The casual visitor here who sees mostly vacation condominiums and mountainside villas may not be aware that the U.S. Virgin Islands have more federally funded public housing per capita than any city on the mainland.

Nearly one out of five of the 100,000 people who live on the principal islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix, lives in a public housing project and one out of six dwelling units on the islands is located in a project. These are generally low-rise rental or "turnkey" ownership developments. The Virgin Islands Housing Authority has nearly 5,000 units in 32 separate projects and is unquestionably the single largest provider of shelter in the Caribbean.

In contrast, there are 11,000 units of public housing in the District of Columbia, which has a population of 720,000.

Government officials in St. Thomas explain the expanding role of the housing authority -- it has more than doubled its units in eight years -- as essential in the high-cost local housing market.

"There's relatively little available in the way of good quality housing in between the $90,000 condos and a shack -- except public housing," said one territorial official. There are a few moderate-income subdivisions on St. Thomas and St. Croix that house the middle class, he noted, "but public housing here serves a much broader segment of the population than back on the mainland."

Public housing, he said, "functions as a sort of social glue in this crazy ceonomy. Without all that federal housing out there, we might have some really serious tensions on these little islands."