FEMA Can Stop Paying to House Puerto Rico Hurricane Victims, Judge Rules

Almost a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, more than 1,000 families who lost their homes remain in hotel rooms paid for by the government. Thursday, a judge’s ruling gave them two more weeks before that assistance runs out, though he conceded they “may well be rendered homeless.”

Source: NY Times | Published on August 30, 2018

aftermath of hurricane Maria. In the valley shots prior to Maria, the homes were not visible.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent $92 million on vouchers for families affected by the September 2017 catastrophe to stay in hotels in New York, Florida and other states. The agency has offered three extensions, but families took the federal government to court demanding continued housing aid until everyone had found a place to live.

“The families have been calling and texting me frantically, extremely concerned and traumatized,” said Natasha L. Bannan, a lawyer who handled the case for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Hispanic civil rights organization. “There is literally fear that they are going to be homeless. That’s what’s going on right now.”

An estimated 280,000 people have fled Puerto Rico since the Category 4 storm damaged hundreds of thousands of homes and knocked out power to most of the island for months.

Some 7,000 families had initially registered for hotel stays. Most of them have since found replacement housing, but many of those remaining on hotel vouchers are old or suffering from chronic illnesses, which make it impossible for them to pay for their own housing, Ms. Bannan said.

FEMA could have used other programs to provide assistance and chose not to, she said.

On several occasions through the spring and summer, families living on federal vouchers began packing and preparing to move. Each time, a new temporary restraining order extended the deadline and allowed them to remain.

But Thursday’s ruling from Judge Timothy S. Hillman of the Federal District Court of Massachusetts was different: After hearing evidence, the judge said there was no legal basis for preventing FEMA from ending the housing vouchers.

Families still living in hotels have until the morning of Sept. 14 to check out — a deadline that now seems certain as a result of Thursday’s ruling.

José David Santiago, 40, said many of those living in hotels — many of them in Florida — were shocked to find the cost of living in the United States to be far more than they expected. Wait lists for affordable housing are often up to eight months.

“We don’t want to spend the rest of our lives in hotels,” Mr. Santiago said. “We’re not asking FEMA to support us, just to help us until we are more stable. If this has been so hard for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people with little kids or illnesses.”

Mr. Santiago moved to Florida in December from Corozal, where his home was destroyed. He is working for a transportation company but not earning enough to afford an apartment.

“Every time the deadline approaches, your nerves are shot,” he said.

Lawyers for LatinoJustice argued that survivors of past storms had received more help. Hurricane Katrina survivors stayed in hotels for 27 months, Ms. Bannan said. Hurricane Harvey and Irma victims received seven benefit extensions, but Hurricane Maria survivors received just three, the group said.

The judge found, however, that those previous storms affected far more people.

The governor of Puerto Rico, the judge noted, stopped asking for extensions to the voucher program once a provision under FEMA rules took effect that would have required the government of Puerto Rico to share 10 percent of the housing costs.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FEMA said there are 1,038 families still receiving Transitional Shelter Assistance across 27 states, with about 400 of them in Puerto Rico.

“FEMA is working with its vendor and notifying participating hotels that the TSA program has been extended to comply with the court’s order, said Lenisha Smith, a FEMA spokeswoman. “Beyond that, FEMA will not comment on pending litigation.”

Although Judge Hillman found that FEMA’s funding of the housing assistance program was “discretionary” and denied the request for an injunction, he urged the government to find a way to help the families.

The judge said he agreed with the plaintiffs in the case that they would “suffer disproportionate hardship” from a cutoff in housing assistance, “given that, to date, they have not been able to secure alternative housing and, therefore, may well be rendered homeless.”

But the judge said he was legally obligated to side with the government.

“While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result,” Judge Hillman wrote.

He said the court cannot order the government “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.”