Housing Authority, officially under local control, OKs demolition of deChabert housing community

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ST. THOMAS - The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given the V.I. Housing Authority a grant of nearly $4 million to demolish the abandoned Ralph deChabert Place housing community on St. Croix.

That news greeted the newly formed Virgin Islands Housing Authority board on Wednesday at its first official meeting since HUD handed control of the authority back to the V.I. Government last month. The Housing Authority had been under direct federal control for almost 11 years.

Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham on Wednesday told board members that the agency had been trying for years to convince HUD to provide funds to demolish deChabert.

DeChabert is an empty shell of a housing community, a conglomeration of broken and abandoned buildings that sits on the Christiansted waterfront near the Richmond power plant. It comprises 264 units in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair, and Graham said it had been sitting vacant for six to eight years.

The money for demolition came through with help from HUD and local officials, according to Graham, who noted that the demolition project "goes to the heart of sustainability for the Housing Authority."

"It provides an opportunity," Graham said. "We can clear the land, have that 19 acres ready for development, and in that can be the anchor for a revitalization of the entire Christiansted."

Graham noted that the V.I. Economic Development Authority has created a town plan for Christiansted, a proposal that still is before the governor for approval. He said that once that decision has been made, the Housing Authority would like to work with the Economic Development Authority to prepare a Choice Neighborhoods planning grant application to plan for redevelopment.

Graham said the $4 million for demolition from HUD was an Emergency Capital Fund grant that the Housing Authority received in May. Those funds are the same ones that HUD uses when there is an emergency, such as a hurricane or tornado, he said.

He noted that part of the reason for the emergency funding is the potential danger the abandoned community poses. He said there is squatting and dumping there and that its empty buildings create a potential haven for criminal activity.

"That was part of the justification," he said.

One of the higher profile crimes that has occurred in deChabert since its residents were moved into other communities was the July 2010 murder of Louis Roldan, who was shot several times in the vehicle he was driving before his assailants set the car ablaze. Roldan had been convicted, along with two police officers, on charges stemming from a conspiracy to extort $5,000 from a suspected drug dealer. He was awaiting sentencing when he was murdered in the abandoned housing community.

On Wednesday, Graham said that the Housing Authority has two years from the grant award date in May to use up the $4 million for demolishing deChabert. The entire amount must be obligated within a year and spent within two years, he said.

He told the board that he expects to bring them two contracts on the project later this year: one for architecture and engineering services to prepare specifications for the demolition, and another for a contractor to do the actual demolition, following a procurement process.

Graham said he expects in July to bring the board a resolution to consider on the contract for architecture and engineering services, he said.

Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch, who sits on the board because of his position, noted that the Housing Authority will need to have some public meetings with area residents about the demolition before it begins.

Board chairman Luis Sylvester said he has some concern about tight timelines to expend the grant within two years, but Graham said the deadlines will be met.

Also on Wednesday, the board took action on a number of resolutions, including one that noted the selection of officers for the board.

The five members of the board who were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the V.I. Legislature are Sylvester; George Blackhall; Daphne Edwards; Collette Jones; and Noreen Michael. In addition, Finch and Adrienne Williams, the director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, serve on the board by virtue of their positions.

While the Housing Authority still was under federal control, the board served as an advisory board to Kimberly Wize, the HUD official who oversaw the operations of the Housing Authority.

Sylvester said Wednesday that one of Wize's last actions before the agency reverted to local control was to select him as chairman and Blackhall as vice-chairman of the board.

However, she told them that they needed to consider the matter and take action themselves once they were serving as a regular board, he said.

By secret ballot, the board unanimously selected Sylvester as chairman and Blackhall as vice-chairman. Blackhall was not present at the meeting, nor was Michael or Edwards.

In other action, the board:

- Passed a resolution that approves entering into a housing assistance payment contract with Sugar Estates Associates, subject to HUD's written approval. The agreement would allocate 79 Housing Choice Vouchers to the proposed new senior housing community in Sugar Estate. The community is to have 80 units, but one will be for a manager, officials said.

- Authorized the write-off as uncollectible of $33,379 in vacated tenant accounts on St. Thomas and $20,069 in vacated tenant's accounts for St. Croix, for a total of $53,448 for the first quarter of 2014.

- Approved the Housing Authority entering into a three-year contract not to exceed $307,554 with Softmart to upgrade its software suite from Microsoft Office 2007 to Office 2013 for the agency's approximately 140 computers and laptops and 16 servers.

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

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