FEMA Extends Temporary Housing Assistance for Evacuated Puerto Ricans

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A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has extended temporary housing set to expire this week by more than two months for Puerto Rican citizens who relocated to the United States after Hurricane Maria, a FEMA representative said.

Puerto Ricans participating in the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program, which gives them temporary housing in hotels across the United States, may renew their contracts that were set to expire March 20 until May 14, FEMA Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Justo Hernandez said. Thirty-eight states host Puerto Rican evacuees through the TSA program.

In order to renew their applications, Hernandez said, evacuees must show progress in their permanent housing plans during a case-by-case review on April 20. Puerto Ricans will need proof of a long-term housing plan, through either a job offer or a housing contract, if they plan to stay in the U.S. after their transitional contracts expire, he said.

“We want the survivors to come up with a housing solution for themselves, but we also acknowledge that some of them might need a little more time,” Hernandez said. “We’re accommodating every resident of Puerto Rico to have the best recovery.”

After the hurricane, FEMA received more than 1.11 million registrations for assistance. Of those registrations, Hernandez said around 750,000 filed for short-term housing aid through the TSA program.

The Puerto Rican government provided an average of $8,000 to $12,000 in housing assistance to residents either rebuilding their homes on the island or resettling on the mainland.

Sonia Noemi Rios, 48, a Puerto Rican recipient of FEMA aid who has been living in a Tampa area hotel since Dec. 3, said finding housing has been a strenuous process and she hasn’t benefited from any FEMA assistance in securing permanent housing.

“My room has a small kitchen, I have two beds. But the month will pass rapidly, and I hope I find a solution before April 20 comes,” she said.

Hernandez said 60 to 65 percent of Puerto Ricans receiving aid don’t want to return home and are instead searching for permanent housing in the U.S. This exodus is driven in part by the hurricane, but also by the economic recession that has plagued the island since 2006, he said.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to leave the island over the next two years, said Dr. Carlos Vargas-Ramos of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

“People were fleeing from the hurricane in the midst of a tremendously bad economic crisis,” he said. “If people were having a hard time of finding work in Puerto Rico, and on top of that they lose their house, they may relocate permanently.”

Vargas-Ramos anticipates 470,000 Puerto Ricans — 14 percent of the island’s total population — will relocate to the U.S. mainland permanently by the end of next year.

Florida will receive the most evacuees, with up to 160,000 Puerto Ricans projected to settle in the state in the next two years. Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, which also have established Puerto Rican enclaves, will also experience increases, Vargas-Ramos said.

In Washington, many lawmakers have criticized FEMA as having too lenient standards for determining whether Puerto Ricans’ homes damaged by the hurricane are livable. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said one home FEMA defined as “hospitable” doesn’t have a secure roof, doors, or windows, and may not have access to power or clean water.

When FEMA eventually cuts housing funds for the displaced Puerto Ricans in the U.S., state and county authorities could step in to help them with housing, nutrition, and financial aid solutions, but they may choose not to, Vargas-Ramos said.

Florida doesn’t have a long-term solution to continue providing affordable housing, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.

And rebuilding housing in Puerto Rico will take time well beyond the May 14 FEMA housing aid cut-off.

“The actual recovery process is not going to be a sprint, it’s a marathon,” FEMA’s Hernandez said. “We’re going to be here for many, many years assisting the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in recovering from this event.”

Stavros Agorakis is a junior at Northwestern University, studying journalism, psychology, and business. He covers immigration and education for Medill News Service in Washington, D.C.

Mila Jasper is a reporter for Medill News Service.

Anna Laffrey is a reporter for Medill News Service.

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