Over three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico, half of the island’s 3.4 million citizens are still without power, and many without access to clean drinking water or adequate health care. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts many more months of work required before the island’s electrical grid is repaired, many Puerto Ricans are choosing to leave their home, at least temporarily—and one of the most popular and logical destinations for evacuation is Florida. Unfortunately, the Orlando Weekly reports that this is exacerbating an already existing affordable housing crisis in the Sunshine State, with no easy answers as to how to resolve it.
A December 2017 New York Times article also highlighted an impending foreclosure epidemic in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the disaster. Per data collected by Black Knight, Inc., almost one-third of Puerto Rican homeowners were behind on their mortgage, and 90,000 had become delinquent due to Hurricane Maria.
According to a National Low Income Housing Coalition study cited by cited by the Orlando Weekly, the Orlando metropolitan area ranks third in the U.S. when it comes to affordable rental homes, with only 18 affordable rental units available per 100 low-income families. With nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans having arrived in Florida (per the state’s Division of Emergency Management), the situation is only getting worse.
With Florida already straining to accommodate the evacuees, state and local government is struggling not only with the influx of humanity, but with a web of bureaucracy at every turn. The Orlando Weekly reports that in December Florida legislators sent letters to both FEMA and the Puerto Rican government asking for extra housing aid. On December 18, Sen. Victor Torres (D-Orlando) and several other Democratic lawmakers asked Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to request an extension of FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which pays for hotel and motel accommodations while those affected by a disaster search for long-term housing.
Torres’ letter read, in part, "We know you are diligently working on recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, but we must also coordinate with your government for relief services needed in Florida. It has become apparent that in order for us to get financial assistance from the federal government, specific requests for that assistance must be made by your government on behalf of those residents of Puerto Rico now residing in Florida."
The FEMA TSA program will expire for Puerto Rican evacuees on January 13. Puerto Rico’s government has requested a 60-day extension. José Marrero, the Puerto Rican governor's representative to FEMA, said in a statement, “The government of Puerto Rico, while enduring a lengthy and arduous recovery effort at home, is committed to providing and facilitating federal assistance to its temporarily displaced residents."
According to the Orlando Weekly, FEMA spokesperson Daniel Llargués said last week that Puerto Rico’s request for a TSA extension was “still under review.”
After a damaging hurricane season, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in late 2017 announced grants of $5 billion to Texas and $615.9 million to Florida, designed to help those communities recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Those grants were part of a $7.4 billion block allocated to provide disaster relief to both of those states as well as Puerto Rico and California, which has been ravaged by wildfires in recent months.