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Visitability is Good for the Virgin Islands

AARP Virgin Islands had urged VI Senators to pass Visitability legislation for more than 5 years. Nov. 10 their wish was granted by Governor John P. deJongh, Jr. when he publicly signed Act 7320 into law.

See Also: The Freedom House: Accessible and affordable home design

Visitability is a home design concept that AARP has been working to get adopted across the nation. The basic features that AARP wants to promote will help homeowners of any age remain in their homes as they recuperate from an illness or injury, or as they age.

The three main features involved in making a home Visitability Certified include:

  • Zero-step entrance to the dwelling
  • Wide interior doors with the external door being at least 36 inches in width
  • At least a half bathroom on the home’s main level

In 2007 AARP VI joined the Ad Hoc Committee for Accessibility, the Disability Rights Center for the Virgin Islands, The VI Centers for Independent Living, and the VI University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Representatives from this Coalition met with Senator James Webber III of the 27th Legislature to discuss legislation that would encourage homeowners and those considering building new homes to incorporate Visitability features.

See Also: Free Housing and Mobility Publications

Because retrofitting existing homes to Visitability standards would undoubtedly be expensive, the group suggested that an incentive of 10% on the homeowner’s property tax for 20 years might help to offset the cost.

There was no action on the Bill in the 27th Legislature, and as the Senate moved through the 28th Legislature, there was concern as to which senator actually had the draft legislation and would be the “author” of the bill. Each time the Legislative Sessions changed, the process of educating new legislators began all over. Coalition members, AARP volunteers and AARP staff met with members of the 28th Legislature urging them to take up sponsorship of a Visitability bill, but due to preemption, the new Senators were hesitant to initiate new legislation before it was determined that no sitting Senator had legal “authorship” for the bill.

Lingering in the background was also the issue of outstanding property taxes. The local lawsuit had caused the collection of property taxes to be suspended until legal issues could be resolved. The property tax issue combined with the VI beginning to feel the effects of the worldwide economic slowdown caused the timing and focus of the Legislature to change, and so the Bill was not addressed.

As election season for the 29th Legislature approached, AARP volunteers and Coalition members pressed candidates to support legislation on Visitability. On January 14, 2011, just four days after the Legislature’s swearing in ceremony, Senator Shawn Malone submitted Bill number 29-0042 for consideration. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Usie Richards, Ronald E. Russell, Nellie Riveria-O’Reilly, Janette Millin-Young, Samuel Sanes and Craig W. Barshinger.

The only hurdle left was getting the Bill to the right Senate Committee. The Senate Housing Committee was not scheduled to meet, but thanks to Senator Celestino White, Bill 29-0042 got to the Senate Floor where it was unanimously passed at the Committee level by all senators present.

After years of work, Act 7320 became law on November 10, 2011 at a special signing ceremony at Government House in Christiansted. This was the first time a bill had been signed into law on St. Croix. The next step is to educate the public on the importance of getting into this voluntary program. Look for more information on this website in 2012 as AARP VI continues to work with the Dept. of Planning and Natural Resources on the regulations for this important program.

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