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Forum Prompts Many Suggestions for Affordable Housing

May 5, 2007 — No one at Saturday's housing forum disagreed that St. John is in the midst of social upheaval caused by an ongoing crisis involving rampant development and affordable housing, and several speakers suggested various ways of finding solutions.
About 50 people attended the forum, called "Protecting Our Homes, Preserving Our Community," held at the Bethany Moravian Church hall. Delegate Donna M. Christensen sponsored the event in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
After many people had spoken, Sen. Basil Ottley held the floor.
"This is a dialogue we've been having for years, but nothing is done," he said.
While those at the forum have power, Ottley said, it comes only through who they elect as leaders. Those leaders — Christensen, Government House and the members of the Legislature — are the ones who make the decisions on how to achieve affordable housing, he said. "At the end of the day, we're the ones who pass legislation," Ottley said.
Alvis Christian — who wears many hats on the island, including that of St. John Unity representative — called on the local government to buy St. John land for affordable housing. "It's getting a piece of the pie," he said.
Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft insisted that the federal government turn over V.I. National Park land to the territory for affordable housing.
"If 200 acres were returned to the people of St. John, it would address the needs," she said, adding that "established" families should have the first rights to buy the former park land with the provision they hold on to it for a certain number of years.
Wesselhoft also claimed that "many" St. John landowners lost rights to their properties because they are in landlocked locations within the park boundaries.
St. John businessman Jose Penn said that should opportunities become available for middle- and lower-income residents to buy affordable homes, they must be prepared to assume home ownership.
"If I'm a banker, I'm not going to lend you money if you don't pay your bills on time," he said.
On St. John, a $400,000 to $500,000 home is considered affordable because that's what a house costs, said Clifford Graham, who serves as director of the V.I. Housing Financing Authority. Under federal guidelines based on the median income for the territory, it's easier for someone earning $30,000 a year to buy a house than someone making $35,000. The person making $30,000 a year is eligible for a federal subsidy, while the person earning $35,000 makes too much to qualify, he said.
The status of the Calabash Boom affordable-housing project came up repeatedly. The Friends of Coral Bay, an ad hoc group, took the matter to court in an effort to reduce the density of the project, and it's now in the hands of the U.S. District Court and the territory's Board of Land Use Appeals, Graham said.
"We're trying to negotiate with surrounding property owners," he said.
The Sirenusa condominium development is the primary hot-button issue on St. John. The Legislature gave the developer a variance to add seven more units to its permitted 40 and go up to four stories in some of the buildings. The community is waiting to see whether Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoes that decision.
Former Sen. Craig Barshinger had words for Ottley as he left the podium, asking Ottley not to vote for an override if deJongh vetoes the bill.
"We'll see what the governor does," Ottley responded.
Ottley and a dozen of his colleagues, including Wesselhoft, voted for the bill. Only Sen. Louis P. Hill voted no, and Sen. James Webber was off the floor.
After Barshinger made his remarks, Sirenusa representative Gene Skoff stood up in rebuttal, insisting that the project supports hundreds of St. John families.
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