Feds to relinquish control of Housing Authority


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The long-awaited transfer of control of the V.I. Housing Authority from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Virgin Islands Government is in the works.

A ceremony in which the transfer will be signed is anticipated for Friday afternoon at Government House. The V.I. Housing Authority has been in federal receivership for almost 11 years.

A decision by HUD to return a public housing agency that had been in receivership to local control typically indicates that HUD considers the agency's operations to be back in good, solid and sustainable working order - a boon for public housing residents.

Typically before transferring an agency back to the local government, HUD reviews all aspects of the agency's operations and does a comprehensive assessment to ensure that the agency can sustain operations at a high level. The housing stock also has to meet certain criteria.

The loss of control of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority in 2003 was a thorn in the side of the V.I. Government for years, although in recent years, the local government has worked more closely with HUD in an attempt to make improvements in the territory's aging public housing stock and get long-vacant apartments refurbished and back online.

HUD seized control of the troubled V.I. Housing Authority on Aug. 20, 2003, after six weeks of maneuvering in which the federal agency repeatedly pressed for the Housing Authority board to voluntarily relinquish control of the authority. HUD cited financial mismanagement and the Housing Authority's default on its obligation to maintain complete and accurate financial records.

Local officials refused to give in and tried other tactics - such as dissolving the authority's existing board and appointing an interim board - in an attempt to fend off the federal takeover and maintain local control of the agency.

Ultimately, though, the tactics failed, the takeover occurred, and the local board was no more.

Instead, HUD appointed a federal receiver from its ranks to oversee the takeover. Although the receiver has changed over the years, a HUD official still oversees activities at the authority, acting as a one-person board and guiding the agency's actions.

A few months after the 2003 takeover, federal officials described just how troubled the agency was.

Michael Liu, who was assistant secretary of HUD's Office of Public and Indian Housing at the time, described a number of problems, in addition to the long-standing problems with financial mismanagement, that officials discovered in the months after the takeover. Those included contracts awarded without funds or resources to support them; more than 150 vehicles assigned to the Housing Authority, which amounted to one car for every two employees; and approximately 18 percent of the Housing Authority's units that were offline and not livable.

Through the years, operations at the authority have slowly improved.

In fact, the agency has redeveloped two phases of the Louis E. Browne Villas housing community with help from the local government, which awarded the project Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

Almost a year ago, Gov. John deJongh Jr. nominated board members for the V.I. Housing Authority, local residents who have been getting training and will take over as a board once HUD returns the Housing Authority to local control.

The Senate confirmed deJongh's nominations of George Blackhall, Daphne Edwards, Noreen Michael and Luis Sylvester to the board in August.

Earlier this year, the Housing Authority scored a "high" performance rating for its Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly called Section 8.

According to information on HUD's website, there are seven public housing agencies across the nation that are in administrative receivership, including the V.I. Housing Authority. The other six are the East St. Louis Housing Authority, the Wellston Housing Authority in Wellston, Mo., the New Orleans Housing Authority, the Detroit Housing Commission, the Housing Authority of the City of Lafayette, La., and the Gary Housing Authority in Gary, Ind.

In addition, the Chester Housing Authority in Chester, Pa., is in judicial receivership, which means it is monitored and supervised by a federal court, according to HUD.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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