While still in a conceptual stage, an ambitious “repositioning strategy” that aims to revamp the territory’s public housing landscape and break up centers of poverty is already piquing interest and securing millions in federal dollars.
The plan, which addresses the roughly 3,000 public housing units in the territory, many of which are obsolete and deteriorating, is being described by housing officials as a potential game changer, one that will diversify housing options for low-income families, decentralize poverty and address the dramatic increase in the senior population.
V.I. Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham, whose agency is spearheading the effort, said the plan would also help stem the $200 million in unmet capital needs plaguing public housing in the territory, a number that reflects a national shortfall of nearly $30 billion.
“We have an opportunity to transform the entire old public housing portfolio to lower density, energy-independent, attractive, amenity-rich environments designed to support family self-sufficiency,” Graham said. “The national trend is away from isolated public housing with its associated ills to a broader perspective that produces a transformation to multiple solutions for affordable housing.”
According to Graham, the repositioning strategy would involve replacing 50 percent of the territory’s old, unviable properties with more sustainable units and transitioning 85 percent of them into voucher and homeownership programs, where funding streams are generally longer and more reliable.
The plan would involve five phases over an eight-year period and total roughly $830 million. This would include $301 million from Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds and $121 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Graham said the Housing Authority has already been allocated $70 million in disaster recovery block grant funds and will leverage these and FEMA monies to pursue other funding sources like Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
While lawmakers were given a preliminary outline of each phase, Graham emphasized that details are subject to change based on government and public feedback and that Phase 1 is the only phase currently in a “pre-development” stage.
Phase 1 would involve:
• 40 new senior units at Oswald Harris Court on St. Thomas at $18.1 million.
• 80 new family units in Donoe on St. Thomas at $26.9 million.
• The rehabilitation of 250 units at Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion on St. Croix at $5 million.
• The rehabilitation of 100 units in William’s Delight on St. Croix at $5 million.
• 100 new senior and family units at Ralph deChabert housing community on St. Croix at $45 million.
• 100 new senior and family units at John F. Kennedy housing community on St. Croix at $45 million.
Tentatively, Phase 1 would start construction in 2020 and finish in 2022.
Families in units slated for demolition will be relocated to other housing communities, i.e. families in the JFK community will have units made available for them at the Louis Brown Villas Phase III.
Other options will include the Rental Rehabilitation and Reconstruction program, which allows landlords to fix units damaged by the hurricanes and rent them out to low to moderate income individuals.
Daryl Griffith, executive director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, said the program will be a huge benefit for the territory.
“We still have people from the storms who are living with family members and friends, so this is going to allow people to move out and free up units,” Griffith said. “Also, during the repositioning strategy when certain units go offline, it’s going to allow people to move into actually homes instead of being in an apartment complex.”
Graham said the rental program, which is funded by disaster recovery block grant funds, is indeed one of the most promising in the whole plan, and has the potential to assist families or displaced individuals in gaining more independence.
“About 75 percent of the houses in the territory have a unit that is not necessarily being used,” Graham said. “Let’s say you have a house and a unit and you want to make additional income. If your unit was damaged in the hurricane, they’ll provide a $50,000 grant to you to rehab that unit and bring it back online with the provision that you lease it to a voucher family for 5-10 years. That’s guaranteed income for 60 months or 120 months — you can’t beat that.”
Graham said $5 million in disaster recovery block grant funds have already been approved for the project and $20 million have already been allocated.
“That $5 million is already approved, so 100 units right now, as soon as the Housing Finance Authority finishes writing the regulations and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approves them, 100 units can qualify for that program,” Graham said.
If all goes according to plan, the final phase of the repositioning plan would finish in 2028, with much of the Housing Authority’s inventory enhanced to allow for more open spaces, walkways, parking and health care support for seniors.
An added benefit would be a potential reduction in crime, which, according to Graham, is bound to occur when dense concentrations of poverty are broken up.
“We’re talking about reducing the scale of public housing in this whole effort,” Graham said. “When you have a concentration of poverty like this — the guns, the drugs, the gangs — the police can sometimes be outgunned. So, the police are not going to go up in there unless they have overwhelming force and that’s the problem.”
He continued, “The gangs, the robberies, all that stuff can be changed because we won’t have those kinds of 250 units or 300 units. I’d take down everything over 200 units because that’s just too much concentration of poverty.”
Graham said he has met with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett about the repositioning strategy and discussed ways to secure more federal funds.
On Friday, HUD approved a second portion of funding to the territory, allowing the Housing Authority to greenlight Phase 2 of the plan and a $40 million allocation.
Charrettes to inform the public of this and other details of the plan are expected to begin this summer.
“In the next 60 days, I’ll have a developer’s agreement with both developers on St. Thomas and St. Croix — so then we can start design and charrette discussions by the summer,” Graham said.