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After Hurricanes, Public Housing May Never Get Rebuilt

When destroyed by disaster, public housing has historically taken years to be replaced -- if at all. What happens to low-income residents in the meantime?

Hurricane Irma Caribbean
People work surrounded by debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Virgin Islands.
(AP/Gabi Gonzalez)
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, local officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands are scrambling to provide shelter and housing to displaced residents. If history is any indication, the poorest people will wait the longest -- and maybe forever -- for a new place to call home on the islands.

Parts of the islands look like “a napalm bomb landscape,” says Myron D. Jackson, president of the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate. “It’s almost like Irma and Maria were personal bandits that really invaded homes and threw the contents out windows and doors," he says.

About 90 percent of the Virgin Islands' buildings have sustained damages, including several public housing complexes, according to the office of U.S. Virgin Islands Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett. About 13,000 structures are roofless. Although the back-to-back Category 5 storms affected residents of all income levels, officials are particularly worried about the damage to Estate Tutu, a high-rise apartment building on St. Thomas with roughly 300 public housing tenants. 

In the past, when powerful storms destroyed public housing in other parts of the United States, it took years -- if ever -- before the government replaced those units.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that after disasters happen, some of the affordable housing stock just never gets replaced,” says Sarah Mickelson, director of policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We saw this happen in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina, and we saw it in Texas after Ike.”

Those storms made some public housing complexes uninhabitable, forcing cities to raze what remained. It took years for Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans to replace their public housing, and in the process, they lost large shares of their low-income residents. In Galveston, Texas, some elected officials resisted rebuilding hundreds of public housing units at all because, they said, it would lower real estate values, breed crime and attract people who wouldn't be able to find work. 

It's too early to know what will happen to the public housing stock in the Virgin Islands, though it's clear that it's needed. Even before the storms, almost a quarter of the Virgin Islands’ residents were living in poverty, which means the territory has a higher poverty rate than any U.S. state. Nationally, less than a quarter of low-income households eligible for federal rental housing assistance receive it, and that appears to be the case in the Virgin Islands. Out of roughly 43,000 households in the territory, only about 5,000 households either had rental vouchers or lived in public housing.

For now, hundreds are living in temporary shelters, but it's unclear where the Virgin Islands' displaced residents will ultimately go. The local housing authority is working to place public housing tenants and rental voucher-holders either in private apartments on the island or, if possible, with families on the U.S. mainland.

“We are a resilient people,” says Virgin Islands Sen. Marvin Blyden, who chairs a committee on housing. “We are doing what we have to do in trying to rebuild and find our way in this difficult time.”

Housing, of course, is just one of the many challenges facing the Virgin Islands. The hurricanes damaged its public water systems and caused widespread power outages. Its hospitals aren't operational. The top industry there, tourism, has been brought to a halt.

Unlike New Orleans or Galveston, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico -- which was also devastated by both hurricanes -- have less say over how Congress will distribute federal disaster funds because they're territories, not states. Their residents, though, are U.S. citizens with access to federal benefits, such as food and housing assistance, but they can't cast a vote for president in the general election. (They can vote in the presidential primaries.) They each have one delegate in Congress who has limited powers -- mostly participating in debates and voting in committees, but not floor votes.

"The challenge that the territories face is that they can’t put pressure on colleagues to pass robust resources," says Mickelson.

Though the Virgin Islands' officials have been less critical of federal recovery efforts than their peers in Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has called for President Trump to hasten the so-called “Blue Roof” program. Where roofs are damaged, contractors from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can install plastic sheeting as a temporary fix. Mapp said the Corps should be able to install 50 sheets a day, but in the first eight days, the program covered only 47 houses.

Mapp met with Trump in Puerto Rico on Tuesday and Vice President Mike Pence is visiting the Virgin Islands on Friday.

*This story has been updated to clarify that the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico each have one delegate in Congress.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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