Lawmakers and administration officials agreed that housing in the U.S. Virgin Islands is in crisis, while talking Tuesday during the Senate’s Committee on Finance hearing on the the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget for the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority.
“We have a housing crisis for affordability in the territory. We also have a housing crisis for homelessness in the territory too. We have a housing crisis on all fronts,” said Daryl Griffith, the executive director of the HFA.
Griffith said several programs and projects are underway to combat the housing crisis, but several of the programs have been funded by disaster relief grants that are not sustainable, making the governor’s proposed $2 million budget necessary for the operations of the agency.
“We couldn’t continue to provide affordable housing without these local funds. All the other funds that are received are disaster related funds, and they have to be tied to the disaster. What keeps me up at night is making sure we execute as quickly as possible to help the people of the Virgin Islands to have safe homes to live in,” Griffith said.
The Emergency Home Repair V.I. program, also referred to as the FEMA STEP program, is one that Griffith said “is very close to my heart.”
Tied to disaster related funds, phase one of the program conducted temporary repairs for 6,560 homeowners to allow residents to safely shelter in place, Griffith said.
“The phase two of the program provided permanent roof repairs to 1,648 homeowners … The program allowed over 24,000 residents to safely shelter in their own homes,” Griffith said.
While the program had many successes, Griffith said it has “one major Achilles heel, in that hundreds of millions are still owed to contractors.”
Other funds discussed included the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery grant funds. Griffith said the territory has been awarded $1.8 billion, which has been divided into four tranches: tranche one for $242 million, tranche two for $779 million and tranches three and four which total $846 million.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the Housing Finance Authority to submit an implementation plan and certifications to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to be approved to be an administering agency of the disaster funds, which Griffith said is a process that involves an extensive review of the agencies policies and procedures, financial and accounting systems and a staffing plan to accommodate the grant.
“The authority has received tranche-two action-plan amendment approval from HUD for the $779 million on March 1, 2019. The authority is now awaiting HUD’s creation of the grant agreement for the governor’s signature for the USVI to have access to those funds,” Griffith said. “Tranche three of the funds, which have been much talked about recently, allocates an additional $770 million to the USVI. The tranche three Federal Register Notice has a deadline by Congress for HUD to publish on September 4, 2019 … As of today, HUD has not published the Federal Register Notice for tranche three for any jurisdictions including the states of Florida, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and California,” Griffith said.
Griffith told the senators he is talking with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to increase the income levels for programs so applicants who previously were not able to obtain aid because their incomes surpassed the limits, would now be able to reapply with greater chances of approval.
“You have a huge responsibility right now to ensure that we get our housing programs in the territory back up and running, in addition to the fact that you have responsibility of all that CDBG-DR funding,” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said.
The authority has also launched Envision Tomorrow, an initiative that has created a disaster case-management firm to assist homeowners and landlords whose homes were damaged by the past two hurricanes to navigate through the eligibility, duplication of benefit analysis, construction and closeout of two programs offered by the Housing Finance Authority, Griffith said. These programs include the Homeowner Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program and the Rental Rehabilitation and Reconstruction program.
Virgin Islands residents can find more information about available programs by visiting the Housing Finance Authority website or by calling 340-777-4432 for St. Thomas and 340-772-4432 for St. Croix.