City has housing aid for hurricane evacuees but won't use it

Jesús Rodriguez, top left, and his wife, Sandra Martínez, stand for a portrait with sons Yadiel, 7, Kristal, 10, and Yandel, 12, at their home in the Fairhill neighborhood of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. The family left Puerto Rico for Philadelphia in November, but now faces an uncertain future as their cash reserves have run out and they struggle to find work. They have no living room furniture because they cannot afford it.

Since Puerto Rican evacuees started arriving in Philadelphia last fall following Hurricane Maria, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has had the ability to house up to 50 of them and move even more people to the top of the public housing waiting list.

But Mayor Kenney’s administration has declined to use the available housing for evacuees from Puerto Rico, except for two families.

“We stand ready to help, as we have since the hurricane struck, but we haven’t received the referrals,” said Nichole Tillman, spokeswoman for the Housing authority.

The housing authority gave the Kenney administration the power, under a “special preference” program, to refer up to 50 families who were victims of a natural disaster for rental assistance. Officials referred two families who arrived shortly after the hurricane, but no one else.

City officials say they want to be fair to the many others in need who have been waiting for housing.

“PHA has a waiting list that is in some cases years long. If we moved the Puerto Rican evacuees to the top of the list, we are essentially telling those folks, who have waited years, ‘You have to wait longer,’” said Brian Abernathy, first deputy managing director. “Given the housing crisis and the state of PHA, we don’t think that’s appropriate.”

More than 2,000 evacuees have relocated to Philadelphia since the Sept. 20 hurricane devastated the island. Many of them have not been able to secure jobs or housing and only some have received housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some evacuees are living in basements and cramped apartments due to what they say is unavailability of public housing.

But the Housing Authority created two programs specifically for cases such as these in which families are displaced and in need of housing due to a natural disaster.

A “super preference program” moves victims of federally declared disasters to the top of the agency’s public housing wait list. The victims must be able to prove they were displaced by the disaster. For both programs, families also have to meet income and other eligibility requirements.

Advocates for the Puerto Rican evacuees have been asking city and state officials to help them with housing.

Charito Morales, a nurse and advocate who led the call at a Monday news conference for local action, said Thursday that she doesn’t understand why the city won’t make use of “this opportunity,” referring to the Housing Authority’s emergency housing programs.

“The evacuees didn’t ask to come here. They left everything because of a disaster. They don’t know where to go or where to live. They don’t know how to navigate the system. All they need right now is a house until they can learn to navigate the city,” Morales said, adding that if the the evacuees found jobs that paid enough to pay rent on their own, they would do that.

Will Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit Ceiba, which has held legal workshops to help evacuees apply for FEMA aid, said he was “extremely disappointed” with city officials who didn’t activate the  preference programs for the hundreds of displaced Puerto Ricans who came to Philadelphia with nothing but a suitcase.

The Office of Emergency Management “was looking at people — at evacuees — in the eyes and telling them, knowing their needs, ‘We don’t have housing.’ To me, that is disturbing. Especially during the Christmas season, that’s being a Scrooge,” Gonzalez said.

The city’s emergency management office opened a Disaster Assistance Services Center between Oct. 11 and Dec. 20 to help evacuees register with FEMA and other services such as welfare, food stamps and driver’s licenses.

For housing, the center referred those who had lived in public housing in Puerto Rico to the Housing Authority, and it was able to settle four families that had housing vouchers on the island into Philadelphia public housing stock, Tillman said.

Abernathy said that Hurricane Maria was a “horrible tragedy” but added that, “Being homeless is also traumatic.”

“We are the poorest big city in the country,” he said. “We do have to balance the needs of the poor and the needs of evacuees of Puerto Rico … Asking us to pick Puerto Rican evacuees vs. a poor family from North Philadelphia is an impossible choice.”

The executive committee for Unidos Pa PR, a group that was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and has raised more than $400,000 to help the recovery on the island,  said that for the past five months it has been working with city agencies, nonprofits and the Kenney administration to create a long-term recovery plan for the evacuees.

“We are however, very frustrated…[about] the internal decision not to utilize the presidential natural disaster declaration that would allow qualifying Puerto Rican families to access public housing as it is done for our veterans, homeless and other emergencies,” the committee said in a statement.

Abernathy also expressed frustration that a long-term recovery committee has not yet been set up. He suggested that the debate on whether the city should allow evacuees to move up to the front of the line should be decided by such a committee.

Abernathy said he and the administration want FEMA to do more in helping the evacuees.

“To ask local government to put it on their back is unfair,” Abernathy said.

Advocates for the evacuees say each level of government — local, state and federal — must do its part.

“Philadelphia as a whole cannot shoulder the sole financial burden of evacuee resettlement,” Ana Montañez, one of the activists who planned Monday’s demonstration. “Mayor Kenney and Gov. Wolf, however, are responsible for leading effective resource delivery across local agencies, which has been appalling.”

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency also alerted all owners of properties that received Low Income Housing Tax Credits that they may give preference to Hurricane Maria evacuees for temporary housing through May 31, 2019.