Affordable and safe housing is crucial for any family. Courtesy of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority and developer McCormack Baron Salazar, 90 St. Croix families will have just that at the newly opened phase three of the Louis E. Brown Villas housing community.
And one of the residents has extra reasons to be proud of her new home. A former resident of the John F. Kennedy Terrace housing community in Golden Rock, Kaye Gumbs is also the resident commissioner of the property, which she helped build.
After giving birth to her sixth son, she was ordered by her doctor to not work for a year. Two weeks before hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in 2017, Gumbs joined a Section 3 program to learn construction under the tutelage of J. Benton Construction, the contractor working on phase three of the Louis E. Brown Villas. She is now a full-time employee.
“That year was the beginning of a new chapter in my life,” she said during the recent ribbon cutting ceremony. “I was given the privilege to work in the Section 3 program at John F. Kennedy Terrace thanks to Mrs. Natalie Dummont. I also joined the family self-sufficiency program. This program is designed to help residents of the V.I. Housing Authority communities reach their future goals. I was also elected to become a member of the resident commissioner board. Being able to get an inside look at how everything worked, I have nothing but respect for the work and dedication the teams put into making sure the residents have a safe, affordable and comfortable living.”
Gumbs started working with J. Benton two weeks before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the islands. Though there were delays, the company pushed through to complete the project.
“For me, it was not just a job, but a learning experience,” she said. “I was taught how to read a plan, to install concrete forms, bond beams, lay out the foundation, lay out the building and many more exciting and challenging skills. Today, I am blessed to have work that I love and a wonderful place to call home.”
The ribbon cutting on Tuesday officially opened the community’s doors, with the descendants of namesake Louis E. Brown, a progressive politician and St. Croix native in attendance. Brown served as director of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority from 1954 to 1965, fighting to provide affordable housing for the territory’s low- and middle-income families.
The new two-story apartments feature an energy-efficient appliance package, ceiling fans, ceramic tile flooring, cable TV hook-ups and window blinds. Each apartment was designed for optimal air flow and cross ventilation, with low VOC interior paint and non-vinyl, non-carpet flooring for better air quality. Site amenities include an outdoor recreational field, sidewalks, a tot lot and pavilion, fencing, a minimum of 108 off-street parking spaces, a community room, an exercise facility, a business center with a computer lab, a library, a central laundry facility and on-site management offices. A full-time supportive services coordinator is available to help residents access health care and other support systems.
Located on the site of the former Louis E. Brown Villas built in 1970, the new community has 22 one-bedroom, 46 two-bedroom and 22 three-bedroom units for low-income families, housed in 12 buildings. The development meets the Enterprise Green Communities and V.I. Housing Authority standards, with rooftop solar hot water heaters for each apartment, high-efficiency lighting, and solar photovoltaic panels sized to offset the cost of the clubhouse electricity usage. Storm water is reused across the site for potable water.
“Together with our partners, we have bounced back from two Category 5 hurricanes to completely transform the old Louis E. Brown with an attractive, affordable housing model for today,” V.I. Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham said at the ceremony. “Every resident deserves this quality of housing to nurture their families, and with the support of Governor Bryan, we are on a roll to revitalize all of our communities on St. Croix.”
The phase three apartments join 102 family units that were completed at Louis E. Brown Villas in 2010 and 40 apartments for seniors that were completed in 2013. The total development cost for all three phases was $80,754,500 and included financing support from the V.I. Housing Authority.
The Louis E. Brown Villas were originally built in 1970 with 436 public housing units. The site was damaged extensively during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. As a result, Louis E. Brown stood vacant and uninhabitable. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Housing Authority embarked on a plan to rebuild the community through a public-private partnership. The old site was demolished in 2009 and the $32 million phase one of the project began in 2010.
In 2011, McCormack Baron Salazar was selected to join the project when it was already underway to help ensure the successful completion of the last two phases. McCormack Baron Salazar completed phase two of the community, the $14.5 million Louis E. Brown Senior Villas, and started phase three in August of 2017. Shortly thereafter, the storms hit the island, causing delays for the $32 million phase of the development.
“The new Louis E. Brown is designed to not only change the lives of the families who will live here — it is also a demonstration of how to overcome obstacles of building high-quality, affordable, resilient housing in the islands,” said Vincent Bennett, president of McCormack Baron Salazar, in prepared remarks. “It is our hope and intention that these apartments will withstand the storms to come and be home to our residents for many years.”