When Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, it devastated the tiny island of Puerto Rico. The level of damage proved far more severe than the territory’s government could bear. More than a year and a half following the devastating hurricane, thousands of people in the U.S. territory are still living in damaged homes.
In Puerto Rico, there are about 1,237,180 million homes. Of those, 1,138,843 (92 percent) were damaged by the hurricane. And of those damaged, 1,118,862 (98 percent) applied for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individuals and Households Program (IHP) as of May 2018. These figures came from Ron Roth, a FEMA spokesperson who noted to NBC News that the number of approved applications totaled 452,290—with 335,748 denied.
This means that about 40 percent of those who self-identified as being in need were not awarded assistance. Although many people have decided to rebuild on their own, a large percentage of these U.S. citizens still live with blue tarps over their houses, as they lack the funds necessary to repair their roofs. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to inclement weather—especially during hurricane season. Without a way to protect their homes from further inclement weather, families stand the risk of losing even more.
This concern has alarmed many who note that, should another hurricane hit, almost two years after Maria, many of these affected families still do not have a safe place to live. In light of this, why is it that FEMA rejected hundreds of thousands of assistance applications? This article addresses the current state of housing in Puerto Rico and how the lack of proving ownership may be crippling the territory’s recovery. In addition, this article will summarize some policy responses proposed by advocates.
Housing in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has a history of informal construction. Anywhere between 585,000–715,000 (45–55 percent) of homes and commercial buildings in Puerto Rico have been constructed without building permits or following land use codes, according to a 2018 study of the Puerto Rico Builders Association. Furthermore, the vice president of the Society for Puerto Rican Planners, David Carrasquillo, estimates that 260,000 homes in Puerto Ricodo not have titles or deeds. The reasons, to be discussed in the following paragraphs, are varied.
There is undoubtedly a history of what is commonly referred to as “illegal” home building, although known as “rescuing” land by those who have engaged in the practice. Because of their lack of resources, many Puerto Ricans in the past have taken to building homes on vacant land—whether they own it or not. This land often turns out to be public land own by the state. About 45 percent of Puerto Ricans, according to the 2017 five-year estimates American Community Survey, live below the poverty level.
Though there still may be cases in which citizens “illegally” build houses on land that is not theirs, much of the issue related to not having titles is not because of illegality, but rather it has to do with a lack of historical documentation. This results from the fact that in Puerto Rico many people live on land that has been subdivided generationally in their families, though they never went through a formal process of subdividing the land.
Similarly, many heirs have not gone through the process of declaring inheritance. In Puerto Rico, it is common to see someone occupying a home still under the name of deceased parents or family members because the new occupant never resolved the ownership of the property. Furthermore, for many in Puerto Rico, the proper documentation is not commonplace when a family acquires the property. One might have bought land lawfully and have no title merely because the person who owned it before did not have one.
For these reasons, hundreds of thousands of people in the nation are living on land to which they do not hold a formal title. In many ways, this does not pose a problem in day-to-day life, as other individuals may not claim the land. Most families have decided not to resolve these issues because it can cost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, take a lot of time to find adequate information, and requires them to visit many governmental offices, which might be towns apart to “solve” what many considered a nonissue.
Local and Federal
FEMA’s adherence to strict homeownership regulations precludes individuals living in these homes from gaining access to federal aid. As noted above, of the 1.1 million households that applied, only about 40 percent (452,290) were approved, representing $1.39 billion in grants. This means that about 60 percent were not approved either because they were deemed ineligible (335,748) or they were simply denied (330,824). FEMA sent letters to applicants with 41 reasons or codes for denying aid, from insufficient damages to pre-existing conditions.
According to organizations such as Ayuda Legal Huracán María and Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, FEMA’s number one reason for denying households aid was precisely because of their inability to prove ownership. Although the number of those dismissed from IHP because of not being able to show evidence of ownership has not been made public, Ayuda Legal Huracán María has a record of 48,000 families in Puerto Rico living on untitled property, affected by the disaster, and denied from assistance.
