The California executive in charge of affordable housing programs for American Insurance Group joined the Attorney General of the Virgin Islands last week in a tour of Bellevue Apartments. They came to inspect storm damage inflicted by two catastrophic storms that crossed St. John last year.
Residents of the duplex apartment complex in Gifft Hill formed a tenants association in April to press complaints about a landlord seemingly unresponsive to the living conditions left in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Association president Kenesha Small joined Attorney General Claude Walker and AIG Affordable Housing President Tom Musante on their inspection of stricken units.
Also on hand for the tour were contractors from Shear Construction, recently hired to oversee the mitigation project.
In June, Walker sent a letter to AIG, giving them 30 days to inform the Justice Department about their plans to repair the property.
A tour of four units took place that day. From the outside, the homes at Bellevue look untouched. Small said she has visited almost all of the units since the hurricanes struck in September.
A cleanup of airborne debris and fallen trees after the storm left Bellevue looking in order. But the tidy outward appearance, she said, is not all there is to see.
One of the first units visited by repair crews belongs to Keryn Bryan, who moved in, in 2006. She stood by while visiting officials pushed aside the plastic sheeting to peek into the kitchen.
“I have big holes in the roof,” the tenant said and wondered aloud if unchecked moisture between the walls could harbor mold.
Hurricane force winds lifted the roof, allowing sheets of water to stream down the interior walls, Bryan said. The roof stayed on, but she voiced concerns about structural damage, now covered by new sheetrock.
In another unit, a workman used a dry vac to clean out damp debris above a drop ceiling. For those with breathing problems, mold makes a home unlivable, Small said.
But as difficult as life has been for some since the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Musante defended the decision to allow continuous occupation of available dwellings.
“We’ve left tenants in place because there’s a lack of alternative housing,” he said.
Walker said, after speaking to some tenants, most would prefer to stay home anyway. Residents, in general, said they liked Bellevue and would rather stick it out through the repair phase.
They just want to see the process get started, he said.
“We discussed the rehabilitation plan and it is on track as they have hired a construction firm from New York with boots on the ground, Walker said.
“It was a very good meeting. We were able to meet with a number of the tenants and the contractors and I’m very convinced that this work will be done in a relatively short time. It must be several months before it’s totally done. From what I can see, the work has started and is on its way. The contractors have confirmed that they are committed to getting this job done.”
Bellevue, along with Luvlund Apartments on St. Thomas and Calabash Boom Housing Community, also on St. John, are owned by AIG and were built by Reliance Housing in the 1990s and 2000s.
Musante said Lovelund and Bellevue sustained most of the storm damage, while Calabash Boom fared relatively well.
Musante said he appreciated AG Walker’s taking the time to come out and see the property, and explained why it took AIG so long to begin the renovations. The pace of recovery, island-wide led to a shortage of workers, he said. Likewise, materials being shipped in for repairs are delayed because of the volume of supplies passing through Customs.
Schear General Contractor David Gembala said repair crews were currently deployed on St. Thomas and St. John, with 11 living on site at Bellevue. Schear wants to hire 15 more workers locally, and is planning to bring in 20 more from off-island, Gembala said.
Association president Small thanked those who responded to the resident’s cries. “Our concern was just the time frame. It’s August now and anything could happen,” she said.