Soto joins Democrats to demand housing assistance for displaced Puerto Rican families


  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto joined Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and several other Democrats to demand housing assistance for displaced Puerto Rican families who could be evicted from their temporary homes this Saturday.

The Orlando Democrat joined 14 House and Senate members in a letter to FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development urging for an immediate extension of hotel vouchers for Puerto Rican evacuees. FEMA is cutting off aid to the Transitional Shelter Assistance program on June 30. The federal agency has offered to pay the transportation costs for Puerto Ricans to return back to the island.

"After Hurricane María, I have met with many Puerto Rican families who relocated to Central Florida after having lost everything in their home island," Soto says in a statement. "Due to President Trump’s underfunded disaster response, many still do not have adequate homes to return to in Puerto Rico."

Currently in Florida, more than 600 Puerto Rican families who fled the aftermath of Hurricane María remain on hotel vouchers, especially in Orange and Osceola Counties. Advocates say the U.S. territory is still recovering from María nine months after the storm – power remains unreliable and 263 schools across the island have been closed.

"FEMA's [deadline] is forcing families to return to Puerto Rico before they have a home or school to return to and we will not stand for it," the letter says.

Congress members say both FEMA and HUD have "neglected to address the long-term housing needs of survivors." Although the Puerto Rican government requested $46 billion in aid to restore their housing infrastructure, HUD provided them with $18.5 billion. Many families who applied for FEMA assistance for their homes were denied – and those who received aid "were allocated a mere $2,974 on average" to fix ruined homes, according to the letter.

FEMA also denied Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's request to activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provides rent to eligible families to help pay for temporary housing for up to 18 months. The program has been used before for disaster victims in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav.

FEMA spokesperson Ron Roth has previously said that because of "lessons learned" from previous disasters, DHAP would not be implemented for Puerto Rico recovery efforts. Roth referenced a 2011 federal report that recommended FEMA not enter into additional DHAP agreements until "reliable program effectiveness and cost information has been developed."

"The agency's decision to ignore that request forced families to either double or even triple up with other families, or spend more than half their income on rent," the bicameral letter states. "The financial strain resulting from a lack of affordable housing has already begun to force families into homelessness."

Failure to implement DHAP could be "detrimental" for recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, the letter notes at the end.

"The federal government’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico has been completely unacceptable, and too many of our fellow U.S. citizens are still struggling to find stable housing," Sen. Elizabeth Warren says in a statement.

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