Raising allegations of missing police files and sabotage by the V.I. Port Authority’s own employees, the residents of Bournefield took a stand Tuesday night against the landlord that has given them until March 31 to move out of their homes.
The Port Authority board voted to relocate the residents during a meeting last November. At the time, they said their concerns had to do with repeated flooding in the area, along with a sewage problem that they said has made many of the units a health hazard. The board said they would be offering the tenants the equivalent of six months’ rent to help with the move.
But the tenants said Tuesday that the stipend was not enough, since there is a lack of affordable housing options on St. Thomas and apartments on the private market were at least double what they are paying now. Tuesday’s meeting was called to give the tenants some housing options, with representatives from the V.I. Housing Finance Authority and V.I. Housing Authority in attendance, but it was discovered early on that there was nothing really available.
While V.I. Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Clifford Graham said none of the programs under his agency would provide an "immediate" solution to the tenants’ problems, Robert Graham from the V.I. Housing Authority — under the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — said his agency’s housing voucher program has a waiting list of 3,000 people, while the public housing program has a waiting list of 1,000 people.
Robert Graham said he would try to to help the residents by working with HUD on changing the policies for taking in families "in a catastrophe," such as those displaced by a hurricane or other natural disaster, but explained that it would take a few months.
"It would still have to go through HUD’s process, and HUD has so many regulations; and we also have to find a way to do it that’s fair to the people on the waiting list, and to the 42 families here tonight as well," he said. Graham also said that in the meantime, he could work with the Bournefield residents to see what program each individual family is qualified for.
Residents said they would like to cooperate, but that they have nowhere to go, and said the situation would have been different if the Port Authority had listened to their complaints over the years, or just maintained the buildings. Speaking on behalf of the tenants, Josephine Lindquist disputed VIPA’s claims that there is no money to fix the units and said VIPA employees that recently came out to assess the state of the houses did not actually set foot in any of them, but instead took pictures of abandoned buildings or homes they had damaged or "vandalized" themselves.
"These buildings are like this because the Port Authority has neglected them," she said. "You have a fundamental responsibility as a landlord to fix them. The tenants shouldn’t have to dig in their own pockets."
Lindquist also said one Port Authority employee used a sledgehammer to damage one of the buildings and took a picture that was on display at Tuesday’s meeting. She said the owner of the building, along with some of the other tenants, called the police and gave a statement, but when the residents called the department to follow up, Lindquist said they discovered they had been given the names of phony police, while the report of the incident had disappeared.
Lindquist confronted Port Authority Executive Director Kenn Hobson about the incident Tuesday. Hobson said he knew nothing about it.
Lindquist said she had come to Tuesday’s meeting expecting to hear that the Port Authority had found the tenants places to live, or at least changed the move-out date. But neither was the case. Instead, nothing was decided, but Hobson did reveal that the Police and Fire stations in the area were also given notice to clear out.
However, tenants were encouraged by Sens. Celestino White, Carlton "Ital" Dowe and Alvin Williams, who said they would fight on behalf of the residents, as long as they give all their necessary information to HUD when applying for housing. White said what while VIPA has a right to reclaim its property, nothing will happen to the tenants if they don’t move out by March 31.
"The tenants can be removed — if you want to use the property for personal use, or you think criminal activities are happening — but you have to show that," White said. He also said the Port Authority would have to find the tenants replacement housing and give them official notice, instead of picking a "random" date at a board meeting.
"There is nothing that can happen to you on the 31st," he said to the residents. "I guarantee you that. Nothing will happen if you don’t get out of Bournefield. The Port Authority is without authority on March 31."
White said the Port Authority could not physically force the residents out but would have to take legal action if they don’t move. He also said his Senate committee would represent the tenants at the Port Authority’s next board meeting.
Hobson said the next meeting is Wednesday, but that Bournefield is not on the agenda at this point.