One of the primary reasons FEMA has denied these applications is because of its inability to recognize Puerto Rico’s Civil Code and property rights framework, which derives from Spanish law. Under Puerto Rican law, one can be the legal owner of a property without having a formal title, presenting deeds, and so on. However, FEMA asked for such documentation to obtain assistance, leaving thousands unable to apply or receive help. The issue proves more complicated than most may think. In many ways, FEMA’s policies look to avoid unlawful claims by those who do not own property. On the other hand, they punish hardworking citizens who rightfully own their homes, but lack the documents to prove it.
However, these issues might be explained by a closer look at the manner in which FEMA provides aid to owners as established in section 408 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act, 1974,42 U.S.C. 5151 et seq.). The Stafford Act, under the Emergency Management and Assistance, 44 C.F.R. § 206.111 (2018), defines owner-occupied residence as a home occupied by (1) the legal owner; (2) a person who does not hold formal title to the residence and pays no rent, but is responsible for the payment of taxes or maintenance of the residence; or (3) a person who has lifetime occupancy rights with formal title vested in another. It is important to note the striking similarities between the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Code and the Stafford Act in which one should not have to provide a title to be considered an owner.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), through their Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) in collaboration with local organizations in Puerto Rico such as Ayuda Legal Huracán María and Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, have been keeping an eye on the situation and have raised concerns to FEMA, noting that FEMA should provide an alternative way of proving ownership in accordance to both the local and the federal laws, where a title is not needed.
The Declarative Statement
Because FEMA requires that some form of ownership documentation be produced, thousands of individuals lost access to the aid they need to repair their homes. For these households, then, there may be no proof other than their own word that they own their property. A sworn declaration was created by the DHRC of the NLIHC in order to help those individuals without deeds or titles. In this statement, the owner needs to provide their personal information and an address of the property that needs repairs.
Given that many heirs occupy homes and, as a result, have a proprietary interest, but are not mentioned in the deed of the property, they could use the declarative statement to qualify for assistance. This means that a person has a proprietary interest in the home, but the traditional legal steps to transfer ownership have not been taken. This also applies for those families who have not subdivided their land, those who bought property without a title, and those who took a building or a vacant lot where the owners have not come forward to make claims.
In the declarative statement, people needed to swear that no other person can claim ownership rights to the property or that after an effort to locate rightful owners they could not be found. The owner was encouraged to provide alternative documentation instead of a title such as tax receipts, home insurance, a utility bill, a letter of credit from the utility company, receipts from repairing the property, or any other documentation that would support that they were currently occupying and maintaining the home.
The DHRC of the NLIHC worked with FEMA to craft the language of the marketing behind the effort, despite it not being directly related to the agency. It is a move the DHRC believes could help relieve the burden felt by Puerto Rican citizens, as these sworn documents allow those who have been denied assistance the opportunity to prove their ownership.
However, as many Puerto Ricans remain in the dark about this form, its utility has been marginal. Because the sworn declaration is not a FEMA document, FEMA issued a press release, but it did not take additional measures to raise awareness of the document among those who have been denied assistance. Until now, Ayuda Legal Huracán María, Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, among other organizations in the island that are part of DHRC, has been promoting the sworn statement on their own as well as informing homeowners at workshops, through news and social media, as well as at Disaster Recovery Centers across the island.
Since October 2018, the DHRC has been laying out the guidelines on how this education campaign could be accomplished. This included “educating Disaster Recovery Center (DCR) staff and staff handling appeals about the availability of the sworn declaration, making the sworn declaration available at the DRC, and sending another letter to those denied assistance with a copy of, or instructions on how to access, the sworn declaration.” Using these recommendations, it may be possible to ameliorate the problem of inequitable access to repair funds in Puerto Rico.
