By Ivis García, PhD, AICP; Robert B. Olshansky, PhD, FAICP; and David Carrasquillo
September 2017: the Eye of Hurricane Irma skirts just north of Puerto Rico, cutting electricity for a million residents and dumping about 15 inches of rain on the island territory. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria makes landfall with the full force of a Category 5 storm, killing 2,975 people, causing $100 billion in damages, and damaging 92 percent of the island's housing stock.
The one-two punch created a devastating humanitarian crisis and an immense challenge in post-disaster recovery. Headlines accused the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments of a slow response and inadequate aid as many residents went without food, water, safe shelter, or power for months.
Two years later, Puerto Rico still has a long way to go. A continued lack of access to proper shelter endangers the lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens. With another hurricane season underway, these concerns are only growing. Houses that were affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria are at significant risk of being hit again, and without adequate structural integrity, these buildings and people simply may not survive a second lashing.
With billions of dollars of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds dedicated to solving these problems, and new federal programs launching, Puerto Rico's relocation, recovery, and resiliency efforts are gaining momentum.
But considerable hurdles must be cleared along the way, particularly when it comes to equity.
Help from HUD
In April 2018, Congress and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $18.5 billion in CDBG-DR to Puerto Rico, a move that excited many hoping for a just recovery for local communities. A total of $9.7 billion was approved as of May 2019.
The CDBG-DR process is being managed by the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico. Through these funds, the Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery Action Plan sets the ambitious goal that, "Every program implemented, every dollar spent, must rebuild families and communities, and must also generate a long-term investment in social capital, fortify the economy, and set the stage for stability and continuity in government modernization and efficiency for decades to come." To accomplish these goals, 27 programs have been created: 10 for housing, eight economy, three infrastructure, two multisector, and four planning.
Right now, the Action Plan does not include specific guidelines for any of the 27 programs. Local organizations are urging the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico to create guidelines that ensure a just, equitable recovery by prioritizing real and timely participation, the right to safe housing, and the adoption of policies that minimize displacements.
For planners, one of the most important CDBG-DR programs is the Whole Community Resiliency Planning Program. This $55 million effort — the largest planning grant ever provided by CDBG-DR — will result in "comprehensive community recovery plans" that promise to systematically coordinate all the reconstruction needs of Puerto Rico's municipalities. The program is being managed by the Foundation for Puerto Rico by means of a December 2018 memorandum of understanding with the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico.
The program works as "an opportunity to transform and create a resilient Puerto Rico through a bottom-up community planning initiative," says Luis Monterrubio, FPR's director of community planning. Communities need to apply for grants, undergoing a competitive process. In these plans, communities are expected to conduct their own community engagement process. FPR is actively traveling to different regions in the island informing community groups that an RFP for the creation of these plans will be available in September.
Since the launch of the program's initial design phase in January, FPR has been collecting data that will provide hazard, exposure, and other data elements to inform community resilience profiles; engaging in community outreach; and creating a web portal for public access. The community outreach process began in March, and the first phase has a multisectoral working group to support local planning efforts.
With the second phase about to launch in September, FPR is staffing up, with the intent to hire regional planners, community outreach coordinators, data analyst specialists, compliance and grant managers, and administrative staff. Eligible communities will apply for grants of up to $500,000 per plan, with a priority on high-risk communities. For the next nine to 18 months, communities will prepare plans to identify and prioritize investments in long-term recovery.
Planning for Whole-Community Resiliency
The Foundation for Puerto Rico manages the Whole Community Planning Program, which will systematically coordinate the island territory's reconstruction needs. Community outreach began in March; for the second phase, which just started, applicants will apply for grants of up to $500,000 per plan, with a priority on high-risk communities. For the next nine to 18 months, communities will prepare plans that prioritize investments in long-term recovery, while focusing on a locally driven process.
Reconstruction and relocation
With a budget of $2.2 billion, one of the largest CDBG-DR efforts is the Home Repair, Reconstruction, or Relocation Program, which seeks to use CDBG-DR funds to reduce the potential for future hurricane damage by either repairing minor damage or moving households to safer locations.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new flood zone maps, which extended the areas designated as floodplains, nearly 200,000 Puerto Rican households lie within 100-year flood zones. That amounts to about 17 percent of the island's 1.2 million households, per the 2010 Census. Because only 5,675 of those homes had flood insurance when Maria struck, flood-damaged households are in dire need of financial assistance.
The Home Repair, Reconstruction, or Relocation (R3) Program will cover home repairs up to $48,000, but it will not pay for elevated reconstruction in flood zones — a significant difference from CDBG-DR programs following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. That's because the local department of housing prohibits repair or reconstruction of houses in zones deemed flood or landslide prone. That means owners of substantially damaged floodplain homes will need to relocate if they want to receive federal assistance. The program will offer vouchers for up to $150,000 to purchase an existing home in a risk-free area; if no suitable options exist, the program will construct a home on a new lot. Some municipalities have identified municipal land and land for sale to relocate families and are actively starting conversations with developers.
It is unclear how this program will play out. There are questions as to how many existing housing units are available to receive relocated residents. According to Jennifer Hinojosa and Edwin Meléndez from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter's College CUNY, 18 percent of Puerto Rico's housing units were vacant in 2016. But that was a year before Irma and Maria; many of those homes could be unavailable, unaffordable, damaged, or in unsuitable locations now.
Because the guidelines for the program have not yet been created, it is unknown how many floodplain owners will be affected or even eligible for the relocation program. A total of 22 out of 78 municipalities have identified communities that are at risk of relocation; some have started conducting surveys to see which of these residents are interested in the program, but most have yet to be approached. Although the program has the virtue of reducing the island's flood vulnerability, particularly in rural and coastal areas, it seems likely to disrupt communities in unforeseen ways. As with recovery in the wake of any disaster, relocation is a complicated and controversial process.
