ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — As she maneuvers around the temporary beams that support the leaky blue tarp draped over her home, Shelia Freeman tallies all the ways living there has been complicated since Hurricane Irma peeled off her roof in September 2017.
There is still no electricity or running water. To bathe or flush the toilet, Freeman has to empty gallons of bottled water or use a hand pump to retrieve water from an underground cistern. At night, the family is guided by two small battery-powered lights to avoid bumping into furniture that still dampens when it rains. And without refrigeration, Freeman cannot always stock enough ice in her freezer to keep food from spoiling.
Freeman’s daughter inquired about temporary housing as the family waits for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But she was told the government’s priority was sheltering storm victims who had been displaced from severely damaged public housing, she said.
So three generations of the Freeman family — including infant Chardanae — have been stuck living in an uninhabitable home for 18 months.
A shortage of affordable housing on this island territory has forced hundreds of families to remain in damaged and leaky houses during the lengthy recovery effort. The widespread destruction of hotels and public housing, combined with the flood of workers who have rushed to the islands to aid in rebuilding, have pushed rents higher, beyond the means of many disaster victims.
“FEMA’s first traditional weapon is to give you money for rental assistance,” said Brad Gair, a consultant for Witt O’Brien’s, a recovery firm working with the Virgin Islands government. “But if there is nowhere to rent, and there is no affordable rental units here, where are they going to go?”
Even before the territory suffered back-to-back blows from two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, the availability of affordable housing was a major concern on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, the three islands that make up the territory. A month before Hurricane Irma struck, a federal study found the median home price in the territory was nearly seven times the median household income of about $34,000, compared with four times as high on the mainland.
That became an even bigger crisis after the storms destroyed about 18,500 houses and businesses here, including about half of the island’s housing stock.
As it blew over St. Thomas, Irma also destroyed a major public housing project in the Tutu neighborhood, displacing about 300 families. More than a dozen major hotels on the three islands were also damaged or destroyed.
The waiting list for a housing voucher, a rental assistance program for very low-income residents, has grown to about 2,500 families, up from 2,000 before the storms.
The availability of affordable housing has been pinched further by thousands of relief workers and contractors who poured into the territory to help rebuild. Many are entitled to federally funded housing allowances, which make it more profitable for landlords to rent to them instead of residents or even tourists, officials said.
Joe Thayer, a real estate agent on St. Croix who also manages 110 rental properties, said a four-bedroom house on the island now rents for $7,000 a month, nearly double the cost before the hurricane. A one-bedroom condominium rents for about $2,500, up from $1,500 two years ago, Thayer said.
“Because there is nowhere to live, people are doubling up and tripling up to try to make places work,” said Thayer, adding that all of his rental units are not occupied. “Overall, for the island, the reconstruction is having a positive impact, but if you got a house that you need to get fixed, there is no place to go.”
FEMA decided not to bring in trailers, typically used as temporary housing after big disasters on the mainland, because each would cost a quarter-million dollars to ship and set up here, said Daryl Griffith, executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing and Finance Authority.
“And there were no hotels to rent, no houses for them to rent,” he said. “So as they went down their regular tool kit, they realized it just couldn’t work in the territory.”
Instead, FEMA and the Virgin Islands government have relied on the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP, program to try to help uninsured and underinsured homeowners rebuild.
Created by FEMA after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the program is designed to do quick repairs on houses so residents can remain in their homes, capped at $25,000 per house. Last summer, then-FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long granted an exception so the territory could also do more costly, major roof repairs.
“We went a step further with the Virgin Islands because we had a severe issue where we didn’t have a lot of shelters,” said Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinator for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Still, the program — which is slated to cost between $220 million and $500 million — has been structured so contractors tackle the easiest jobs first. That has left about 700 households, including Freeman’s, waiting for assistance.
“We would have loved to do it the other way around, but the issue was with how the programs were designed,” Griffith said. “This was a FEMA pilot program designed to just to do temporary repairs.”
Byrne acknowledged that the housing shortage in the Virgin Islands is part of a broader challenge of finding shelter for victims after disasters. He noted the agency is also trying to help residents displaced by wildfires in California, tornadoes in the South and hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and the East Coast.
CBS News recently reported that some residents of the Florida Panhandle are still living in tents more than six months after Hurricane Michael damaged or destroyed more than 40,000 houses there.
“We as a nation really need to look at our ability to address post-disaster housing to see if we can’t find a better way,” Byrne said. “The problem we have is you can never move fast enough and you can never rebuild fast enough.”
On St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority has restored electricity to Freeman’s neighbors but cannot safely reestablish service to badly damaged structures, such as her one-story house.
Gas for the generator costs about $50 a week for Freeman, who has no steady income.
“It’s just very hard and very frustrating to be living in a house with no current,” said her daughter, Volupte Testamark, using a local term for a fan or air conditioning.
“And all of these mosquitoes,” she added, pointing to the crack in the front door that leaves the house exposed to bugs.
Robert Graham, executive director of the Virgin Islands Housing Authority, said he expects the housing crunch to gradually ease. By the end of the year, Graham said, the contractors will probably start leaving the territory, easing the rental market.
The authority plans to start rebuilding 1,555 affordable housing units next year. It also will add 2,000 Housing Choice vouchers, but it is not clear how soon they will be available.
The territory is also seeking federal assistance to expedite repairs on rental units, which have so far largely been exempt from recovery programs.
In the meantime, the housing shortage is starting to squeeze the middle class, as well, said Thayer, the St. Croix real estate agent. Over the past year, as the tourism industry has rebounded, the territory’s unemployment rate has dropped from 15 percent to about 6 percent, according to the U.S. Virgin Islands Bureau of Economic Research.
But some workers for local tourist shops and restaurants are being forced to sleep on the job site or on their bosses’ couches.
“I know one young man who came here and is sleeping in a tent on the beach,” Thayer said.