April 23, 2006 – When driving through local housing communities in St. Thomas, it's hard not to notice the crumbling paint on the outside of buildings or the run-down appearance of playgrounds whose swing sets and monkey bars remain untouched throughout the year. Unable to bear the heat inside their homes, residents instead sit outside on shaded balconies, hoping for a cool breeze to penetrate the muggy stillness of the afternoons, while small children play in open cisterns or ride bikes along roads ridden with potholes.
"It's been like this for as long as I can remember," a 15-year resident of Oswald Harris Court said when asked on Sunday afternoon. The woman, who refused to give her name, said conditions have "even worsened" since "the federal government took over" the V.I Housing Authority, which controls the Court and a part of the nearby Paul M. Pearson Gardens community, among others.
"Before the federal government came in, we used to have monthly meetings, where residents could talk about what's going on. Now, we barely ever have meetings, and when we do, nobody listens to us or fixes anything," she said.
She explained that her apartment – a small five-bedroom corner unit, which she said goes for approximately $900 a month – does not have any central air conditioning or alarm systems and is ridden with termites. "I won't even take my kids to the playground here – I usually go down by the airport so they can run around at the water park," she added, saying that the sand, which has been overtaken by weeds, is also strewn with animal feces.
She further explained that residents at OHC have often complained about the poor quality of running water, which they use to shower and wash their clothes. She said to avoid getting sick, her family buys drinking water, which they use to cook food.
Poor water quality was also a complaint for residents living in the Tutu High Rise community, which is also controlled by the V.I. Housing Authority. "We have bad water – it dries out your skin," Tasha Bingy, a longtime Tutu tenant said, pointing out a fungus that has been growing in the crooks of his elbows and on his right shoulder.
Bingy also spoke about how water from other housing units seeps through the walls and ceilings, causing the buildings to crumble on the inside. "Other days, we don't have any water at all, and we have to go around to the pipes we have outside or use some of the water from the open cisterns."
When asked, he said that housing officials know about the conditions because they conduct frequent inspections on the buildings. However, he added, nothing has been fixed.
"We're just not comfortable," he said. "Most of us would rather buy a house then live here, but we can't afford to do that."
Since eviction notices were sent out last month to 39 families living in Estate Bournefield on St. Thomas, the issue of housing has been at the forefront of discussion in the community, with many government officials and community members speaking out about the lack of affordable housing units available to residents and the conditions many are currently faced with.
"I think that the [local] government can no longer ignore the conditions in the housing communities and has to focus on issues like the life, safety and health of our residents," John P. deJongh Jr. said when contacted Sunday evening. "It's time that we step up and get some kind of plan from the federal government about how they plan on controlling the communities, or we should come in and create a plan of our own."
DeJongh, who is running for governor, issued a recent press release from his campaign office noting that he had visited several housing communities on St. Thomas. He wrote: "the conditions I have seen when going from community to community are indefensible by any government our public housing communities must be repaired, maintained and improved for the sake of these families and especially for the sake of our children."
DeJongh added in the release that creating a local team of individuals to run the V.I. Housing Authority might be the solution to the problem.
This sentiment is shared by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who said during a recent interview that a transfer from federal to local control is the "only way to go."
"The tenants in our housing communities have it worse than ever," added White. "And since the federal receivers have come in and taken control of the Housing Authority, they have been invisible, so none of the residents are getting a chance to share what's going on."
White, who has been attending public meetings with the Bournefield residents since early last month, also lamented the fact that government land, which can be used for affordable housing developments, "is just sitting there."
"No new units are being built," he said. "The Warren E. Brown projects that were destroyed during the last hurricane have never been rebuilt, and there was another community in the Tutu area that was demolished as well, but the land hasn't been touched. Yet we're all complaining about how our people need some place to go – well then, use the land."
Several calls made last week to Michael Hollis, who manages the V.I. Housing Authority on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to discuss the matter were not returned.
Hollis is the third federal housing manager to control the authority since HUD placed it in receivership in August 2003.
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