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Friday February 28th, 2020 4:03AM

Puerto Rican evacuees hunt for housing as vouchers expire

By The Associated Press
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Like many Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland after Hurricane Maria, Jose Santiago has been scrambling to find a place to live. The federal vouchers that pay for his hotel room near the Orlando airport expire at checkout time Friday.

He has visited apartment complexes, but his name gets put on waiting lists. He has applied for assistance for apartment housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it won't give him any money unless he has a lease. And he can't sign a lease without money for a deposit and first and last months' rent.

Santiago, 40, can afford to pay only $500 to $800 a month with his job driving cars for an auction house. At this point, he's ready to just rent a room to put a roof over his head.

"At that amount, it's difficult," Santiago, whose tidy hotel room has a cooking range and refrigerator, said in Spanish. "It's not impossible, but it's very difficult."

The clock began ticking late last month for hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees who rely on federal assistance to pay for hotel rooms. A federal judge in Massachusetts set Friday as the deadline for the vouchers to end after denying an effort to force FEMA to continue the program. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman, who expressed anguish over his decision, ended almost three months of legal challenges and extensions.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 600 families using the vouchers on the mainland, with more than half of those families in Florida. Almost 400 families were using the vouchers on the island.

The judge's decision is forcing Idalis Fernandez to split up her family. Her husband and 2-year-old son, Adrian, are heading back to Puerto Rico where family members can watch the boy and her husband has a job lined up. She is staying in Florida, where she has work as a line cook at Walt Disney World, and where the couple's oldest son, 11-year-old Alexander, is doing well in school.

Finding an apartment has been difficult, she said, since many rental companies require that she earn three times her monthly rent.

"I have nothing in Puerto Rico. At least I can stay here and work," Fernandez, 28, said in Spanish as she held Adrian outside a motel in Orlando's tourist district.

FEMA hasn't done enough for the evacuees, forcing local governments and organizations to step up, advocates say.

"Now the location (the families) chose in a moment of deep urgency and disaster is affecting their ability to find housing. This is exactly what we were trying to avoid," said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a lawyer with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which brought the lawsuit against FEMA.

FEMA, amid preparations for Hurricane Florence to hit the mid-Atlantic, didn't respond to an email this week seeking comment. But the agency has said it has provided a variety of housing options for people left homeless by Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico head-on nearly a year ago. It has also dismissed suggestions that the evacuees were being treated differently from those displaced by hurricanes in Texas and Florida last year.

FEMA said in a court filing last month that Puerto Rico has received $3.9 billion in assistance for Hurricane Maria, compared with $2.4 billion for Texas for Hurricane Harvey and $1.1 billion for Florida for Hurricane Irma.

In central Florida, the local United Way is offering up to $5,000 toward security deposits for some families. In New York City, more than 540 Puerto Rican evacuees are already in the city shelter system, and 30 other families may end up there after their hotel vouchers end.

Massachusetts, the state with the second largest number of evacuee families after Florida, will allow families with children and people with medical conditions to remain in hotels temporarily on the state's dime, said Gina Plata-Nino, an attorney with the Central West Justice Center. The state will also provide some housing assistance for certain families to help them move into more permanent homes, she said.

But more than two dozen households in Massachusetts who don't qualify for the state program will become homeless Friday, Plata-Nino said.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, whose staffers held office hours at three central Florida hotels this week to assist evacuees, put the blame on President Donald Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress that did not pass supplemental disaster relief assistance.

"President Trump, to this day, has not acknowledged, not only the lack of resources and slow response time, but the continued issues in Puerto Rico," said Soto, a Democrat whose district covers a part of metro Orlando. "It didn't have to be this way."

Trump this week called the response to Hurricane Maria "an incredible, unsung success" and said his administration did an "underappreciated great job."

Puerto Rico's governor last month raised the U.S. territory's official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975.

On Thursday, Trump, without citing evidence, said that number was wrong and called it a plot by Democrats to make him look bad.

___

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP . Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher and read more of her work at http://bit.ly/2hIhzDb .

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