Menendez Questions FEMA on Denial of Housing Assistance in Puerto Rico

Menendez Questions FEMA on Denial of Housing Assistance in Puerto Rico

“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”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, led a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expressing serious concerns regarding the alarming rates at which the agency is denying appeals for assistance requests submitted to the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) in Puerto Rico. The Senators requested that FEMA promptly make their new sworn declarative statement form and ownership verification guidance public and applicable to both denied applicants as well as those who are in the process of submitting new IHP applications. Joining Sen. Menendez on the letter are Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif).

“According to news reports, 61 percent of the initial 1,067,618 applications for IHP assistance and more than 79 percent of the subsequent 43,380 appeals, were denied,” the Senators wrote. “As a result, more than 10 months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of American citizens in Puerto Rico are still waiting for relief.”

Hurricane Maria, the deadliest storm in 2017, and the third costliest storm in the United States since 1900, damaged or destroyed more than a third of the homes in Puerto Rico. For displaced Puerto Ricans requesting relief under the IHP program to repair or replace damaged homes has been complicated by the realities of the homeownership structure in the Island, in which approximately one half of homeowners lack a formal title to their properties.  

“FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico must address and accommodate these realities faced by Puerto Rican homeowners,” the Senators continued. “Given FEMA’s resistance to enter into a Disaster Housing Assistance Program agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the fact that its Temporary Shelter Assistance program is set to expire on August 31, 2018, it is imperative that FEMA issue comprehensive guidance for IHP eligibility and engage the survivors of this disaster, both on and off the island, in a targeted and robust outreach campaign,” the Senators concluded.  

The Senators also requested Administrator Long respond by August 6th, 2018 to questions on how the agency is addressing the homeownership complexities in Puerto Rico, requesting information on the specific steps FEMA is taking to make sure displaced families receive the relief they need.

“On behalf of the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, I applaud Senators Menendez, Blumenthal, Warren, Markey, Casey,  Sanders, Brown, and Harris for their efforts to hold FEMA accountable for its alarming practice of denying basic financial and housing assistance to survivors of Hurricane Maria, despite the clear need,” stated Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which leads the DHRC. “It is unacceptable that this administration continues to ignore lessons learned from past disaster recoveries and refuses to take action to ensure that all families impacted by the storms receive the help they need to get back on their feet.”

Before the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program was set to expire last June, Sen. Menendez led a letter urging FEMA to extend the deadline of the program, which helps victims of natural disasters secure temporary housing, and immediately activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), which provides stable, longer-term housing assistance and wrap-around case management services for survivors.

The Hill: Dems push FEMA on housing help for displaced Puerto Ricans

The full text of the letter can be found here and below.

August 2, 2018

The Honorable Brock Long
Administrator
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20472

Dear Administrator Long:

We write with serious concerns regarding the alarming rates at which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is denying appeals for assistance requests submitted to the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) in Puerto Rico due to a systemic problem with property titles.  We are encouraged however, to learn that FEMA has developed a new sworn declarative form as an update to its Ownership Verification Guidance to address this issue in Puerto Rico. We respectfully request that FEMA promptly make that form and guidance public and applicable to both denied applicants as well as those who are in the process of submitting new IHP applications. 

According to news reports, 61 percent of the initial 1,067,618 applications for IHP assistance and more than 79 percent of the subsequent 43,380 appeals were denied. Furthermore, reports suggest that many of the denied applications for IHP assistance were “deemed ineligible” if the applicant could not be contacted for inspection or if the agency was unable to prove the applicants identity, occupancy or homeownership status.  Currently, FEMA has deemed 333,118 IHP applications ineligible. As a result, more than 10 months after Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of American citizens in Puerto Rico are still waiting for relief.

Hurricane Maria, the deadliest storm in 2017, and the third costliest storm in the United States since 1900, damaged or destroyed more than a third of the homes in Puerto Rico, yielded a potential mortality count in excess of 4,645 deaths, and forced more than 100,000 of its residents to flee the island in its aftermath.  Disaster relief in Puerto Rico is complicated by the realities of its homeownership structure, in which approximately one half of homeowners lack title to their properties.  FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico must address and accommodate these realities faced by Puerto Rican homeowners. 

As you know, IHP provides financial and direct services to eligible individuals and households affected by a disaster who have uninsured or underinsured basic needs. IHP assistance can come in the form of Housing Assistance, where FEMA provides direct funding to eligible individuals to repair or replace damage caused by a disaster or through Direct Housing Assistance, where FEMA provides assistance to survivors who are unable to use Rental Assistance due to a lack of available housing resources.

Given FEMA’s resistance to enter into a Disaster Housing Assistance Program agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the fact that its Temporary Shelter Assistance program is set to expire on August 31, 2018, it is imperative that FEMA issue comprehensive guidance for IHP eligibility and engage the survivors of this disaster, both on and off the island, in a targeted and robust outreach campaign.  

We also ask that you respond to the following questions by Monday, August 6, 2018:

  • Now that FEMA has updated its Owner Verification Guidance to address the problem of IHP denials in Puerto Rico, will FEMA allow applicants who had been previously denied IHP applications to resubmit their applications using a sworn declarative statement rather than a signed affidavit? Will this updated guidance apply to new IHP applicants?
  • What steps is FEMA taking to make sure that previously denied IHP applicants know about the “sworn statement” guidance and have another opportunity to appeal?
  • Will that guidance apply to displaced families applying in the Continental United States who wish to return to Puerto Rico?
  • How will FEMA personnel working in Puerto Rico or in States with current displaced communities of Puerto Ricans, be trained in the new guidance?
  • Does FEMA intend to conduct active public information and outreach campaigns regarding this new guidance for new IHP applicants and formerly denied applications?  Please provide a detailed outline of any proposed outreach efforts. 

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

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