil George is nominated to lead the Department of Human Services as its commissioner, and Antonio Stevens is poised to direct the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

Judge Harold Willocks shared insights into his extensive service history during the committee meeting, reflecting on his roles ranging from the Chief Public Defender appointed in 1992 to a seasoned judge at the V.I. Superior Court, where he served three terms before his current nomination. When queried by Senator Marise James about his desire to ascend to the Supreme Court, Willocks emphasized his commitment to serving the community more effectively from the bench, showcasing his humility and dedication to justice.

Averil George, nominated for the Department of Human Services, outlined her vision for the agency, emphasizing her resolve to enhance operational efficiency and staff welfare. Her tenure thus far has been marked by significant initiatives, including the upgrade of facilities and the digitalization of the department’s fiscal operations, aimed at ensuring the well-being of the territory’s most vulnerable citizens. George’s nomination was met with strong support from the senators, recognizing the magnitude of her responsibility and her commitment to the task.

Antonio Stevens, stepping up as the director of the V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, detailed his strategic plans to address the critical shortage of paramedics and firefighters through ambitious hiring goals and salary adjustments. His proactive approach to improving service delivery and morale within the department resonated with the committee, highlighting a forward-thinking leadership style that promises to strengthen the territory’s emergency response capabilities.

The committee also navigated through a diverse legislative agenda, advancing several bills aimed at enhancing social welfare, honoring notable citizens, and supporting public service. Among these were initiatives to assist the formerly incarcerated in finding employment, to establish a health registry for chronic diseases, and to increase support for government employees.

These developments reflect the U.S. Virgin Islands’ commitment to governance, public service, and community welfare, guided by the astute leadership of Governor Bryan and the dedicated public servants stepping into their new roles.

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Historic Frederiksted Senate Building Lease Granted to VIHFA for Enhanced Community Development

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The Senatorial Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance recently endorsed two significant lease agreements poised to bolster economic growth within the territory. Among the pivotal discussions was the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority’s (VIHFA) proposal to lease and refurbish the historic Legislative building complex in Frederiksted. This strategic move aims to centralize VIHFA’s operations and effectively manage vital initiatives, including the deployment of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) funds.

The committee greenlit a 15-year lease for VIHFA, featuring two subsequent 5-year renewal options, all for an annual nominal fee of $12. This arrangement enables the agency to allocate approximately $2 million towards essential renovations, thereby avoiding hefty rental and operational costs. VIHFA’s Chief Financial Officer, Valdez Shelford, assured lawmakers of the secured funding for comprehensive renovations, which encompass a total HVAC system overhaul, window replacements, and electrical upgrades. Construction Manager Jason Brown provided a timeline, estimating the completion of renovations within six to eight months following environmental assessments.

Shelford expressed VIHFA’s aspiration to permanently establish its headquarters at this St. Croix location, pending a favorable land swap deal with the Department of Property and Procurement—a proposal that received lawmakers’ support.

In a parallel development, the committee endorsed a lease for Pro Mar Services Inc., a St. Thomas-based marine construction firm, for nearly 30,000 square feet at the Submarine Base #6 in Charlotte Amalie. This 10-year lease, with options for two additional 5-year renewals at $24,000 per year, supports Pro Mar’s plans to fortify coastal defenses, construct a new office, and clear debris from the site. Jean Patrick Vivot, the company’s president, highlighted their commitment to employing and training local staff, emphasizing their role in marine infrastructure projects across the territory.

During discussions, senators inquired into Pro Mar’s operational specifics, workforce development initiatives, and project timelines. Vivot’s presentation underscored the company’s contribution to the local “blue economy,” through its extensive marine construction activities, including services for the National Park Service and St. Croix’s south shore refinery.

A notable point of debate emerged around the equitable structuring of lease agreements, particularly in light of VIHFA’s minimal rental fees juxtaposed against the Taxicab Commission’s significantly higher charges. Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, chair of the Committee, advocated for a review of these disparities to foster a more balanced fiscal approach in support of local entities.

The session concluded with unanimous approval of both leases, setting the stage for their subsequent review by the Committee on Rules & Judiciary, marking a forward step in the territory’s economic and community development endeavors.

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