The current situation in Puerto Rico is unsustainable. With a vast swath of the population living without proper shelter, the territory’s citizens are at risk of increased injury or damage in the event of any future hurricanes. The extent of the issue can prove alarming to outside viewers. A look at the nation reveals a populace still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria nearly two years later. Ineffectual attempts by FEMA to alleviate the situation have left people living in unsafe and dire conditions.
FEMA denials mostly stem from homeowners’ inability to produce deeds, titles, or other forms of documents proving that they have ownership of their homes. These requirements, however, prove too hard for many Puerto Ricans to overcome because, though they are not transactions that are costly, they are not part of the culture.
Because of this, many—but most notably the DRHC of the NLIHC—have called into question the utility of FEMA’s restrictive policies that prevent hundreds of thousands from getting the aid that they need. In some cases, families desperate for a way to repair their homes have made multiple appeals unsuccessfully to the federal organization for rebuilding assistance.
Advocacy groups have begun to speak out in the hopes that FEMA will change restrictive policies to better consider the context of the island. By recognizing the history of the territory, the building and cultural practices there, they argue, FEMA can better accommodate the needs of a highly at-risk population.
Even though advocates have attempted to address the problem by designing a sworn statement in collaboration with FEMA to help homeowners get the required documentation, more action is needed from FEMA’s side. This slow-going process for making sure that homeowners receive the FEMA assistance they need has left many wondering when these households will have a safe place to call home.
Ivis Garcia is an assistant professor in City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. She is involved with the National Puerto Rican Agenda, the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, and Centro's IDEAComun, all of which promote Puerto Rico's recovery.
Syndia Maria Sotomayor, Río Abajo, Utuado
Hurricane Maria's rains triggered ruthless flooding throughout Puerto Rico's mountainous regions. Rivers rose 30, 40 and 50 feet, washing away roads and bridges that cut off entire communities.
The debate over Puerto Rico's statehood remains as relevant as ever, as the island struggles with the combined effects of economic depression, shrinking population, debt crisis and bankruptcy, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and government mismanagement.How much damage did Hurricane Maria do to Puerto Rico? ›
Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20 as a high-end Category 4 storm, bringing a large storm surge, very heavy rains, and wind gusts well above 100 mph (160 km/h). It flattened neighborhoods, crippled the island's power grid, and caused an estimated 2,982 fatalities and US$90 billion in damage.Why are there so many abandoned properties in Puerto Rico? ›
Hurricanes Irma and Maria have accelerated the trend of increased migration out of Puerto Rico, leading to many abandoned properties and properties labeled as “nuisances”. A “nuisance” property is defined as a building that is either uninhabitable or labeled a safety risk.Is Puerto Rico rebuilt after the hurricane? ›
Puerto Rico's infrastructure, like the hospital on Vieques, was never fully rebuilt after Hurricane Maria. Though more than $20 billion was committed to Puerto Rico's recovery, only a fraction of that has been spent on actual recovery projects. This program aired on October 26, 2022.What happened to Puerto Rico as a result of the war? ›
The United States was ceded Puerto Rico and Guam, liquidated its possessions in the West Indies, agreed to pay 20 million dollars for the Phillippines, while Cuba became independent.Why are people leaving Puerto Rico? ›
“The declining population of Puerto Rico in part is due to the economic crisis created by the elimination of Section 936,” Feliciano said. The economic struggles have accelerated brain drain on the islands, as the young and ambitious leave to attend school or join the U.S. military.Why are millionaires moving to Puerto Rico? ›
Wealthy investors moving to Puerto Rico for tax benefits - CBS News.Is Puerto Rico a poor country? ›
Economy of Puerto Rico.
|GDP||$118.68 billion (nominal, 2022 est.) $135.28 billion (PPP, 2022 est.)|
|GDP rank||— (nominal, 2022) — (PPP, 2022)|
The lack of electricity, running water and reliable communications remain central challenges to the Caribbean island as it struggles to return to a semblance of normal life. Roughly a third of Puerto Rico's residents — some 1.2 million people — are still living in the dark.
