Christensen Addresses Housing Concerns

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Editor,

We all get tired of the parallels that are drawn between Washington, D.C. and the USVI, but since this is where I spend my time on your behalf when I’m not at home, I can’t help but use some of their experiences to highlight and help put our challenges and possible solutions in context.

While traveling home recently, I read two articles in the Washington Post on the skyrocketing costs of both residential and commercial real estate and some of the local remedies the mayor is seeking to apply to what has become a nationwide problem.

The articles reminded me of my intention to write a guest editorial as a follow up to our Housing Summit in St. John two months ago. So here it is.

The summit which was sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation was held on St. John, not because it is the only one of our islands where the cost of housing or homeownership is rapidly excluding anyone but the rich and very rich, but because it is where it is most acute. All of us — on St. Thomas and St. Croix — have begun to feel the same crunch.                  

At the Saturday summit we heard from one young woman, a public servant, who owned her land but still could not secure even a small mortgage to help her and her children build their home. We heard from others on the waiving of regulations for big developers while local individuals and families faced the most stringent applications of the same. We heard the fear of loss of home and property, but we also heard solutions offered. Some were realistic, a few somewhat short of that.                

And we heard the perennial call for a “comprehensive land and water use plan,” and even the call for a moratorium on major development until one is in place. I support both of these.

I brought a friend of mine from Puerto Rico, Lucy Cuadrado Pitterson, who used to live on St. Croix and who now heads up a community organization that faced and is still facing, but coming to grip with similar challenges.

One of the highlights of the symposium was the report from Clifford Graham on behalf of the Housing Finance Authority. They were still in court on the Calabash Boom housing, but he spoke with optimism of the justification of the project and their approach and their other plans and vision for future affordable housing. His comments and those of private local developer, Mr. Maurice Wheatley, were very encouraging.

The program was moderated by former Senator Emmett Hansen who sponsored and passed legislation aimed at heading off a housing crisis, which has yet to be implemented.      

One of the messages we wanted to leave is that we can and ought to do some of the same things Mayor Fenty is doing and proposing in Washington, D.C.:
– Use of government-owned land and private developers (public-private partnerships) to build homes and rental property
– Use of a portion of commercial property taxes to subsidize rentals and mortgages
– Community benefits agreements which require developers to set aside up to 30 percent of their units for households at certain income levels

And there are others worthy of consideration:
– Inclusionary zoning
– Land trusts
– Community benefit agreements

The point of this long overdue editorial is to call attention as some, like Robert DeJongh and others did long ago, to the crisis that is here now on St. John and looming on St. Croix and St. Thomas, before it is too late. And to issue a call to action to all of us who have it within our spheres of influence to do something about it.

The new valuations ought to be a wake up call! 

Sincerely,
Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen