The Biden administration has begun making plans to release $1.3 billion in aid that Puerto Rico can use to protect against future climate disasters, alongside the removal of various spending restrictions Housing and Urban Development originally put in place by the Trump administration following Hurricane Maria in 2017, the New York Times reported.
According to administration officials, they intend to ease the limits that HUD, under the Trump administration, placed on $4.9 billion in aid on the morning of Jan. 20, prior to Trump leaving office. Officials told the Times this is the first step toward addressing racial inequality through climate change policies.
Puerto Rico’s reconstruction has faced sluggish recovery following the devastation of Maria partly due to restrictive roadblocks placed by the Department of Housing Development that did not apply to other aid recipients.
On Sep. 8, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act, which appropriated $7.4 billion in funding for major disasters declared in 2017.
In Feb. 2018, the Trump administration followed with a $1.5 billion grant to “address the serious unmet needs on the island,” and a $18.5 billion grant in April to further support recovery in Puerto Rico, according to HUD.
Though by the time the second round of funding hit, FEMA had already come under fire for its response in Puerto Rico as much of the island was left without power. The criticism eventually sparked controversy between Trump, who stepped in to defend FEMA, and the area’s local government.
A lawsuit was filed in July 2018 by a coalition of local emergency and justice groups that ordered a temporary halt of nearly 2,000 victims displaced by the disaster, alleging FEMA planned to prematurely abandon its assistance to thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria when it discontinued its Transitional Shelter Assistance.
After the lawsuit, HUD announced plans to publish how to allocate a new round of funds which included $1 billion for housing and housing stock, $145 million for economic revitalization and $100 million for damaged infrastructure.
According to a report in the Washington Post, HUD-OIG attorney Jeremy Kirkland told committee members that the watchdog was meeting with congressional lawmakers to request a probe into whether the Trump administration slowed aid to the ravaged island.
But at the end of October, the island had only received about a third of the $43 billion congress had officially allotted to Puerto Rico – an action former HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended.
In an October hearing titled “The End of Affordable Housing? A Review of the Trump Administration’s Plans to Change Housing Finance in America,” the House Financial Services Committee grilled Carson on the purpose of withholding the funds to which the secretary said it was a move of common sense due to the corruption in Puerto Rico.
In fact, a Puerto Rican mayor and two former government officials were arrested for the misuse of HUD funds in 2018.
But Biden persisted in his presidential campaign plans that his administration would work towards the release of Puerto Rico disaster money. Biden also laid out plans to instruct HUD to remove “onerous restrictions” and said his administration will create a federal working group solely designed to support the island’s recovery.