Hurricane Maria was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928.How many people left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? ›
Hodges says his preliminary findings show that many of the 200,000 people who fled to the mainland in the wake of Hurricane Maria have experienced high levels of depression, discrimination, and cultural stress.What human rights are being violated in Puerto Rico? ›
Some human rights abuses Puerto Ricans have endured under US colonialism that are well documented in scholarship include sexist eugenic policies, military invasion, restricted self-determination, and surveillance, persecution and imprisonment.Why is Puerto Rico's economy failing? ›
Puerto Rico accumulated more than $70 billion in public debt and more than $50 billion in public pension liabilities through decades of corruption, mismanagement and excessive borrowing. The U.S. Congress created the federal board in 2016, a year after the island's government said it was unable to pay its debt.What happens to abandoned houses in Puerto Rico? ›
“Any abandoned property that has a mortgage will be subject to a judicial foreclosure process. Until then, the ownership will be retained by its lawful owners,” he said. “Then if they are finally foreclosed, it will become a real estate owned (REO) property of the particular bank.How long did it take to restore power to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? ›
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, in September 2017, the storm devastated the island's electricity grid. It took 328 days, or roughly 11 months, for the island to restore power to all of the customers who lost it during the hurricane, which marked the longest blackout in U.S. history.Is Puerto Rico power restored? ›
But while most of the island may have power restored, customers still need to contend with crippling high energy costs. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that commercial customers in Puerto Rico on average pay 29.4 cents per kilowatt hour as of June 2022.What damage did hurricanes do in Puerto Rico? ›
Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused billions of dollars in damage to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's government estimated it would need $132 billion from 2018 through 2028 to repair and replace the infrastructure damaged by the hurricanes.What happened when America invaded Puerto Rico? ›
On May 12, US battleships bombarded the city of San Juan. When the troops invaded and subdued the inner cities, the Treaty of Paris of 1898 was signed, and the American flag was raised over the island. Colonialism shaped Puerto Rican migration to the United States before and after the invasion.What did the US gain from taking over Puerto Rico? ›
The strategic value of Puerto Rico for the United States at the end of the nineteenth century centered in economic and military interests. The island's value to US policy makers was as an outlet for excess manufactured goods, as well as a key naval station in the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico would become a sovereign nation with its own political system, language, culture, and membership in the United Nations. The United States would no longer be obligated to provide financial support, but would lose all military bases unless Puerto Rico agreed to lease them.Can I just move to Puerto Rico? ›
If you're a U.S. citizen, this means an easy transition for you. No need for work permits or visas if you decide to relocate. In other words, living in Puerto Rico is almost like living abroad, but without either the paperwork hassle or the immigration concerns.Why does Puerto Rico not pay taxes? ›
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens; however, Puerto Rico is not a U.S. state, but a U.S. insular area. Consequently, while all Puerto Rico residents pay federal taxes, many residents are not required to pay federal income taxes.Does Puerto Rico want to be its own country? ›
In recent plebiscites Puerto Ricans have not expressed themselves in favor of a political status with the intention of becoming a sovereign state, but the idea that Puerto Rico is a separate social, political and cultural entity from the United States has been repeatedly expressed.What is the poorest part of Puerto Rico? ›
Puerto Rico municipalities ranked by per capita income.
