Dems press FEMA to offer housing assistance in Puerto Rico

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WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to utilize two housing assistance programs to help Puerto Rican families still struggling to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

In separate letters sent Friday to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, Democrats from the House and Senate pressed the agency to establish a Disaster Housing Assistance Program to provide families with temporary housing vouchers.

Senate Democrats in their letter also called for an extension of the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, provided rent-free housing in hotels in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland for 1,800 people affected by the hurricane.

In December, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló first requested that FEMA enter into an interagency agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish a Disaster Housing Assistance Program. FEMA denied this request in May.

“It is unacceptable that FEMA has refused to activate this proven solution, which has been upheld by past Republican and Democratic administrations as best practice,” read the letter from Senate Democrats including Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The Transitional Sheltering Assistance program ended June 30 after it was extended for 60 days in May.

Stakeholders have lobbied for DHAP as a successor to the TSA program, said House Democrats including Reps. Maxine Waters, of California, and Nydia Velázquez, of New York. When the request to create the new program was denied, FEMA claimed it would take three to six months to implement and therefore would not be timely.

“But by its own admission,” House Democrats wrote, “FEMA could have stood up for DHAP in Puerto Rico in the time that it took for FEMA to officially respond to Puerto Rico’s request for DHAP (approximately five months).”

In a fact sheet FEMA published in June, the agency stated that its Direct Lease program is being implemented in Puerto Rico, and that it offers the same housing option to disaster survivors as DHAP in a “more efficient and cost-effective manner.”

However, only 181 households have been housed through the Direct Lease program, while a total of 7,025 households participated in the TSA program, according to the letter FEMA issued in May rejecting the request to implement DHAP.

Advocates including the National Low Income Housing Commission claim that programs like TSA fail to help survivors find long-term housing and therefore fail to “help them get back on their feet,” and that DHAP would provide longer-term housing assistance.

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Law and regulation Hurricane Maria Housing Affordable housing Elizabeth Warren Maxine Waters FEMA HUD Senate Banking Committee House Financial Services Committee