More than 1,000 Puerto Ricans, displaced by last year’s hurricanes, have been living temporarily in hotels and motels throughout the country while they await more permanent housing alternatives — major repair to their own homes, for example, or help finding a new place to live. But they are now bracing for the likelihood they will become homeless this week.
A federal judge in Massachusetts on August 30 allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stop funding its Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program, which allows hurricane-displaced people to live in hotels or motels throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland.
The Trump administration has been heavily criticized on its failure to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Maria and Irma ravaged the island, killing an estimated 3,000 people. With Hurricane Florence set to rock much of the mid-Atlantic coast over the weekend, it was reported the Trump administration moved nearly $10 million from FEMA to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Trump has repeatedly said the administration did a good job handling last year’s hurricanes, and is prepared to handle this year’s.
On top of the thousands left dead by the storms, the administration continues to bungle its response. FEMA had placed more than 19,000 storm-displaced people into short-term shelters between October 2017 and June 2018. But advocates say thousands more 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.
The latest court ruling to allow FEMA to kick families out of temporary shelter is in line with the administration’s careless approach to families left homeless for almost a year now.
FEMA told ThinkProgress 1,002 households are currently checked into hotels through the program, and they will be losing their federal support at check-out on Friday. The federal judge who authorized FEMA to end the program, urged the agency to work with the people enrolled in the program to find alternative housing so they are not left homeless. However, according to the civil rights advocacy group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which represents the hurricane survivors enrolled in the program in court, the federal agency has not done that.
“The concrete consequence of FEMA ending the TSA program program without ensuring a safe transition into alternative housing is, in fact, eviction,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel at LatinoJustice.
“It’s a struggle to make sure they are not left homeless,” Bannan added. “They are going to be left on the streets and organizations are scrambling, trying to figure out what to do… This is exactly what we were trying to avoid.”
FEMA has been trying to cut funding to the program since June. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman temporarily blocked FEMA from doing so after LatinoJustice filed a restraining order against the federal agency. On August 30, Hillman denied the advocacy group’s request for a preliminary injunction, but he acknowledged people were going to be left homeless and ordered the program remain funded for a few more weeks so FEMA could help people find other arrangements.
“I agree with the Plaintiffs that they will suffer disproportionate hardship given that to date, they have not been able to secure alternative housing and therefore, may well be rendered homeless,” Hillman wrote in his ruling.
“While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result. However, the Court cannot order that Defendants (FEMA) to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done — it can only order the Defendants to do that which the law requires,” Hillman added. “I strongly urge the parties to work together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date.”
FEMA wrote in a statement on Monday in response to the judge’s comments that it is “working with its vendor and notifying participating hotels that the TSA program has been extended to comply with the court’s order. Beyond that, FEMA will not comment on pending litigation.”
FEMA has declined to use other options that could provide temporary housing assistance to the people in this TSA program. The federal agency hasn’t enacted a separate U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 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 bumbled response to Hurricane Katrina and has been enacted following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and Sandy.
Members of Congress have urged FEMA to allow HUD to implement the program but the federal agency has called DHAP “inefficient and not cost effective” and said its own Direct Lease and Multi-Family Lease and Repair programs were better options.
FEMA said 297 units have been leased by displaced Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria and Irma through its Direct Lease program and 15 vacant rental units and been repaired and leased to displaced people through its Multi-Family Lease and Repair program. The federal agency did not say how many, if any, of those people were enrolled in the TSA program.
According to FEMA, 450 of the households checked into hotels through the TSA program have received two months of financial rental assistance that they can use once the program ends on Friday.
But Bannan said the vouchers were valued at housing rental rates in Puerto Rico, while two-thirds of the people are checked into hotels on the U.S. mainland. She cited one family living in Brooklyn, N.Y. who received vouchers of around $450 per month, the value of the market rate in Cayey, Puerto Rico. The average rent of a studio apartment in Brooklyn is over $2,000 per month.
FEMA has told LatinoJustice that people can reapply for vouchers that reflect the market rates of where they are currently living, but the federal agency has not reached out to the people enrolled in the programs to communicate this, Bannan said. Also, many hurricane-displaced people have sold their vouchers so they could purchase food or other necessities they need to survive, she added.
FEMA also said another 212 households enrolled in the program were denied federal funds to repair their hurricane damaged homes because they had “insufficient damage and their utilities were on at the time of their housing inspection or reported no damage to their home.” However, Bannan noted those families were placed in hotels by FEMA because the federal agency had previously determined they were living in uninhabitable conditions. She added that many of those people were denied housing repairs because they had no proof of title for their home, a reflection of the island’s longstanding practice of constructing homes and commercial buildings informally, without the needed legal documentation and permits.
Bannan said despite the court order, FEMA has not been informing survivors enrolled in the TSA program about their options and the available programs.
“The burden has been on the people who have been traumatized or re-traumatized a week before the anniversary” of Hurricane Maria,” Bannan said. “There has been no proactive stance by FEMA to make sure people are not left homeless.”