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V.I. Housing Authority Struggling but Making Improvements

The V.I. Housing Authority is making progress rehabilitating units and building replacements for rundown public housing, but it needs more federal or local funding to keep up with year-to-year expenses, VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham told the Senate on Friday.

In 2014, VIHA more or less broke even, with revenues of $25.9 million and expenses of $25.8 million, Graham said. "We are operating at a very slim margin," he noted. Federal budget cuts hit VIHA, which received most of its 2014 budget – about $19.9 million – from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It has 174 full time employees – down by 100 from five years ago, Graham said.

VIHA has been steadily working to rehabilitate and replace units and is progressing in its plans, Graham said. “It will take the next several years for the Housing Authority to completely transform its Public Housing inventory. We will continue to make significant improvements in the older housing inventory and build new affordable housing,” he said.

In 2014 the Housing Authority projects to repair and fill 136 vacant units on St. Croix in the Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion and the Williams Delight Villas, Graham said.

He also spoke to the number of applicants awaiting units by district. On St. Thomas, with a waiting list of 423 families, there are 57 vacant units. And On St. Croix, where there are 426 vacant units, only 363 families are on the waiting list. Graham stated that the department has allocated substantial funding to rehabilitate those units and improve the curb appeal of the communities.

While federal funding is helping to accomplish this rehabilitation, it is not enough to really transform the territory’s public housing. "In 2010 we received $6 million. In 2011 that dropped to $5.1 million, and in 2012 that dropped to $4.4 million … and that is where it stands right now in 2014," Graham said.

"The annual appropriations are insufficient to even correct the annual deficiencies, much less the backlog of capital projects," he said.

Water usage in public housing is a major concern, as a third of residents receive subsidies for their utility bills, he said. VIHA public housing consumes more than 285 million gallons of potable water annually, for a nearly $10 million bill.

"At a $10 million bill, we are 25 percent of WAPA’s entire water revenue for the territory and it is not sustainable," he said.

Sen. Donald Cole asked why VIHA was not using cistern water instead of purchasing it from the utility. Graham said VIHA was in the process of converting some units over and would be further along but for past policy decisions. "In 2000 there was a directive not to use cisterns. In hindsight that was a grave error," Graham said.

At Oswald Harris Court on St. Thomas, VIHA is in the process of putting six of 22 cisterns, with a capacity of 1 million gallons, back online and, with a small reverse osmosis unit that is in the works, Graham said, "We believe Oswald Harris will be self sustaining for potable water by the end of the year."

After a decade of federal receivership, the territory’s stock of public housing should return to local control by the end of the year, Graham said, noting Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s statement in his state of the territory address that “it is the intention of HUD and the governor to transfer control this year."

"Are we crazy to be taking control … knowing some of these are reaching the end of their useful life?" asked Sen. Clifford Graham.

Robert Graham reassured the senator, saying there has been progress on the buildings and that federal funds will still be coming after the transfer of control.

Committee members present included Cole, Graham, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Diane Capehart, Donald Cole and Terrence “Positive” Nelson. Noncommittee member Janette Millin Young was also present.

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