Lawmakers meeting to hear a progress report on disaster recovery said they were frustrated with the slow pace of one program created to assist residents living with storm-damaged homes. They shared their frustrations with the acting head of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority at a hearing held by the 34th Legislature Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure on Wednesday.
Housing Finance Authority Interim Executive Director Dayna Clendinen told committee members she too is frustrated by how long it has taken to assist those residents living in or with damaged dwellings after the passage of two major hurricanes in 2017. Many of those still seeking assistance have been channeled through a federally-funded program called EnVIsion Tomorrow.
In addition to her duties at Housing Finance, Clendinen also serves as the territory’s chief disaster recovery officer. In opening remarks at Wednesday’s hearing the director stated her intent to update the committee on several recovery programs operating under her agency’s umbrella.
On Wednesday, she said EnVIsion has completed repairs on 16 homes and has 39 more under active construction. Committee member Sen. Marvin Blyden was among those urging the interim director to get more done, faster.
“Sixteen homes in five years, I find this to be unacceptable on so many levels,” Blyden said.
Sen. Carla Joseph questioned the number of times Housing Finance was cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for EnVIsion compliance failures.
“The EnVIsion program is not being managed well,” Joseph said.
Committee Chair Sen. Janelle Sarauw expressed concern for homes still covered with blue tarps, issued to residents with damaged roofs five years ago. To date, Sarauw said, there are still homes in the Virgin Islands that are covered with tarps, in disarray.
Sen. Novelle Francis asked the director what the agency would do to correct the problems.
“Where do we go from here, in reassuring this community and those that need services, what to expect?” Francis said.
The director said she, too, is frustrated as her agency struggles with procedural bottlenecks that must be cleared before qualified contractors are matched with affected residents. To increase the number of home construction projects, she said Housing Finance engaged a general contractor, Persons Service Corp, to provide construction services to 172 homes.
Clendinen said the agency is also trying to reduce multiple solicitations from contractors to one contractor per 100 homes in an effort to get work done faster.
She added that staffing shortages — some brought about by resignations — were also hampering attempts to expedite housing repairs.
“We admit that we have been slow in getting this started,” Clendinen said, adding that a number of new hires give the agency reasons to believe improvements are at hand.
Housing Finance Director of Programs Ann Hanley offered one tangible solution. “We will now be able to provide the residents with a timeline that will help them know when they can get their homes repaired,” she said.
Blyden, who chairs the 34th Legislature Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications, said he will hold hearings of his own on post-disaster housing recovery. At that hearing he said he will invite contractors working with Housing Finance to hear their stories.
Sarauw also urged the agency heads to not lose sight of the people who still struggle with damaged homes and the lives that remain disrupted to this day.
“We cannot be tone deaf to the needs of the community,” Sarauw said.
Senators who attended the meeting included Sarauw, Blyden, and Joseph on St. Thomas. Senators Kurt Vialet, Franklin Johnson, Novelle Francis Jr., Genevieve Whitaker, and Samuel Carrión attended by way of teleconference from St. Croix.