Hurricane Maria has decimated housing across Puerto Rico, affecting residents of all income levels. Early estimates of the number of completely damaged homes range from 25,000 (the local housing department) to 90,000 (the local homebuilding association).
Among the blows to the island’s infrastructure is the damage to its large stock of public and assisted housing, a situation that threatens to leave tens of thousands of residents homeless. Several local public housing authorities that administer Housing Choice Vouchers are still not operational, and little is known about the state of the commonwealth-wide Puerto Rico Public Housing Authority’s units. Nearly a month after Maria struck, nearly 5,000 residents are still living in temporary shelters, with others leaving Puerto Rico to find stable housing in states like Florida and Texas.
Puerto Rico has the second-largest housing authority in the US, behind only New York City. According to US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) figures, before Maria hit, about a quarter of a million Puerto Ricans lived in subsidized housing. The island had more than 50,000 public housing units, roughly 30,000 households using Housing Choice Vouchers, and 18,000 households living in project-based Section 8 units. The island’s housing was already in need of significant investment.
A 2010 HUD study reported that the Puerto Rican Public Housing Authority would face a backlog of more than $3 billion in capital needs over the next 20 years. According to Puerto Rico housing secretary Fernando Gil, 2,500 units of public housing were available before Hurricane Maria, and 25,000 people were on the waiting list. Although it is too early for a detailed assessment, much of this housing is likely now uninhabitable. That means a substantial portion of the approximately 240,000 extremely low–income residents who depend on the federal safety net for safe and affordable housing have nowhere to live.
This situation is especially worrying given the country’s poor record in rebuilding public housing after disasters. A recent report in Governing illustrated that the federal government still has not finished rebuilding New Orleans’ public housing more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina. The city has also replaced the aging and distressed public housing stock damaged during the storm with mixed-income developments that have fewer deeply subsidized units. New Orleans is now smaller, whiter, and wealthier than it was before Katrina, and most people who lived in public housing in New Orleans when Katrina hit—nearly all African American—have not come back and are unlikely to do so.
The slow recovery effort in Puerto Rico threatens to make the situation worse. A history of disinvestment in infrastructure combined with Puerto Rico’s weak economy and status as a US territory leaves it dependent on a strong federal commitment to rebuild its infrastructure, specifically subsidized housing. In the current political environment, there is no appetite for funding large-scale construction of public housing, especially amid the administration’s threats to limit US investment in rebuilding.
Though the House approved a $36.5 billion disaster relief package—only some of which will go to Puerto Rico—more deliberate investment in subsidized housing will be necessary to support rebuilding for the residents most in need. Properties that rely on HUD subsidies to provide housing to low-income residents may face a loss in federal funding because units currently lack electricity and water.
Given the large-scale destruction of housing on the island, even if the federal government provides a generous number of disaster housing vouchers, it is hard to know where residents would be able to use them. As a result, tens of thousands of the lowest-income Puerto Ricans will be left without options and may end up permanently displaced.
Any efforts to avoid this outcome will require a major infusion of federal dollars and oversight to ensure that replacement housing is high quality and in areas that offer residents better access to services and amenities. The government should also avoid the mistakes of Katrina and not leave residents languishing in poor-quality temporary housing. Finally, the Puerto Rico housing agency should track displaced residents and make sure they are offered the opportunity to return when new housing is built.
This deadly hurricane season has done serious damage to public housing in many places in Texas and Florida, further diminishing the nation’s limited stock of deeply subsidized housing for our poorest citizens. Houston, which was also hit hard, has a better chance to fully recover. Houston has many resources, among them a strong housing authority with a commitment to inclusive recovery.
But the level of devastation of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, combined with the slow initial federal response, make it likely that things will play out there as they did in New Orleans after Katrina. The poorest residents will have to find somewhere else to live, and they may never return.