|Per capita income (2017)||$24,264|
|Median household income (2017)||$34,060|
Puerto Rico has one of the largest income inequality gaps in the United States. A variety of factors contributes to poverty in Puerto Rico; one being how distinctly vulnerable the region is to the effects of climate change and climate disasters, which have a profound impact on the lives of Puerto Rican people.Are there any billionaires from Puerto Rico? ›
The 2019 Forbes 400 listed Bravo as the first Puerto Rican-born billionaire, debuting at No. 287. As of September 2022, his net worth is estimated at US$7.9 billion.Why can't Puerto Rico become a state? ›
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory. It is similar to U.S. states in many ways but its taxpaying residents lack voting representation in Congress, cannot vote for president and do not enjoy all the same constitutional rights as other Americans.Is Puerto Rico nice to live? ›
Life in Puerto Rico is relaxed and laid-back. The people are friendly and the weather is beautiful. However, the crime rate is high and the infrastructure is not well developed. If you are looking for an affordable and Spanish influence on the lifestyle, Puerto Rico is a great place to live.Is Puerto Rico affordable to live? ›
Numbeo.com, a database that calculates and compares various economic factors, reports that, as of mid-2022, it costs an average of 8.12% less to live in Puerto Rico than it does in the rest of the U.S. The reduced cost to rent here is a far more significant – 53.31% lower than in the rest of the U.S. So you would ...
For several decades Puerto Rico's coastal and marine ecosystems (CMEs) have suffered the effects of anthropogenic stresses associated to population growth and varying land use. Coral reefs, for instance, have been impacted by sedimentation, increased eutrophication, and coastal water contamination.How did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico affect the medical supply chain in the US? ›
A shortage of saline, saline bags, and medical drugs disrupted the medical supply chain at a national level and uncovered the US's reliance on the large medical industry in Puerto Rico. At the local level, most hospitals were completely inoperable following the storm.What should I worry about in Puerto Rico? ›
Puerto Rico Safety FAQs
In Puerto Rico visitors should avoid wandering mindlessly, staying in sketchy places, leaving their belongings unattended in beaches or restaurants, and going outside tourist areas without a guide if they aren't familiar with the area they're visiting.
As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, sea level around Puerto Rico is likely to rise one to three feet in the next century.Which part of Puerto Rico is safest from hurricanes? ›
If you're planning on traveling during hurricane season and want to play it safe, head to the west coast of Puerto Rico. Tropical storms and hurricanes typically come in from the east, the west coast sees less rain and damage when compared to the rest of the island.What is Puerto Rico struggling with? ›
The debate over Puerto Rico's statehood remains as relevant as ever, as the island struggles with the combined effects of economic depression, shrinking population, debt crisis and bankruptcy, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and government mismanagement.Who brought slavery to Puerto Rico? ›
During the 1500s, the slaves that Spain imported to Puerto Rico and most of its other colonies, were mainly from the Upper Guinea region. However, in the 1600s and 1700s, Spain imported large numbers of slaves from Lower Guinea and the Congo.How much damage did Maria do to Puerto Rico? ›
Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20 as a high-end Category 4 storm, bringing a large storm surge, very heavy rains, and wind gusts well above 100 mph (160 km/h). It flattened neighborhoods, crippled the island's power grid, and caused an estimated 2,982 fatalities and US$90 billion in damage.Is adultery a crime in Puerto Rico? ›
Laws tit. 33, § 4758. Any married person who has sexual intercourse with a person other than his/her spouse shall incur a misdemeanor.Does Puerto Rico have the same rights as U.S. citizens? ›
Citizenship. Since 1917, people born in Puerto Rico have been given U.S. citizenship. United States citizens residing in Puerto Rico, whether born there or not, are not residents of a state or the District of Columbia and, therefore, do not qualify to vote, personally or through an absentee ballot, in federal elections ...
