Senator Bill Nelson Demands Action on Evacuee Issues

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September, 2017, FEMA has used the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA)  program to house some 7,000 Puerto Rican families in hotels in Puerto Rico and in 30 states. After four extensions, that program is coming to an end.

On June 30, 2018, FEMA’s TSA support will end and hotels are likely to being evicting families. With this deadline in mind — and over 600 families still using TSA in Florida — Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has written to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), asking the senate to reconsider legislation he introduced after the 2017 hurricane season.

The object of TSA is to give evacuees a place to live while they rebuild their homes and return to their pre-disaster lives. In the case of Puerto Rico, thousands of people living on the Island still do not have access to electricity or safe drinking water. Many homes are still not habitable, and many displaced residents are not eligible for assistance with rebuilding, because their homes were originally built or bought in nonstandard ways which are not supported by FEMA. FEMA has rejected 60% of requests for rebuilding assistance in Puerto Rico, often after weeks or months of difficulty in completing requests.

Evacuees in many cases have no homes to go back to.

“I’m writing to urge you to take action to address the needs of thousands of Puerto Ricans who could soon be thrown out onto the streets,” Nelson wrote.

Nelson discussed two bills.

  • S2880, the “Disaster Housing Assistance Act,” is summarized as “To establish a pilot program for long-term rental assistance for families affected by major disasters in 2017.” The program would cover the housing needs of evacuees until February 2019. The bill was referred to the Homeland Security Committee.
  • S2066, the “Disaster Displacement Act,” calls upon federal agencies including the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide additional funds as needed. Housing is included as one of the needs discussed in this bill. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Both bills would help Senator Nelson’s home state of Florida, as well as the other states participating in the TSA program, with funds needed to cope with the influx of evacuees. Nelson admits in his letter that Florida has not focused on affordable housing in the past. However, the very high numbers of Puerto Rican evacuees choosing to settle in Florida has put that state in a difficult position.

Those who are choosing to stay in their new States face challenges with language, access to affordable housing, and simply coming up with enough cash to move into a new home. Landlords often require first and last months’ rent, a security deposit, and evidence of stable employment before they will rent an apartment to a family.

A new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition claims that no State in the Union has an average apartment rental rate that is affordable for someone earning minimum wage. People displaced by Hurricane Maria may not be able to afford to rent a home in their new communities until they are more settled.

Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello joined Florida leaders this spring to ask FEMA to continue housing evacuees till the end of the school year. With that milestone passed, FEMA is ending support for victims of Hurricane Maria.

There is another program, known as the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, or DHAP. DHAP provides funds to local public housing authorities to help people leaving TSA with security and utility deposits. The program typically gives evacuees another 18 months of support. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, FEMA spent $552,000,000 to help nearly 37,000 families.

DHAP is not being implemented for Hurricane Maria’s evacuees. BuzzFeed News quoted FEMA spokesperson Ron Roth as explaining that FEMA is using other approaches that “are better able to meet the current housing needs of impacted survivors.” One is rental assistance, which may be more useful in areas of the country with more affordable housing than Orlando or New York City, two cities with large numbers of evacuees.

FEMA will provide plane tickets for evacuees to return to Puerto Rico. Gov. Rossello is encouraging evacuees to come back to Puerto Rico. However, medical care is still limited in Puerto Rico, an issue that is keeping many evacuees in the States, and the unemployment rate is triple that in the States. Since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they can live and work in any State.

“The victims of these storms are our fellow American citizens,” Nelson concluded his letter. “They have been through enough and they need our help. I urge you to bring these bills up for a vote as soon as possible.”

Read the letter.

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