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Proposed housing bill would help victims of Hurricane Maria and other 2017 disasters

The Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act would help Puerto Ricans and others sort out property issues holding back aid

A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1. But more than half a year after the country experienced extensive damage from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, there are still Americans citizens trying to obtain federal aid to cope with the loss of their homes.

A new bill introduced to Congress last week seeks to speed relief, and remedy some of the issues revealed by FEMA’s response to hurricanes in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico.

Last Thursday, New York Representative Adriano Espaillat and Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s sole congressional representative, introduced the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act to the House of Representatives. The bill would assist victims of any of the declared major disasters, including the wildfires in California, which together caused a record $400 billion-plus worth of damage to the U.S. in 2017.

The bill has both short- and long-term implications: It would immediately direct FEMA to enter a mission assignment with HUD to administer the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). This program, previously used in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, would immediately offer additional temporary rental assistance to families displaced by declared major disasters last year.

It would also make individuals who are renting, or those without land permits, deeds, or titles, eligible for FEMA funds and prevent them from being turned away.

The large exodus of Puerto Ricans to parts of the mainland United States, including Central Florida, strained local housing resources, with many living temporarily in hotels.

The Act would also permit authorities to use disaster relief funds, appropriated under the Stafford Act, to cover land surveys, land titles, and any other taxes or fees associated with property transfer.

Many Puerto Ricans don’t have legal titles to their homes, making them ineligible for reconstruction aid. According to an NPR report, a significant number of the more than half-a-million requests for FEMA assistance from Puerto Ricans have been denied due to lack of proper paperwork and ownership documentation.

In a statement, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, supported the act.

“The National Low Income Housing Coalition-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition of more than 700 local, state, and national organizations commends Congressman Espaillat and Congresswoman González Colón for their leadership in putting forward critically needed, long-term housing solutions so that in the future, no family recovering from a disaster has to make the impossible choice between paying rent and meeting their other basic needs as they get back on their feet,” she said.