Human trafficking is currently one of the largest issues on a global scale as millions of men, women, and children are forced into labor and sexual exploitation. Religious discrimination is also very common in many places around the world.Who is responsible for Puerto Rico debt? ›
Around $30 billion, or about 42% of Puerto Rico's outstanding debt, is owned by residents of Puerto Rico. They and local businesses are the parties that are most affected by the government cuts and the increased taxes that have been imposed to stabilize the island's finances.Why is Puerto Rico shaking so much? ›
Puerto Rico has a long history of earthquakes, although large events are rare. It sits at the edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate, where that plate is colliding with the North American plate. Such tectonic boundaries host the vast majority of the world's quakes.Can I buy a house in Puerto Rico if I live in the US? ›
Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, there are no restrictions on Americans acquiring property on the island. Another advantage is that U.S. citizens don't have to go through customs when traveling between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland—this can be a big time saver.Is Buying Abandoned property worth it? ›
The major draw to an abandoned home is buying the home well below market value. Whether you're buying the property to flip or to live in, you'll likely be able to save a substantial amount of money buying an abandoned home compared to a standard home on the market.Why do mansions go abandoned? ›
It is often flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters that force families and businesses to evacuate the area in which they live and make a living. And in some cases, when the individuals leave for safety reasons and they never return.Is Puerto Rico back to normal? ›
At this point, most indoor activities are back to normal as are many outdoor activities. Locals in Puerto Rico know all the details and can tailor your itinerary to make sure you get to see the best of what's open right now and help you support local recovery by visiting off-the-beaten-path, independently-owned places.How long did it take for Puerto Rico to get power after Hurricane Maria? ›
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, in September 2017, the storm devastated the island's electricity grid. It took 328 days, or roughly 11 months, for the island to restore power to all of the customers who lost it during the hurricane, which marked the longest blackout in U.S. history.How many people left Puerto Rico after Maria? ›
Over 200,000 people left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.How long was Puerto Rico without water after Hurricane Maria? ›
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, some were without water service for six months. The Department of Family of Puerto Rico and the National Guard distribute food at an intersection of the community of Orocovis.
The most attractive aspects of this territory are the white sand beaches, natural beauty, rich history, culture, and food. Now more than ever, though, moving to Puerto Rico has gained traction and isn't slowing down anytime soon.Is going to Puerto Rico considered leaving the country? ›
International. Puerto Rico is a United States territory. If you're visiting from any part of the U.S., you don't have to exchange your currency, update your cell phone plan for international service, or go through customs or immigration. An unforgettable Caribbean getaway is within easy reach — no passport required.Can unvaccinated US citizens travel to Puerto Rico? ›
Travelers arriving on domestic flights:
Domestic travelers are not required to provide proof of vaccination or negative test prior to arriving on the Island.
September 17–19, 2022 – Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Lajas, Puerto Rico as a slow-moving Category 1 hurricane that brought heavy rains over the whole island. November 4–6, 2022 – Hurricane Nicole reached the island as a tropical disturbance 4–8 inches (100–200 mm) torrential rainfall occurred no fatalities.How long did slavery last in Puerto Rico? ›
Though emancipation was a great thing for the many slaves that worked to maintain the sugar plantations on the island, slavery lived on the island for almost 350 years before its abolishment.How much power has been restored in Puerto Rico? ›
LUMA Energy, the island's primary energy provider, has restored power to roughly 81% of its island customers, or 1.2 million people, according to the latest statistics on the company's website. Puerto Rico is made up of six regions.Where is the largest black population in Puerto Rico? ›
In modern times, most of the music, dance, culinary traditions, and art produced in Loíza is Afro-Puerto Rican and the town has the largest black population on the Island.Why is Puerto Rico's population declining? ›
Migration to the U.S. mainland became much more common beginning in the 1950s when low-cost air travel between Puerto Rico and the United States was introduced, and its influence on the island's population has remained significant since then.What is the problem with Puerto Rico water? ›
With no electricity, there's no power to run filtration systems and no power to pump water into homes. That means no clean water for drinking, bathing or flushing toilets.What is the cause of water crisis in Puerto Rico? ›
The recent drought has been tied to low rainfall, the effects of Hurricane María on dams and artificial lakes, and the mismanagement of water resources. Climate change, which already affects the hydrological cycle, is one of the reasons Puerto Rico and its Caribbean neighbors are recently facing droughts.