Citing the need for additional inspection reports and more time to find alternate housing, the V.I. Port Authority Board voted Monday to cancel the March 31 move-out date for the residents of the Bournefield housing complex, and give both the tenants and the board two more months to sort out relocation issues.
In a special session, which was attended by a handful of Bournefield residents, board members voted to rescind the motion for eviction that was passed during last week’s board meeting. They agreed to allow 60 days for the relocation committee to review the results of a structural integrity and condemnation report and to get further household financial information from tenants.
None of the 42 families living at Bournefield has successfully found alternate accommodations since they were notified last October they would be forced to move. Most can’t afford to pay market-rate rents, and the Housing Authority and Housing Finance Authority said there are years-long waiting lists for section-8 vouchers and public housing.
VIPA property manager Denise Mills said that so far 22 families had submitted the requested financial and demographic information to VIPA, although the number at last week’s board meeting was given as seven. She clarified that seven had given their information directly to VIPA, and she recently learned that 15 more had made submissions through the tenants’ association. Most of the other tenants said they would be contacting the housing authority directly.
VIPA Board Chair Robert O’Connor said relocation efforts were being hampered by a lack of communication between tenants, VIPA and the Housing Authority.
Board member Gordon Finch noted that the tenants were supposed to be informed about the eviction and about the creation of a relocation committee, but he was told that those things had never happened. And several board members were unclear on exactly how many tenants had been in touch with the Housing and Housing Finance authorities to get assistance with relocation.
VIPA Vice Chair Beverly Nicholson-Doty suggested increasing coordination between the three parties to speed the relocation process, and Finch stressed the importance of including the tenants.
"We need tenant involvement with the entire process," Finch said. "The biggest stakeholders in this are the Bournefield tenants."
Attorney General and VIPA Board member Vincent Frazer emphasized that Mills’ staff should be proactive about pursuing a relationship between the VIPA and tenants. "Don’t sit back and wait for them to initiate contact," he said.
O’Connor asked staff to produce a report by next month’s board meeting detailing how many tenants have complied with VIPA’s request to submit household income information. He also recommended increasing the amount of relocation compensation offered to each family. Currently VIPA is offering a cash sum equivalent to six months’ rent.
Though the tenants in attendance did not speak during the meeting, afterward they complained that the board’s efforts and the delay in eviction didn’t really amount to much.
"We want to hear a solution," said lifelong Bournefield resident Josephine Lindquist. "We won’t be able to move right away and they know it. Even if they give us more time, we still don’t have anywhere to go. HA [Housing Authority] and HFA [Housing Finance Authority] said there was nowhere for us. Since we are not being displaced by a natural disaster, we do not have priority for relocation."
Last month Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham said he would try to to help the residents by working with HUD on changing the policies for taking in families in a catastrophe, but he warned it could take months.
Lindquist was also skeptical that communication will improve between the VIPA and the tenants.
"VIPA has been waging a campaign of misinformation," she said. "We didn’t even know there was a relocation committee, because they haven’t contacted us. The residents are united in the feeling that they are not getting the respect due them."
Though most of the board members continued to advocate vacating the complex at a yet-to-be-determined date, others debated whether to allow vacation by attrition, or even refurbishing the units and allowing the residents to stay on.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer argued that total evacuation was the most sensible option because of the structural defects and liability issues of the 60-year-old buildings, which have been plagued by flooding, roof leaks, and foundations that are separating from the walls.
In addition, the structures are not fitted for earthquake and storm activity and have been uninsurable since the mid 1990s. Finch said the cost of refurbishing each unit to a habitable condition would cost between $100,000 and $150,000.
"We have to walk the line when deciding how to do the most compassionate thing," Frazer said. "I don’t think investing $100,000 in every unit is a wise use of Port Authority resources. And I don’t think attrition is the best course of action because risk to the tenants still exists."
Finch argued that attrition was a better strategy than a blanket eviction.
"[Eviction] leaves people scrambling when they can’t find alternate housing," he said. "Let’s go back to the attrition program with full knowledge that we need to condemn units that need to be condemned, and that some units are in worse structural shape than others."
VIPA Executive Director Kenn Hobson noted that the evictions of tenants in three of the units, which routinely experience severe flooding during heavy rains, will be handled separately from the others.
Lindquist and the other residents in attendance, some of whom have lived at Bournefield for decades, said that ideally VIPA would restore the buildings to the state they were in before the decline.
"All this could have been avoided if Port Authority had just maintained the buildings from the start," said a resident.
She and others complained that maintenance on the buildings has been shoddy for years, when it is done at all. They said that it takes months to get anything fixed, and the maintenance staff are often completely unresponsive.
"Why don’t you take the money we pay every month in rent and reinvest it in the property?" Lindquist pleaded to Frazer.
Frazer responded that VIPA is not in the business of housing.
Lindquist added that though they are not planning it at the moment, the residents would be prepared to take legal action if necessary to stay in their homes. "This whole situation was ill-planned, ill advised, and ill-conceived," she said.
She added that a legislative hearing on the matter is scheduled for March 10 at 6 p.m. at Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall.
Though at one time Bournefield was being considered as the new home for Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, at the moment there is no concrete plan for redevelopment except that it will be used for an aviation-related project.
"We’re still in the discussion phase at this point," said Hobson. "We don’t even have preliminary plans yet. It may end up as a rental car parking lot, or as warehouse space. The FAA dictates that it must be aviation-related."