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New head of VIHFA brings innovative vision for affordable housing; prioritizes community, honesty

Eugene Jones Jr., Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority executive director, poses for a photo in his office on St. Thomas.
Eugene Jones Jr., Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority executive director, poses for a photo in his office on St. Thomas.

ST. THOMAS — When Eugene Jones Jr. relocated to the territory to begin leading the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority earlier this month as executive director, he brought his exceptional skills transforming public housing agencies across North America and the ability to think differently when it comes to providing affordable housing solutions suitable for the hilly terrain.

Renowned in the public housing industry as “Mr. Fix It” for helping housing authorities under federal receivership and his commitment to providing quality affordable housing, Jones, or “Gene,” has an innovative vision to develop housing in the territory for the workforce or seniors and families.

He recently discussed a need to collaborate with the community and his staff to continue moving VIHFA’s initiatives forward in a positive direction while taking advantage of available disaster recovery funding.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and having fun every stretch of it,” Jones said from the VIHFA conference room in the agency’s Frenchtown office on St. Thomas.

His goal is to make VIHFA a one-stop agency that contributes to the territory’s success. His philosophy as a leader in the housing industry includes public accountability, signing documents without procrastination and proper management.

“Don’t micromanage people, manage people to the extent that you can; believe in them, trust in them,” Jones said. “They’re the experts. Don’t sit there and try to outthink them.”

A military child and U.S. Air Force veteran born outside Detroit; Jones started his 10-year enlistment in the military at 17 years old in the footsteps of his father after graduating high school in Tokyo. He subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a Master of Business Administration in finance. He has moved around his entire life and lived in various cities and countries overseas like Greece and Germany. He has more than 40 years of experience in the public housing industry and is ready to leave his mark on the Virgin Islands.

“When I move around, I do things specifically for who I work for, so I’m doing everything I can for the territory,” he said. “I can’t be disingenuous. I gotta be very honest and open and transparent.”

Jones has a proven track record of improving living conditions and fostering vibrant communities in major U.S. cities and Canada, where in Toronto he was the first African American to manage a housing agency outside of the United States. He’s shared his skills in developing affordable housing in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta, which is where he most recently served as executive director of the city’s housing authority.

“His leadership and vision will undoubtedly steer our organization towards greater heights, furthering our mission of providing affordable housing solutions to the residents of the Virgin Islands,” Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal, who serves as VIHFA board chair, said in a statement.

Jones took over as VIHFA executive director following the resignation of Daryl Griffith, who served as the agency’s executive director from August 2017 until he transitioned to take on the role of chief financial officer of the VI Waste Management Authority in February 2022. Dayna Clendinen, VIHFA chief disaster recovery officer, served as the agency’s interim executive director.

With knowledge of how to use federal funds for homeownership opportunities, Jones is prepared to immediately spend about $774 million in disaster recovery mitigation funds toward infrastructure as he starts his new journey with the Housing Finance Authority. He has an innovative vision for affordable housing and understands the need to quickly move plans forward while federal funds are available with input from his staff and the public, laying out a succession plan to give younger staff the opportunity to escalate their careers.

“I go there to get the job done,” he said. “I bring people together, I bring staff together and the collaboration within the city, and all the political government activities,” he said. “We make it work.”

After learning from his experiences revitalizing financially struggling housing authorities nationwide, Jones published his first book, “Housing Humans: A Vicarious Memorandum,” in 2020 to identify that there is a need for a national housing policy. Jones, who is working on his second book, said appropriated funding must be enough to develop more affordable housing to end homelessness throughout the U.S. mainland and territories.

Jones didn’t move to St. Thomas to take VIHFA into the next decade by redoing projects he has previously completed in other jurisdictions. He discussed the importance of keeping the momentum going that the Housing Finance Authority already has by enhancing the agency’s existing plans while obtaining community buy-in.

“I’ve got to hit the ground running to the extent that I listen to my staff, listen to the individuals in the community and come up with a thought process and a strategy, and discuss it with the staff and also with the board of commissioners,” he said.

Eugene Jones Jr., Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority executive director, sits at his desk in his office on St. Thomas.
Eugene Jones Jr., Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority executive director, sits at his desk in his office on St. Thomas.

In addition to the Authority’s turnkey housing programs in developed neighborhoods and opportunities for residents to build on a lot, Jones is open to other options that result in housing for Virgin Islanders. He has ideas to lower price points to make homeownership possible for more people by leaning on his staff and collaborating with partner agencies that provide social services.

“If wages are not going up to complement the price of affordability, we’re never gonna get there, and so it’s up to us to make that gap work and give people hope,” he said, adding that VIHFA must forge the way for homeownership. “We don’t talk about never. We talk about opportunity. We’ve got to make it happen.”

Getting out from behind his desk to work with people in an honest and transparent way with an open mind to possible housing solutions is his secret to success.

“You have to engage with the community and listen,” he said.

His innovative success stories for public housing during his time in Chicago included building libraries with senior housing on the roofs and building affordable housing above Target department stores. Jones pointed out the territory’s topography as a primary housing challenge, noting he has never built on such hilly terrain or hard ground.

“It gets you scary sometimes, but I think the challenges are to make that happen,” he said, noting options beyond single-family housing. “I think on St. Croix we can do multi-family housing collaborative with, hopefully, the Housing Authority here in the Virgin Islands, and doing some collaboration with other private developers and provide great affordable housing and mixing it up.”

Perspective homebuyers will have a chance to speak with the VIHFA homeownership staff about financing and building options during the agency’s upcoming homeownership fair. Bank officials will participate to discuss financial options and employees from The Home Depot will cover building aspects.

“We’re bringing those two together and trying to mend those ways in which people thought they couldn’t ever achieve to be in a home,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”

The homeownership fairs are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 1 in the Elridge Lake Sports and Fitness Center at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas and June 29 in UVI’s Great Hall on St. Croix.

Tom Eader is the Chief Reporter for WTJX. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, Eader received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University, where he wrote for his college newspaper. He moved to St. Croix in 2003, after landing a job as a reporter for the St. Croix Avis. Eader worked at the Avis for 20 years, as both a reporter and photographer, and served as Bureau Chief from 2013 until their closure at the beginning of 2024. Eader is an award-winning journalist, known for his thorough and detailed reporting on multiple topics important to the Virgin Islands community. Joining the WTJX team in January of 2024, Eader brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the newsroom. Email: | Phone: 340-227-4463
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