Dems push FEMA on housing help for displaced Puerto Ricans

Dems push FEMA on housing help for displaced Puerto Ricans
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Democrats led by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border Pompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report Dem senators demand GOP judicial group discloses donors MORE (D-N.J.) are seeking answers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over displaced homeowners in Puerto Rico who were denied federal assistance.

In a letter to FEMA on Thursday, Democrats said the agency had been denying homeowners in Puerto Rico whose homes were damaged in Hurricane Maria last year help under the Individuals and Households (IHP) program at "alarming rates."

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According to the letter, which cites news reports, 61 percent of the initial 1,067,618 applications and 79 percent of the subsequent 43,380 appeals were denied by FEMA.

“Currently, FEMA has deemed 333,118 IHP applications ineligible,” the letter reads. “As a result, more than 10 months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of American citizens in Puerto Rico are still waiting for relief.”

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Applicants can be denied when deemed ineligible by FEMA, which can happen when an applicant cannot be reached for inspection or if FEMA cannot prove an “applicant’s identity, occupancy or homeowner status.”

The problem appears to stem from a unique situation in Puerto Rico, where many families lack traditional housing deeds.

“FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico must address and accommodate these realities faced by Puerto Rican homeowners,” the senators wrote.

The senators credit FEMA with working toward solving the issue with new paperwork that uses updated ownership verification guidance.

The senators want this new method of proving ownership to be offered to those already denied by the agency and for FEMA to do more to promote it as an option for other Puerto Ricans in need.

At the bottom of the letter, the senators submit several questions they want the agency to answer, including whether or not the new guideline will apply to previously denied homeowners and “displaced families applying in the Continental United States who wish to return to Puerto Rico.”

The letter also includes a request for details on any “proposed outreach efforts” FEMA may have to publicly advertise the new guidance for IHP applicants.

The senators want answers from FEMA Administrator Brock Long by Aug. 6.

In an interview with The Hill in early July, FEMA Deputy Federal Coordination Officer Justo "Tito" Hernández said many of the families requesting FEMA assistance do not qualify either because they do not have a primary residence in Puerto Rico, their homes were deemed habitable, they had not submitted a permanent housing plan or they would be remaining off the island.

“And so these families, most of these families, the responsibility of the permanent housing plan relies on them,” Hernández said. “90 percent of those families are not coming back, they have said it to us in multiple locations that their plan of action is to remain in the United States, and therefore that limits the amount of assistance that we can provide.”  

Throughout the letter, the senators underscore the severity of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it left in Puerto Rico, leading to a large number of displaced individuals. 

The senators also contradict FEMA’s official death toll of 64, relying on new studies that put the possible death count from Maria in the thousands.

“As we approach one year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, far too many Puerto Ricans continue to live with constant despair and doubt, unsure if they will ever be able to recover from the storm,” the senators write.

“FEMA should act expeditiously to provide assistance to homeowners waiting to rebuild their lives.”