Puerto Rico Legal Aid: Barely 33% of $325M in rent payment aid has been used
Puerto Rico has $325 million available to help renters with economic needs due to the pandemic, but barely 33% of it has been used, so the island may be at risk of losing that money by April, said Puerto Rico Legal Aid Executive Director Ariadna Godreau.
During a news conference, she attributed that limited use partly to the absence of an effective promotional effort by the government, which has $10 million available for operating and other program expenses.
“We know that almost half of renters spend more than 35% of their income on paying their rent, but the loss of income due to the pandemic and other complications has made insufficient help for these people,” said Attorney Pamela Bernard, of the nonprofit organization.
As of Jan. 31, 2022, the government — through the Public Housing Administration and the Puerto Rico Housing Department — had disbursed and obligated $98.3 million through the Puerto Rico Rental Assistance Program for 41,493 families, the agencies confirmed to Puerto Rico Legal Aid.
The aid is broken down into $69.4 million for rental payment assistance and $28.9 million for utility payments that go directly to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.
The organization called on the Public Housing Administration to expand the educational campaign for the program that covers up to 15 months of rent and utilities, as well as an expansion of support that prioritizes historically vulnerable groups such as older adults, immigrants, and people with functional diversity.
During the news conference, Puerto Rico Legal Aid also launched a broad strategy to support families who rent in Puerto Rico and who could be at risk of eviction. Through initiatives that include technology, the creation of a free legal representation panel, and changes in public policy, the entity is lending itself to promoting justice for this sector of the population.
“Despite the fact that almost a third of the homes in Puerto Rico are rented, the rights of families who rent are ignored. Rises in rent, ignorance of the rights when hiring or in the event of discrimination, as well as violations of the right to privacy or forced evictions, are recurring issues in our offices,” said Godreau, while noting that the organization she founded has attended to more than 455 requests for legal support from tenants between 2021 and the present.
The nonprofit’s strategy includes the creation of the Digital Center for Self Defense, a digital platform accessible by cell phone or computer, which allows families to identify the type of legal problem they face, educate themselves and learn how to advocate for themselves, “while also realizing that the housing crisis is a collective one,” said Godreau.
Puerto Rico Legal Aid also announced the creation of the Panel in Defense of Decent Rentals aimed at people at risk of eviction for non-payment. This panel, made up of attorneys, offers legal support at no cost to those who qualify. Priority will be given to older adults, heads of families, immigrants, survivors of domestic violence, among other groups.
“We estimate that 90% of the people sued for eviction don’t have legal representation. If we change that, if we share education and advocacy tools — including but not limited to representation — we can give them a real and fair chance to defend their right to housing,” Godreau said.