Central Florida leaders want answers from state on housing for Puerto Rican evacuees

Central Florida leaders want answers from state on housing for Puerto Rican evacuees
Monivette Cordeiro
Central Florida leaders want answers from Florida emergency officials regarding housing for Puerto Ricans fleeing the destruction and chaos Hurricane Maria left on the island.

In a letter to Wesley Maul, interim director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, local officials say they want a meeting with state and federal officials to address "confusion and concern" over short and long-term housing for evacuees.

"As communities like ours wait for direction from FEMA and DEM regarding housing for evacuees – many of whom will likely be here for many months as power is restored and their homes are rebuilt – confusion and concern are mounting," says a letter from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Osceola County Commission Chair Brandon Arrington and Seminole County Commission Chair John Horan. "In the absence of a plan, there is the strong potential for chaos and United States citizens from Puerto Rico deserve better."

As Orlando Weekly reported last month, thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees making their way to Central Florida were already having a hard time finding housing, and state officials had no apparent plan to accommodate them. The letter says aside from local media asking state officials for answers, local county emergency management staff and several commissioners have personally been asking for both the short and long-term housing plan but have not received responses. The Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metro area ranks third in the nation for its lack of rental homes affordable for extremely low-income residents, with 18 affordable units available for every 100 families, according to a 2017 study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Heart of Florida United Way has been providing emergency housing at hotels on a case-by-case basis for evacuees who have no place to go at the disaster center set up inside the Orlando International Airport.

All three counties already have a strong Puerto Rican population that's close to 345,000 people. Orange County officials say between Oct. 2 and Oct. 24, nearly 40,000 passengers from Puerto Rico arrived at OIA. The letter says in the same time period, 97 rooms have been rented by United Way for Puerto Rican evacuees, but county officials say this is because many are staying with family or friends. While FEMA has approved Transitional Sheltering Assistance for displaced Puerto Rican evacuees to shelter in hotels and motels for a short time, Central Florida leaders point out there's only 15 eligible hotels in the tri-county area.

"Despite our best efforts – and despite how deeply our community cares for our beloved Puerto Rican families and friends – we do not have a sufficient supply of housing to accommodate the anticipated influx of U.S. citizens," the letter says. "Further, because of the magnitude of this event and because it is a national, rather than local disaster, no single city, county or region has the resources or authority necessary to develop and implement a plan for ensuring that evacuees arriving in Florida or elsewhere on the mainland have access to appropriate housing, schools, medical care, transportation, and other necessary resources."

County leaders say although several of their management offices have been asked by state officials to identify a place to serve as a "congregate shelter," it's unclear whether this is intended to be an interim housing plan as a better approach is planned or the only plan for evacuees waiting on Puerto Rico to recover. A congregate shelter is "private or public facilities that provide contingency congregate refuge to evacuees, but that day-to-day serve a non-refuge function such as schools, stadiums and churches," according to FEMA. 

In a statement, Alberto Moscoso, spokesperson for the state Division of Emergency Management, says sheltering efforts are a "a local function."

"DEM is completely focused on our shared goal of ensuring that we are meeting the needs of every family recovering from disasters in our state, including those who have evacuated to Florida following Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact," Moscoso says. "The state proactively and aggressively sought and secured a host state agreement from FEMA to provide 100 percent reimbursement for sheltering efforts, which is a local function. As communities develop their local plans, the state stands ready to help with solutions. We will continue to work with our federal and local partners to explore all available options with regards to housing Hurricane Maria survivors."

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