Most homeowners in the Virgin Islands feel that living in paradise is worth the occasional dramatic weather and the cleanup that comes with it. However, for owners of some of the area’s historic homes the aftermath comes at a greater cost. Storms like Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn, can create such extensive damage that homeowners are unable to afford restorations that homes dating as far back as the 18th century require. Many owners are forced to abandon their properties, leaving homes that are in serious disrepair.
Over the years, the islands have seen an increasing number of abandoned, storm battered homes that are now weighted down with years of back taxes. What were once neighborhoods filled with rich history have become blighted areas that affect property values, tourist economy and the quality of life for islanders.
The island’s REALTOR® association took matters into their own hands, advocating for residents by leading the charge to preserve these endangered properties. Belton Jennings, RCE CAE CIPS, executive officer of the 292-member Virgin Islands Territorial Association of REALTORS® (VITAR), Legislative Chair April Newland and VITAR President Kerstin McConnell, led a campaign to get legislation passed that will not only preserve these endangered properties, but rehabilitate them to their highest and best use.
The association was not successful in passing similar legislation back in 2011 but are optimistic about the current campaign now that they are armed with a grant from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). “NAR’s support allowed us to put together a very effective, sustained campaign.” said Jennings.
A website and Facebook page were created to raise awareness and recruit residents to form the Community Alliance to Preserve Our Historic Neighborhoods. The NAR grant also funded a study by local architect and urban planner, Dr. Wanda Mills-Bocachica, who, with the help of students from the University of the Virgin Islands, compiled the first-ever in-depth survey of historic structures within the islands’ three National Historic Districts. The survey demonstrated that more than 400 historic buildings were in “fair to poor” condition – the point at which the damage becomes difficult to reverse.
The NAR grant also enabled the association to launch a high-profile advertising and public relations campaign, with REALTORS® Newland and McConnell making the rounds of every radio and TV talk show in the islands. “We made it clear that if we don’t act now, it’s going to affect the local economy and our attractiveness to investors.” said Jennings.
The bill developed by VITAR and the Community Alliance to Preserve Our Historic Neighborhoods must still clear the legislature’s powerful Rules Committee to be put to a vote on the floor of the legislature this fall, but Jennings believes they will succeed. The Governor has indicated that he will sign it into law, and then – the actual work of preservation and rehabilitation begins.