"The picture of a large number of households living in damaged housing, many still under blue tarp roofs, in the floodplains of Puerto Rico is alarming. This is more so because to date, there is no clear planning and policy direction for solutions to deal with the complex situation," says Lucilla Marvel, AICP, a longtime Puerto Rican community planner and currently the principal at Taller de Planificación Social. She is concerned that leaders of communities faced with relocation might not receive sufficient, accurate information about their regulations, rights, and options.
"This is looming as a monumental social justice problem," she says.
The picture Marvel paints is appropriately dire: As of May 10, more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans, particularly those in rural areas, still live with blue tarps draped over their roofs because they lack the funds to repair them, according to Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico.
While more than 1.1 million households have applied for FEMA assistance under the Individuals and Households Program, 58 percent have been denied. The median grant applicants have received is $1,800. As a point of comparison, the average in Texas after Hurricane Harvey was $9,127.
Why is a substantial proportion of Puerto Rico's population not getting the aid they need? It often comes down to proof of ownership, namely a title. According to Federico Del Monte, the president of the Puerto Rican Planning Society, informal homes have populated the island for decades. Between 45 and 55 percent of all housing stock is estimated to have been built without a construction permit. While some of those properties have a title attached to them, many do not.
About 20 percent of all Puerto Rican homes do not have titles, particularly in rural areas. There are many reasons why: Houses on the island might be built on unsubdivided family land, or on land belonging to a government, a nongovernmental organization, an employer, or an unrelated person. In other cases, inheritance issues were never resolved, or the land a house stands on was bought without a title. Sometimes, a title does exist, but it does not include an actual address.
Whatever the reason, the result is the same: Thousands of people that have requested FEMA assistance from September 2017 to May 2019 have been denied because they have no documentation proving that they own their homes.
"It is estimated that nearly 40,000 to 70,000 eligible applicants were denied assistance," says Ariadna M. Godreau-Aubert, the executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico. "This [is] both a wrongful and disparate application of federal regulations and Puerto Rican laws, which do not require any legal document to evidence ownership and provide alternatives to prove title bearing."
FEMA does not, in fact, require a claimant to produce a title — although it is the most commonly used method of proving ownership. After a long and arduous advocacy process led by Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and other nonprofits, FEMA now recognizes the use of a "sworn statement" as an alternate proof of ownership.
"This [change] has paved the way for thousands of families that, nearly two years after the hurricanes, have yet to receive the necessary assistance to repair their houses," says Godreau-Aubert — but it might be too little too late. "Unfortunately, thousands of families and multiple municipalities have already been discouraged and even displaced."
And it can still be quite difficult for home owners to get the documentation they need for the "sworn statement," like utility bills. Without further change to FEMA's rules, rural Puerto Ricans may find themselves perpetually unable to get the aid they need.
A Title Clearance Program, which is slated to receive up to $40 million in CDBG-DR funds to help people cover legal fees to obtain deeds, might help solve this problem for some home owners, but the process could take years — time many do not have.
7 Principles for Recovery
The Foundation for Puerto Rico uses public engagement to drive the process to develop equitable community recovery plans with these characteristics:
Design projects to ensure that different organizations (and not just the usual suspects) participate in the planning process.
Allow the general public to access the information at all stages of the program, including bilingual information.
Incorporate as a requirement the need to communicate and coordinate all existing federal, state, or non-for-profit based initiatives already taking place within communities.
Allow existing initiatives and projects already completed by communities to be part of the process and avoid duplication of efforts.
Multidimensional and Data Based
Facilitate the identification of projects that respond to an updated index of vulnerability and risk through a creative multisectorial analysis of data.
Easy and Accessible
Provide tools to facilitate the access of information that can help mobilize the creation of community resilience plans.
Make sure the process is as efficient as possible to encourage a fast disbursement of funds for projects identified by the communities.
Just the beginning
Puerto Rico still has a long way to go in its recovery efforts. In the coming months, the efforts of the Commonwealth and federal government, municipalities, Foundation for Puerto Rico, and numerous nonprofit and community organizations will be crucial to the complex process. Providing sufficient local capacity to manage the funds and execute programs in a timely and coordinated manner will be a continuing challenge.
Puerto Rico has welcomed the unprecedented amount of CDBG-DR aid, but many advocates have expressed concerns about whether the funds will ultimately benefit those who need it the most. Equitable distribution and application of the funds will depend on the processes of program management, stakeholder involvement, and decision making, all of which are still being developed.
Ruben Flores-Marzan, AICP, the former president of Puerto Rico's Planning Board (he now works as the director of planning and community development in East Windsor, Connecticut), says that he remains "hopeful that local and federal authorities will continue listening to all stakeholders, including diaspora planners, and make available their full disaster data collection to ensure we can all better understand the mistakes that were made along the way and work together to ensure Puerto Rico is better prepared next time."
Ivís García is an assistant professor in city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and collaborates with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago, and Planners for Puerto Rico in various recovery efforts on the topics of housing, community development, participation, and equity.
Robert B. Olshansky is professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published extensively on post-disaster recovery and is currently researching permanent community relocation following disasters in Japan, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, New Zealand, and the U.S. (Louisiana, Puerto Rico). He has been collaborating with Planners for Puerto Rico and the Center for a New Economy.
David Carrasquillo is a manager of planning and community development at Hispanic Federation, and specializes in housing and economic development; he is also the vice president of the Puerto Rican Planning Society and publicly advocates for equitable recovery in media outlets such as NBC News and the New York Times.
Hurricane Maria Impact Report: See how the Foundation for Puerto Rico targets recovery needs.
After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery: See Planners Library for more about this 2017 book by Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson.