Amid pressure from the Legislature and residents, the V.I. Port Authority has drafted, but not yet adopted, a new proposal to handle the process of relocating tenants from the aging Bournefield housing complex.
The proposal allows for a gradual five-year transition period in which residents will be phased out by attrition rather than forced eviction, as was previously planned.
The draft proposal was on the agenda of Wednesday’s monthly VIPA board meeting, but due to time constraints the board did not get a chance to discuss it, nor vote on adopting it. Discussion was tabled until the May meeting.
A copy of the proposal, as found in the meeting agenda packet, reveals that VIPA wants to use the land for a car rental and public parking garage facility, and for the expansion of cargo handling facilities. It sets an end date of Oct. 1, 2016 for the move-out of all tenants.
Specific provisions include:
– New five-year lease agreements that begin Oct. 1, 2011 and expire Sept. 30, 2016, with no option for renewal
– Any unit that becomes vacant between Oct. 1, 2011 and Sept. 30, 2016 shall not be re-leased to a new tenant, and successor rights will not be granted to anyone else
– Lease agreements will not be granted to tenants who currently hold title to other property on St. Thomas, and those persons must vacate Bournefield by Sept. 30, 2011
An additional memorandum attached to the proposal details how much and what kind of maintenance will be done over the next five years to keep the 42 occupied units in minimally habitable condition, and includes provisions to smooth relations with tenants and assist with relocation.
A ceiling of $40,000 was set for raising the living condition standard in units in need of repair, due to "budgetary constraints and a reasonable return over a five-year lease period." If repair costs are expected to exceed that amount, the unit will be vacated and demolished. At least two temporary trailer homes will be set up on the grounds to house tenants whose units are undergoing repairs.
This amount differs greatly from what was previously estimated would be needed to bring crumbling units up to code. Back in November, a structural engineer’s report said that single-family units would cost $72,000 to rehabilitate, while double units would cost up to $150,000. Most, if not all, of the units have significant electrical and plumbing problems, plus many have water damage from leaky roofs.
The memo’s provision on VIPA-tenant relations sanctions the creation of a "tenant/VIPA public information initiative and council" but does not give any details on what such a council will look like, nor how or how often the two parties will interact. It simply states that it will "help insure that concerns and needs of the community are addressed timely."
Another provision promises that VIPA will offer ongoing review and counseling to identify alternate housing opportunities, but again it does not specify to what extent.
The new proposal is a radical departure from the VIPA’s previous stance toward Bournefield, which it wanted to demolish as soon as possible. In November 2010 plans were drawn up to evict tenants by March 31, 2011, a deadline that both residents and politicians said was wildly unrealistic.
Tenants complained that they could not afford market rate housing elsewhere on the island, and found that waiting lists for Section-8 and public housing already had thousands of people on them. As of early March, none of the 42 families had secured alternate housing.
In February, angry residents enlisted the help of various senators, who began pushing VIPA to find a resolution to the issue that would not leave tenants with the threat of imminent homelessness. After threatening to pass a bill staying the eviction of the tenants, VIPA backed down and agreed to cancel the eviction.
At its March meeting, the VIPA board officially rescinded its decision to evict, and discussed ways to more slowly move tenants out while maintaining the safety of the units. The proposal released Wednesday was the result of these talks and of further discussion within the property committee.
On April 20 the Senate passed a measure requiring the VIPA to submit its Bournefield plan to the Senate for approval within 60 days and to ensure that tenants are relocated into "decent, safe, and sanitary dwelling accommodations within their means."
Longtime Bournefield resident Rivo Hodge said he is pleased with the recent turn of events. A retired Port Authority land survey assistant, he has lived at Bournefield for 36 years. Until the intervention of the Senate, he felt like he was being railroaded out by his former employer.
"They violated federal housing laws. They used to duck and dodge, they found excuses," said Hodge, who attended Wednesday’s board meeting. "When you put a person out of their home you deprive them of their constitutional and civil rights."
"If we had never gone to the Legislature, they would have never changed the plan," he continued. "It gave us more ampage to get them to do what we want them to do. I feel good because we did the right thing."
However, Hodge was not overly impressed with VIPA’s new proposal, having seen the board flip-flop many times over the years, and make and break many promises to residents.
"It all sounds like a bunch of [bulls**t] to me," he quipped.