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5 Policies to Combat Gentrification in the VI

One of the largest contributors that has kept the Virgin Islands growing through the decades is the sheer loyalty of Virgin Islanders. Through hurricanes, rising taxes, increases in basic costs of living, and declining living standards, the innate belief of Virgin Islanders to protect and better their homes is the unrewarded hero of growth in the Virgin Islands. Now with a new challenge on the horizon, how will Virgin Islanders handle gentrification? The word itself can bring about feelings of dread and malice among islands and other small communities, alike. 

Gentrification is the phenomenon of affluent folks moving into less wealthy neighborhoods, renovating homes and attracting new businesses. In the process, property values increase, rent goes up, and poorer neighborhood residents are displaced. When a neighborhood gentrifies, and housing values go up, incumbent renters in that neighborhood are at risk of being priced out. 

Events like the 2017 hurricanes which devastated the USVI led to a plethora of people leaving the islands on mercy flights and cruises. This led to increased paranoia about “stateside investors” using this opportunity to buy up damaged properties, and in some cases, this became a reality. Rising prices seem to be a trend on all the islands in the USVI.  This is not an isolated event, however; it’s been happening to small cities everywhere around the Caribbean and the continental United States. Fortunately, some governments have laws and practices in place that help protect lower-waged locals from the negative effects of gentrification.  

Here are 5 Policies that could help the USVI combat Gentrification:

Policy 1: Reduce or freeze property taxes to protect long-time residents

Major cities across The United States are establishing tax programs that help retain long-time homeowners, especially in at-risk neighborhoods. This initiative in major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., are centered on reducing or freezing property taxes to promote neighborhood stability, especially for those who have stayed through high crime, and declining property value as is seen in the Virgin Islands. 

It is understood that these taxes play a large part in the overall revenue, but this is just a part of a broader strategy to aid long time homeowners who continue to struggle since such hardships as the mortgage crisis or the hurricanes to keep their houses. This policy change can also bring about a resurgence of young Virgin Islanders returning to the islands and investing in the growth of the Virgin Islands in a meaningful way.  

Policy 2: Anti-Displacement Policies Help

In Chinatown, the community and city undertook a concerted effort in the 1980s to implement policies preserving the low-income population there. The city down-zoned parcels in Chinatown, reducing their development potential, and made demolition extremely difficult.

While the areas surrounding the core of Chinatown have experienced dramatic rent increases, rents in Chinatown itself have grown only slightly. This is likely due to the high proportion of the housing stock in Chinatown that is rent controlled—over 90%—and the effectiveness of the conversion and demolition protections that kept that rent-controlled stock standing.

This can be achieved by prioritizing longtime, low-income residents for eligibility within new affordable housing, earmarking taxes and fees triggered by development for use in the same neighborhood and establishing affordability requirements in new developments that are based on local neighborhood income needs.

Policy 3: Protect Senior Homeowners 

 Protecting senior homeowners is a must. In the USVI, a growing concern is that low- and moderate-income seniors are choosing to sell because they cannot afford rising property taxes in gentrifying neighborhoods and cannot afford the upkeep on their homes. The government should dramatically increase funding for existing senior emergency home repair programs

This program would allow homeowners who have lived in their homes for 10 years or more whose overall household income is less than about 100,000 annually, to cap and freeze their assessments for 10 years if the assessments have substantially increased.

Policy 4: Changing the Fair Housing Rules

In order to provide federal resources disproportionately in at-risk majority-minority neighborhoods, , the fair housing rules themselves need to be re-written.  Older fair housing rules can discourage equitable investment in at-risk neighborhoods, based on policies opposing concentrations of poverty and favoring relocation to suburban “opportunity communities.” With the Virgin Islands 5-year Strategic Plan 2015-2019 coming to an end a new plan can be imposed. Fair housing instead should affirmatively promote equitable investment in emerging urban opportunity communities the neighborhoods of color at-risk of gentrification. Which is the majority of the Virgin Islands. 

For More Information on the current Housing Performance Follow the link 

Policy 5: Design the Law around the people, not against them. 

In order to secure and strengthen rights and opportunities for vulnerable residents, ensure communities are informed and involved in key development decisions, and contribute to successful policy design and enforcement.  This policy should include penalties for non-compliance, so that the burden of enforcement does not fall onto vulnerable residents, including policy design features to minimize displacement, rights for residents faced with eviction, just compensation in cases of displacement, right to return if temporary relocation is required, and access to information about rights and opportunities.  All of this can be supported by local, regional, state, and federal funding sources.

Extra Policy: By the People for The People regardless of government

A new strategy should be developed by rising Virgin Islands activist. This strategy is called the creation of Community Land Trusts (CLT). A land trust is different from conventional ownership. A trust separates the ownership of the land from the ownership of the building. A nonprofit organization, with a board usually composed of representatives from tenants and the surrounding neighborhood, owns the land and leases it to the homeowner for a designated period. The homeowner has the right to sell the land at any time, but the return to the homeowner is limited. This overall can help keep important pieces of land locally owned and can stabilize uncertain rent rises. 

Trusts such as these have begun to spring all over America, including in New York. This trust has officially launched its first project that will convert 250 units into permanent affordable housing. 

Finally, apart from the policy discussion, the gentrification conversation has to be framed around the underlying issues of power and race that created inequitable development here and make gentrification possible. The government of the Virgin Islands must build a strategy and an overarching vision that doesn’t shift the balance of power away from the communities, and most importantly, rewards the century of loyalty that Virgin Islanders have shared unconditionally.