V.I. Port Authority officials were left with few options Thursday night after senators threatened to pass a bill staying the eviction of their Bournefield tenants.
The bill proved to be unnecessary, however, as VIPA Board Chairman Robert O’Connor Jr. offered up a mea culpa about 10 minutes into Senate’s Housing and Labor Committee meeting, saying that the agency had made mistakes, was guilty of not enforcing its previous policies and, in hindsight, should have evaluated the situation from the residents’ point of view before deciding last November to give them four months to move out of their homes.
While there was a genuine concern that the Bournefield housing units were subpar and continuously in need of repair because they’re located in a flood zone, it could have been that the board was eager to divest itself of the liability instead of looking at the whole situation, O’Connor said.
The saga between VIPA and Bournefield started more than a decade ago, with similar incidents playing out as recently as 2006, when it was thought that the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School would be relocated to the area. O’Connor explained Thursday that at one point an agreement — where the Port said it would simply stop filling the units once they’d been vacated — has not been enforced, but will be going forward.
The board has not officially voted on it, but there is also a general consensus that the residents would not be asked to move unless the authority was able to find them replacement housing, O’Connor told committee chairman Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who said he was prepared to move the bill staying the eviction if the port had not "changed its tune."
White still decided to move ahead with the meeting after O’Connor’s testimony, giving the Bournefield residents — through their representative Josephine Lindquist — a chance to air their complaints. Lindquist has been the “voice of the tenants” for years, but this time around also gave her daughter, Jasmine, a chance to share microphone.
A 16-year-old student at Charlotte Amalie High School, Jasmine Lindquist painted a picture of childhood birthday parties held in the front yard, Christmas scavenger hunts and a community that looked out for one another, no matter what.
"I like Bournefield because I always had a yard to play in, a safe place to ride my bike," she said. "I am the person I am today because I had the opportunity to live in a neighborhood like this…"
Jasmine Lindquist asked senators to find a way for the Bournefield residents to finally own their own homes, so they "don’t have to worry about the government kicking us out."
Galvanized by her words, senators spent the rest of the hearing doing just that: offering solutions that O’Connor and others said they would look into. Senate President Ronald E. Russell, for example, suggested that the land be taken by eminent domain or transferred to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, which would set up a rent-to-own fund or program for the residents.
O’Connor and VIPA counsel Don Mills later explained that the land on which Bournefield now sits is slated for airport expansion, and were it not to be used as such, then any sale or transfer would have to go through the federal government.
Russell was unfazed.
"The Port Authority made a mistake, you admit it," he said. "Now let’s do the right thing for the people."
Sen. Janette Millin-Young later pointed out that the discussion also highlighted the need for more housing in the territory, and questioned — after it was brought up by V.I. Real Estate Commission representatives that rent for a three-bedroom apartment on the market ranged from $1,100 to $8,000 a month — why a state of emergency hasn’t been declared.
"We should all be plugging away at this on a consistent basis," she said.
The hearing, which boasted a packed chamber full of Bournefield residents, wrapped up after 10 p.m. Thursday. While the bill did not end up making its way onto the floor, White said later that he was "pleased" all parties were able to come to some sort of resolution.
"I won the battle," he said. "I always do."
Present during Thursday’s meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Millin-Young, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Patrick Simeon Sprauve.