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FEMA could easily release more emergency housing aid for Puerto Ricans. Why won’t it act?

"The threat of homelessness and not knowing where you or your children are going to live... It's been trauma after trauma."

A man surveys a house that was washed away by heavy surf during the passing of Hurricane Maria in Manati, Puerto Rico on October 6, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO        (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man surveys a house that was washed away by heavy surf during the passing of Hurricane Maria in Manati, Puerto Rico on October 6, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is trying to take away the temporary housing lifeline of hundreds of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricanes Maria and Irma last year. If FEMA is successful in federal court on Wednesday, those hurricane victims will be forced out of temporary hotel housing, and they’ll join thousands of other Puerto Ricans who are surviving without any good housing options.

But FEMA has options it’s choosing not to use. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a program, established after Katrina, that can provide long-term rental assistance to displaced disaster survivors and evacuees in desperate need of stable housing. FEMA can choose to activate this program and release funds that are already allocated, but it won’t.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricanes Maria and Irma — which ravaged the U.S. territory last September — have been living on the streets, in cars, in storm-destroyed homes, or crammed into overcrowded homes on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico, according to Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel at the civil rights advocacy group LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Around two thousand more have been living in hotel rooms throughout the United States through FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program (TSA)FEMA attempted to end that emergency TSA hotel shelter on June 30, and a judge temporarily blocked them from doing so after LatinoJustice filed a restraining order against the agency. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman extended the program through August 6. Judge Hillman could decide as early as Wednesday, as oral arguments begin, the fate of the program going forward.

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(LatinoJustice also filed a separate lawsuit against FEMA Tuesday evening, seeking public documents it had requested detailing information about the agency’s response to the hurricanes.)

FEMA’s response to the hurricanes has “been extremely deficient” and the situation for many Puerto Ricans is dire, said Bannan.

“The threat of homelessness and not knowing where you or your children are going to live especially when they have medical conditions like many of them do, its been trauma after trauma,” she added.

If the judge does allow FEMA to end the hotel program, there is another program that could provide those thousands of hurricane survivors and evacuees with stable housing while Puerto Rico waits for the $18.5 billion in dedicated HUD disaster recovery funds that were appropriated by Congress to eventually rebuild the island.

FEMA can enact a HUD-administered program called the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), which provides displaced disaster survivors and evacuees with housing subsidies that cover rent, security deposit, and utilities. The program was created in the wake of the George W. Bush administration’s lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina and has been enacted following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Sandy.

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Congress has set aside $49.6 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund for the 2017 hurricanes, which is the primary funding source for the agency’s immediate disaster response. Those funds cover a number of recovery programs, including DHAP. It is unclear how much it would cost to enact DHAP for Puerto Rico’s hurricane victims, since it’s unclear how many people would need this housing assistance.

DHAP would presumably be distributed to the almost 2,000 people who were living in hotels and impacted by the current court case, but there is no clear count of the thousands of others displaced that are also in need of housing assistance, according to Sarah Mickelson, senior director of public policy at the NLIHC.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the vouchers HUD would distribute to disaster evacuees and survivors are modeled after the ones it distributes through its Housing Choice Voucher Program, which on average costs $8,223 per household annually, or $685 per month. By contrast, to put a family up at a hotel through FEMA’s TSA program, it costs an estimated $43,800 annually, or $3,650 per month, according to the NLIHC.

But FEMA has attacked the program, calling it “inefficient and not cost effective.” In an email to ThinkProgress, the FEMA press office defended its decision not to utilize DHAP saying under that program, survivors are responsible for a portion of their rental payments, while FEMA’s Direct Lease program — which allows the federal agency to lease temporary housing for survivors for up to 18 months — covers 100 percent of the rental costs. The office also said there are currently 1,448 units ready for occupancy in Puerto Rico under its Direct Lease and Multi-Family Lease and Repair programs, while under DHAP, survivors need to interact with “additional government agencies” and receive different levels of benefits.

Bannan said she isn’t aware that any of the thousands of survivors and evacuees — who were placed in the TSA program and are plaintiffs in LatinoJustice’s case — have been offered any other type housing assistance from FEMA.

“They haven’t been providing any other assistance,” Brennan said. “Otherwise the evacuees would have access to it and they wouldn’t be facing homelessness or shelters.”

A number of Democrats in congress have also criticized FEMA Secretary Brock Long and the agency’s inaction and have pleaded with the Trump administration to enact the program for Puerto Ricans. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has introduced a bill called the Housing for Victims of Major Disasters Act of 2018, which would force FEMA to enact DHAP for people displaced by Hurricane Maria and consult with HUD about utilizing the program following every presidential-declared disaster.
“The Trump Administration has turned its back on our fellow U.S. citizens struggling in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma,” said Warren in a statement to ThinkProgress. “FEMA should immediately extend its temporary housing assistance and stand up the longer-term disaster housing program used after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.”

In a June 21 letter to Secretary Long, Warren said the FEMA secretary’s justification for not enacting DHAP was that the agency was already providing limited rental assistance through its Individuals and Housing Program and that DHAP is “ineffective” citing a 2011 Inspector General report.

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However, as Warren pointed out, the OIG report merely found that FEMA had not required HUD to collect the data needed to determine whether the program successfully attained self-sufficiency among survivors or that it was cost-competitive with other housing options. It did not say whether the program should exist or be used in its current form.

Also, even the Bush White House said FEMA’s response to Katrina was “inconsistent with evacuees’ needs and preferences” and that HUD should be the agency that plans “the temporary and long-term housing of evacuees.”


UPDATE (8/2/18): U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman extended FEMA’s TSA program through Aug. 31 on Wednesday, allowing displaced Hurricane Maria survivors and evacuees to remain in their hotel rooms through that date.