The Puerto Rican government has created a plan outlining how it will spend $1.5 billion in federal disaster recovery funds that are intended to revitalize the storm-torn U.S. island. The plan lays out how the island will use the funds to repair and redevelop its infrastructure, utilities, and housing and help create new jobs and businesses, but advocates say the process was flawed and failed to include input from the most vulnerable Puerto Ricans.
When drafting the plan, the government is required by law to go through a vigorous process that takes into account input from stakeholders and community members. But according a letter to federal officials penned by dozens of advocacy groups, non-profits, and various other community stakeholders, the people whose lives have been torn apart by the storms have been largely left out of the process. Advocates fear these sweeping changes could lead to further displacement.
“These are the funds that are going to determine how Puerto Rico is going to look like in the next 20 years,” Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, a San Juan-based attorney and coordinator for the legal advocacy group Ayuda Legal Huracán María (Hurrican Maria Legal Assistance), told ThinkProgress. Her organization co-signed the letter.
“This is being made by the (Puerto Rico) Department of Housing, by the government, by the developers that are already engaged in the process and its not counting the people that are going to be affected and was more affected by Hurricane Maria,” Godreau-Aubert added.
When Hurricanes Maria and Irma swept through Puerto Rico last year, it left a path of destruction that decimated the island. Estimated recovery needs are topping $94 billion, and thousands of people are displaced. At least 1,427 people have died as result of the storms. And recovery has been painfully slow: Nearly 11 months after the storms, crews were still busy restoring power to homes throughout the island.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has set aside $20 billion in Community Development Block Grants–Disaster Recovery (CDBG–DR) funds to help the island recover. On July 30, HUD approved an action plan that will determine how the island will spent the first $1.5 billion in CDBG–DR funds it received. Over the next few months, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing will need to go through a similar process when determining how it will spend the remaining $18.5 billion in federal funds.
When determining how those funds will be spent, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing creates an action plan after collecting data and taking into account the governor’s own plan and comments from leaders of local cities and towns, various government bodies, various non-governmental organizations including non-profits, and members of the community.
But when the Puerto Rican government held public meetings and put out notices seeking comment on the draft plan, there were too many barriers preventing people from weighing in, Ayuda Legal Huracán María claims. In the letter to HUD the group co-signed, a coalition of advocates — over 80 nonprofits, social workers, advocacy groups, and various community stakeholders — asked for a 30-day extension to the 14-day comment period.
According to the Puerto Rico Department of Housing, four notices (two in English and two in Spanish) went out in three Puerto Rican newspapers advertising six public meetings that were held across the island between March 5 and March 10. More than 300 individuals and organizations presented oral and written statements during the hearings, the agency claimed.
But the letter claimed the notices for the meetings were inadequate. Ayuda Legal Huracán María noted in a separate May 16 letter to HUD that the notices were written in small print without any information explaining what CDBG–DR funds are or any details surrounding the commenting process. On top of that, the community meetings were advertised over social media — a time when swaths of the island had no electricity or internet access. The letter also explained that these meetings were held on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., so people who worked would have a hard time attending.
According to the advocacy groups’ letters, those meetings were mainly attended by representatives from municipal governments and other government agencies. During one of the meetings, comment was granted almost exclusively to mayors who presented proposals for their own municipalities. “In every hearing, mayors received preferential treatment with respect to speaking time slots. In contrast, community and other stakeholders’ effective participation was limited,” the advocacy groups explained.
And many of the proposals presented by those public officials would displace “historically vulnerable communities who have been unable to access any information around CDBG-DR processes or the projected plans,” the dozens of organizations wrote in the letter.
“Too often, money intended for low and moderate income people’s housing has been diverted to uses other than fair housing compliance,” the letter continued. “We share a responsibility to ensure that available resources are used fairly, efficiently, and effectively, with a level of transparency and accountability that provides the public with confidence on public spending and post-recovery planning.”
Days later, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing rejected the 30-day extension request, saying their claims were “unsubstantiated” and that representatives from the department met with numerous community organizations and would be holding an additional workshop for 20 to 30 community organizations as well. Also, the action plan when published will include “programmatic activities” that will benefit the homeless, low-income families, and small and medium sized businesses that were impacted by the disasters. Any extension to the timeline would “unnecessarily delay the benefits of this important recovery mechanism.”
The Puerto Rico Department of Housing did not respond to ThinkProgress requests for comment.
“It is more burdensome to limit community participation on the action CDBG-DR schedule than to grant an extension of two weeks in order to guarantee citizens right to due process and proper use of funds,” the group wrote.
A well-intended — but flawed — process
It appears authorities intended to involve the public: The Puerto Rico Department of Housing said in its Citizen Participation Plan for the block grant funds that the “plan is intended to maximize the opportunity for citizen involvement.” Citizen participation is highlighted throughout the plan and the Department of Housing was supposed to consider comments via letter, email, or in-person at public hearings.
The Department of Housing planned to make “substantial efforts to deploy information” to municipalities, government agencies, non-profits, and non-government organizations so they could “distribute information to citizens, especially those of low and moderate income, those living in slum and blighted areas and in areas identified for recovery,” the citizen participation plan stated.
However, the lack of community involvement throughout the process in Puerto Rico, outlined in the letter, is consistent with other past disaster recovery efforts. Typically, the entire process is completed within a matter of months so the funds can be distributed to areas in need quickly, said Carlos Martin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who is working on a forthcoming HUD grant-funded study evaluating how long it takes communities to recover its housing stock using CDBG–DR funds.
Martin has evaluated the grants and processes surrounding every disaster that received CDBG–DR funds between 2005 and 2015 (88 in total). Because of this quick process and the fact that a community likely hasn’t assessed its local needs before disaster strikes, community members often feel that they have been left out of the process.
For instance, it is common that notices for public meetings are posted in small print in newspapers, which be confusing and easy to miss. Meetings are mostly attended by mayors and local leaders that have not analyzed the needs of their community, or by a handful of community organizations that have greater resources. And residents are often only given 14 days to read and comment on the draft action plan, which can be more than 100 pages long, Martin said.
“It is crazy. There should be better ways to get this information out and get people to understand it,” Martin said.
“Any community organizer will tell you, you can’t do effective community engagement in a month. But these communities don’t have that much time,” Martin added. “Who comments on the draft determine what projects come out of it. The danger is you are going to have all these projects that don’t benefit the community or the community doesn’t feel like they are part of it.”