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New Vision for VIHFA: Eugene Jones Jr. Charts a Path Forward

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Eugene Jones Jr.

Eugene Jones Jr., the newly appointed executive director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, has been exploring the intricacies of his role for the past three weeks. In a discussion with the Consortium during his initial media engagements, Jones chose to focus more on his leadership philosophy and approach to institution management rather than the minutiae of his current position.

Having served as an auditor for the HUD Office of the Inspector General, Jones transitioned to housing authority roles, driven by a desire for less travel and more stability. He shared an anecdote about losing his way home after a stint in Las Vegas, a pivotal moment that steered him toward a career change. Jones started as the chief financial officer at the San Francisco Housing Authority but found the finance role unfulfilling, prompting him to seek a more community-oriented position. This quest led him to Kansas City, Missouri, where he took the helm of the first housing authority under federal receivership, stabilizing it within two years.

Jones’s extensive experience spans several major cities including Indianapolis, Detroit, Toronto, Chicago, and Atlanta. He noted the unique topographical challenges of the Virgin Islands, which vary significantly across St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, necessitating innovative and collaborative approaches to housing development.

Despite his new surroundings, Jones is no stranger to managing housing agencies through crises, having coordinated relocation efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His firsthand experiences with disaster recovery highlight the resilience of the Virgin Islands community.

When questioned about his immediate priorities for VIHFA, Jones emphasized that he is still in the observational phase but acknowledged the Authority’s stable foundation, which he intends to enhance. He cited the homeowner assistance funds program as a particularly successful initiative. Despite recent revelations about the Authority’s substantial debts to the Water and Power Authority, Jones remains optimistic, focusing on resolving ongoing disputes and ensuring compliance with federal regulations to prevent the recapture of funds.

Jones is committed to increasing transparency within VIHFA’s operations, utilizing both social media and traditional media outlets. He teased a forthcoming homeownership initiative slated for June in St. Croix and St. Thomas and encouraged public engagement in discussions about future housing solutions, such as the potential for integrating commercial and residential spaces.

Throughout his dialogue, Jones conveyed a dedication to understanding the unique challenges of his new role and leveraging available resources to benefit the Virgin Islands community. He stressed the importance of humility, authenticity, and interpersonal skills in achieving the goals of the VIHFA.

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Development

VIHFA Submits Finalized Amendment to Mitigation Action Plan for HUD Review

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The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) has officially submitted its finalized Second Substantial Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for review. This amendment, shaped by extensive community feedback from recent public meetings and online forums, is expected to receive a response from HUD by July 2024.

“We are deeply grateful to the Virgin Islands community for their active participation in shaping this plan,” said Dayna Clendinen, VIHFA Chief Disaster Recovery Officer. “By prioritizing and investing in critical infrastructure projects, workforce development, small business growth, and economic stabilization initiatives, we can build a more resilient Virgin Islands. This comprehensive approach strengthens our communities, equips them to withstand future storms, reduces environmental impact, and fosters a thriving future for everyone.”

Key Highlights of the Second Substantial Amendment

Increased Funding for Infrastructure: The amendment increases funding for Infrastructure and Public Facilities from $363 million to $423 million. This additional support will finance the second phase of the Veterans Drive Improvement Project, which includes stormwater improvements, minimized erosion and pollution, and enhanced pedestrian mobility and safety.

Enhanced Economic Resilience Programs: Two new programs have been introduced to bolster economic resilience and revitalization:

  • Entrepreneurship Resilience and Innovation Program: Funded at $8 million, this program offers additional support for small businesses.
  • Workforce Development Mitigation Program: Also funded at $8 million, this program focuses on critical local training initiatives.

For more details, the finalized Second Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan can be viewed on the VIHFA website.

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Lawmakers Approve Leases for Sejah Farm and Rumina Construction, Bolstering Local Economic Growth

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The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance has approved two lease agreements of government-owned lands to support a local farm and a construction company, fostering economic development in the Virgin Islands. The bills now await approval from the 35th Legislature and Governor Albert Bryan.

Sejah Farm Lease

Bill No. 35-0261 authorizes a lease between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Yvette and Dale Brown, owners of Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. The 15-acre property, located at Plot No. 9-P Estate VICORP Lands, Prince Quarter, St. Croix, will be used for farming and related activities.

Senator Marvin Blyden, presenting the bill, emphasized the importance of the twenty-year lease for the farm’s ongoing livestock and crop production. Sejah Farm operates an agricultural learning center, teaching animal husbandry, soil improvement, and value-added production. The annual rent for the property is set at $225.69.

Mrs. Brown outlined the farm’s use of the property, which includes livestock grazing, organic crop production, and poultry, meat, and egg production. The farm supplies fresh meat and vegetables to local and overseas markets, focusing on bolstering the territory’s agricultural sector.

Rumina Construction Lease

Bill No. 35-0255 details a multi-year lease agreement with Rumina Construction, LLC, for land at Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas. The lease allows the company to use the land for an equipment and material storage depot yard, construction company office, and related purposes. Senator Blyden noted that the lease supports a local business that provides essential services to the community.

Rumina Construction, involved in several hurricane recovery projects, employs twelve Virgin Islanders. Franklin Victor, the company’s owner, reported significant investments in property improvements, totaling nearly $100,000 since the original lease.

The bills will proceed to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

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Debate on Sidewalk Bar Proposal Ignites at Historical Preservation Meeting

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The St. Thomas-St. John Historical Preservation Society convened on a recent Tuesday to deliberate on several matters, including a contentious proposal for a new sidewalk bar at Meada’s Plaza in Cruz Bay. The plan, which calls for tearing down an existing concrete slab and erecting new structures with subtle lighting and movable seating, sparked a lively debate over aesthetics, public parking, and the complexities of navigating the permitting maze within historic districts.

Sean Krigger, the director of the State Historical Preservation Office, voiced his reservations about the design elements of the proposed bar, particularly the herringbone pattern intended for the perimeter wall. He suggested that the design might clash with the existing architectural style of Cruz Bay, which leans towards a more modern aesthetic. “The flooring might handle the design, but on a wall, it becomes too conspicuous,” Krigger explained. He proposed exploring the use of stone, which is prevalent in the district’s construction.

During the discussions, the perennial issue of parking resurfaced, mirroring concerns raised at a similar meeting of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee. Enrique Rodriguez, a committee member, pointed out that the proposed site for the sidewalk bar had been originally designated for parking. The local zoning laws currently do not allow the Historical Preservation Committee (HPC) to waive these parking requirements, a point Krigger emphasized. However, Kurt Marsh, another member, noted that the developers possessed a nearby parking lot that might serve as an alternative parking space, pending approval from planning authorities.

The committee also considered whether to approve the project conditionally, pending the acquisition of all necessary permits. Krigger strongly opposed this, stating, “We should not approve projects that do not fully comply with zoning and building laws.” This sentiment underscored the committee’s commitment to upholding legal standards rigorously, contrasting with the more flexible approaches sometimes observed on other islands.

Architect Clarence Brown expressed frustration with the convoluted permitting process, recounting instances of being shuffled between departments without clear guidance. “It’s baffling that every agency points to another, and yet we’re expected to have all approvals in place before moving forward,” Brown stated.

Ultimately, despite Krigger’s objections, Marsh proposed granting conditional approval, dependent on confirmation of the alternative parking arrangements and necessary adjustments to the design plans. The committee unanimously agreed, marking a significant step forward for the proposed project at 6B Vester Gade in Cruz Bay, St. John, despite the noted challenges and procedural hurdles.

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