Court temporarily halts evictions of 2,000 Puerto Rican disaster victims

NLIHC calls on Congress for permanent solution

A federal court ordered a temporary halt Saturday of the eviction of nearly 2,000 victims displaced by 2017’s natural disasters.

The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts by Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition members, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Faith in Action against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and seeks to decrease the risk of natural disaster victims facing homelessness.

The lawsuit alleged that FEMA was planning to prematurely abort its assistance to thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria when it discontinued its Transitional Shelter Assistance on June 30, 2018.

From the lawsuit:

FEMA’s refusal to extend TSA is without any plan for transitioning into longer-term housing some 2,000 individuals who have already faced severe trauma and lost most, if not all, of their belongings, their homes and their jobs. For Plaintiffs and many other TSA evacuees, especially the poor, elderly and sick, returning to their homes (or what is left of their homes) in Puerto Rico is not a viable option.

A judge determined Saturday that the storms victims within the TSA program are entitled to reasonable notice of the termination of the temporary housing assistance, assistance as long as they remain eligible and assistance in transitioning to other housing. The judge’s ruling also pointed out that in previous, equivalent disasters, FEMA extended the temporary housing assistance much longer than in the present disaster.

The temporary halt extended the program until at least midnight on July 3, 2018, orders FEMA to provide notice and take whatever action is necessary to extend the assistance until the deadline and schedule a phone meeting with the judge Monday.

“By temporarily halting FEMA’s further displacement of nearly 2,000 families, the federal courts are holding FEMA accountable for the predictable increase in homelessness that could result from its decision to arbitrarily end its hotel program,” said Diane Yentel National Low Income Housing Coalition president and CEO. “Now it is Congress’ turn to hold FEMA accountable, by enacting legislation to provide survivors with the proven long-term disaster housing solutions that they need to get back on their feet.”

Latino justice explained the evictions could lead to unnecessary trauma and homelessness.

“The refusal to extend TSA to evacuees, as well as their refusal to provide direct rental assistance to most evacuees, means the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who have already experienced deep trauma, and who will now likely find themselves homeless or in shelters,” LatinoJustice Associate Counsel Natasha Ora Bannan said. “In addition, FEMA continues to refuse to enter into an Inter-Agency Agreement with HUD, which would allow the Disaster Housing Assistance Program to be implemented, providing evacuees with longer term housing solutions and helping them resettle.”

“FEMA’s actions are shameful and continues to expose a community that has already suffered greatly to potentially greater harm,” Ora Bannan said.

Since the storm hit, FEMA has been criticized for its response in Puerto Rico as much of the island was left without power. In fact, the criticism even sparked controversy between President Donald Trump, who stepped in to defend FEMA, and the area’s local government.

“There is no question that FEMA’s response to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria has been woefully inadequate and unlike responses to other natural disasters experienced in the U.S.,” said Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF’s Southeast Office. “The level of transitional support care to assist evacuees, many who lost everything, has been predicated on a fiction that too much has been done already.”

“That is false,” Romero-Craft said. “We must not allow inaction by the federal government to continue to tear communities apart especially after the devastating losses in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane. We must continue to care for the most vulnerable members of our community to ensure their safety and not further endanger their lives.”

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