A federal court issued an injunction on June 30 barring FEMA from ending its Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) program for families displaced by the 2017 disasters. The court’s decision, which was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition members LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Faith in Action, temporarily halts evictions by FEMA of nearly 2,000 households currently living in TSA hotels until at least July 5. The court will hear the merits of the case on July 2.
FEMA had decided to arbitrarily end the TSA hotel program on June 30, regardless of whether survivors had stable, affordable homes in place. At the same time, FEMA has refused to activate longer-term housing solutions, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, despite requests made by impacted individuals, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, dozens of members of Congress, and homelessness and housing advocates. As a result, thousands of survivors have had no choice but to double or triple up with other families, sleep in cars, return to their uninhabitable homes, or pay half of their income on rent. Precarious housing situations make it harder for families to fully recover and put them at increased risk of evictions, and in worst cases, homelessness.
Advocates and elected officials warn that displaced families from Puerto Rico may join the ranks of their communities’ homeless. Advocates rallied at an Orlando hotel on June 22 demanding that Florida Governor Rick Scott address the needs of displaced hurricane survivors from Puerto Rico. The protestors urged the governor to use the state’s affordable housing fund to help the more 600 families still living at the time in Florida hotels. An estimated 75,000 Puerto Ricans came to Florida after Hurricane Maria, exacerbating the state’s serious shortage of affordable housing.
The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe supporting passage of legislation in Congress that would force the implementation of DHAP within 15 days of enactment. The op-ed cites the success of DHAP after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, noting that 95% of Katrina DHAP participants secured stable housing after the program ended.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) worked to fast-track his bill, “The Disaster Housing Assistance Act” (S.2880), to provide housing relief to the thousands of 2017 hurricane survivors still without stable housing. He requested unanimous consent (UC) for S.2880, which would immediately activate DHAP, and he spoke on the Senate floor on June 28 to urge support. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, objected, and the UC request was thereby defeated.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Adriano Espaillat (NY) have also introduced companion bills, “The Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act” (S.2996 and H.R.5474), to activate DHAP and implement measures to help Puerto Rican survivors who are struggling to receive FEMA assistance due to title issues and informal housing which are common on the island. NLIHC supports all three bills and urges advocates to call on their members of congress to sign on.
On June 27, a group of U.S. senators and representatives sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HUD Secretary Ben Carson requesting an extension of TSA and the activation of DHAP. They cite the extensive destruction of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and the high rate of Individual Assistance (IA) program denials by FEMA. The lawmakers note that “DHAP has historically been activated within two weeks of a disaster, while Puerto Ricans have waited over eight months for relief.”
Four ranking members of various House committees sent a similar letter to Administrator Long on June 29. Representatives Maxine Waters (D-CA) of the Financial Services Committee, Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) of the Small Business Committee, Bennie Thompson (D-MS) of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Richard Neal (D-MA) all signed onto the letter urging FEMA to activate DHAP.
“At a time when Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts have barely begun, FEMA’s decision to cut off disaster survivors from motels while denying them access to safe, stable homes as they try to get back on their feet is callous and cruel,” said NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel in an NLIHC press release issued on June 28. “It is unacceptable that FEMA is choosing to retraumatize these U.S. citizens and put them at increased risk of homelessness.”
Read the bicameral lawmakers’ June 27 letter to FEMA and HUD at: https://bit.ly/2tEAy8P
Read the representatives’ June 29 letter to Administrator Long at: https://bit.ly/2KCmMdC
Read the FEMA announcement at: https://bit.ly/2Kh9JlE
Read more about the injunction at: https://bit.ly/2IGg1W1