Puerto Rico Recovery Plan Must Help Those Who Need It Most

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published February 21, 2019 In The Hill

Nearly a year and a half after Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, federal funds will soon be available to restore the island’s decimated housing, economy and infrastructure. In early February, HUD released $1.5 billion of roughly $20 billion in funding earmarked for that purpose through its Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery Program. That’s good news.

The bad news is that — unless the right policies are in place — that funding could actually hurt the Puerto Ricans most in need of help.

Take housing, for example. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has sketched out an Action Plan to use these grant funds to rebuild the more than 350,000 homes damaged by the storms. But, as Michael Kimmelman observes in The New York Times, there’s a catch: “Because of federal regulations, those living in flood-prone areas won’t be given any public money unless their homes comply with flood-protection standards.” Impoverished Puerto Ricans can’t afford to comply with those regulations — by elevating houses, employing licensed contractors, providing wheelchair access and more — so they will be denied federal funding to fix their homes.

It’s not the first time Puerto Rico’s hurricane survivors were denied federal aid. Many islanders live in homes that were built by hand and passed down through the generations. Nearly half of these homeowners lack clear titles to their properties. In the aftermath of the storms, FEMA wrongly required homeowners to present formal titles in order to access emergency funds. As a result, of the 1.1 million households who requested help from FEMA, about 58 percent were denied.

Puerto Rico faces a housing crisis without precedent. Punishing austerity policies, combined with rising inequality and poverty, have left thousands of families facing eviction and foreclosure. The disasters have made existing problems much worse. Denied federal assistance, many face a choice between staying in their ruined homes or becoming homeless.

In some cases, staying is not even an option. Rosselló’s proposal seeks to relocate neighborhoods at risk of flooding. Here, too, the most vulnerable stand to lose everything, because the standard of risk is applied unevenly. For example, the poor, predominantly black community of Loiza has been deemed a flood risk, while just down the coast, the affluent, mostly white tourist town of Condado is regarded as “safe.” Ayuda Legal Puerto Ricohas identified nearly 100 communities at risk for displacement under this inequitable standard.

What should we make of a rebuilding plan helps the affluent and hurts the poor? Sadly, it fits with other policies at play in Puerto Rico today. Following the disaster capitalism playbook used in New Orleans after Katrina, local and federal officials are promoting tourism and gentrification, and luring foreign investors by granting generous tax exemptions and asking nothing in return. Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery Program funds could provide the capital necessary to pursue this misguided plan.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. To make sure that federal funding helps all Puerto Ricans — especially the most vulnerable — we must:

Adapt regulations to the local context. Importantly, create a clear process that enables people without traditional title to apply for rebuilding assistance. And make sure grants include enough money to cover the costs of elevation or moving to somewhere where elevation is not needed.

Minimize displacement. Federal regulations require Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Recovery Program action plans to include a displacement minimization policy and to consider mitigation — protecting the rights of people to stay in their homes when possible and respecting their right to dignified housing. These are absent in Puerto Rico’s draft plan. Instead, the government has promoted policies that facilitate displacement.

Ensure transparency and informed consent. Communities slated for relocation must be informed and consulted, as required by international human rights law. The government should guarantee that communities can enforce their right to stay or leave, with fully informed consent.

Apply a racial equity lens. Many communities in Puerto Rico are at risk of flooding, but only those that are home to poor people of color are now slated for relocation. It is essential to challenge the racism at the heart of this policy. In addition to understanding vulnerability, we must also recognize the strengths inherent in each community — especially the social ties that enable people to be resilient in the face of disaster.

Access to federal funds is essential to help Puerto Rico recover from the Island’s deadliest natural disaster in the last 100 years. But, as the money begins to flow, we must ask, “Puerto Rico for whom?” The current plan will rebuild for tourists and those in affluent coastal communities, while overlooking the needs of low-income people of color. It is not too late to make sure that this much-needed investment in Puerto Rico helps those who need it the most.

Download Resilience Matters!