The 'sin techos': The harsh reality of living without safe housing in Puerto Rico 1 year after Maria

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
September 21, 2018, 7:48:11 AM EDT

What do you do when everything has been lost after a natural disaster? The answer for many could be simple: filling out a form and submitting documents to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

After the passage of Hurricane Maria, for thousands of Puerto Ricans, the answer to this question is more complex. The administrative disparity between the way in which FEMA traditionally assesses cases in the United States, and the economic and legal reality under which the territory of Puerto Rico operates, has left thousands of American citizens in the island sin techo (without a roof).

According to data provided by the non-profit Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, 62 percent of the requests for housing repairs were denied or not answered by FEMA due to the lack of property title for the affected homes.

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Juan González shows a picture of his late wife Ana, who died of medical complications after the hurricane last year. (Photo/Andy Coates)

This is the case of Juan González, better known by his neighbors as "Johnny."

The 75-year-old man opens his eyes in the old bed he managed to rescue among the debris in the street. He covers his bed with a mosquito net in an attempt to be less exposed to insect bites and to the raindrops that sneak through the roof at night. His room has a musty smell, and some old shirts hang in the closet. In the corner, there is an old TV that has not been turned on in quite some time.

Don Johnny lost everything in his humble residence in Yabucoa, one of the most affected municipalities on the island by Hurricane Maria last year. He also lost his wife Ana González, who died as a result of a complication from pneumonia and a lack of access to medical services.

"This has been a disaster. Those who speak of social justice and have not helped the people have no forgiveness from God. Here through Hurricane Maria, I lost everything, my wife, and they have not given me anything. Neither the municipality nor the government has given me anything," said González drowning in tears and despair.

Johnny's suffering is further deepened by the ingratitude and forgetfulness of some, he said. Although he now lives trapped in a different reality, 50 years ago, Johnny was the trainer of boxers who brought glory and honor to the island.

Figures such as Olympic medalist Luis Ortiz and world champions such as Wilfredo Benitez, Wilfredo Gomez, Cholo Fernandez, among others, passed through his hands during the golden age of Puerto Rican boxing.

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Among the few things that Johnny keeps, there are several recognitions granted by municipal and state authorities. (Photo/Andy Coates)

"They have not helped me and I feel an incredible pain, because the community leaders have raised this country and now they turn their backs on us," said the former coach.

To Ariadna Gotreau, a lawyer in the non-profit Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, this type of cases are her everyday job.

Since Sept. 21, 2017, the non-profit has visited over 75 communities around the island in an attempt to change the reality of those who have been denied FEMA’s aid for the restoration of their homes.

"In Puerto Rico, for some reason and among all the inconsistencies of FEMA, the agency began to ask people that it was necessary to have property titles so they could request assistance," said the lawyer.

Also, Gotreau added that in Puerto Rico there is a large number of people who do not have property titles because the state law does not require this type of registration.

Given this scenario, the organization developed a form to get people, through an unsworn statement, to prove the ownership of their property.

However, local FEMA offices are not disseminating this information among those who are still in need and seeking for help.

"FEMA told us that they would accept the form, but that they would not give themselves the task of disseminating the information. The mission of FEMA is to aid after the disaster, not to hinder the processes. And that is our insistence to facilitate these processes," added Gotreau.

The most vulnerable municipalities are the most neglected

Johnny's case is not the only one. Sixty kilometers (37 miles) north of Yabucoa, in Loiza, around 1,500 people still live with the hope of rebuilding their homes and receiving some kind of assistance from FEMA.

"It has been a very painful process because our people have not received help to rebuild their homes. We need to rebuild homes, and we need FEMA to help us as soon as possible. The municipality cannot take care of that," AccuWeather Julia Nazario, mayor of Loiza, told AccuWeather.

The mayor added that the problem is due in large part to the lack of ownership of housing, as about 60 percent of residents of Loiza do not have this document that formalizes the ownership of a land or a house.

Historically, the houses in Loiza have been passed down from generation to generation, and the document is not a priority for the residents of this town where 49.6 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty level.

A report published by the Department of Housing estimates that, throughout the island, almost 50 percent of homes have been built without the intervention of an architect, without the appropriate permits and, in many cases, without a title deed.

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María Díaz Remedios talks with AccuWeather outside of what has been their home for the past 30 years. (Photo/Andy Coates)

For María Díaz Remedios, who lives in an inherited house in the coastal neighborhood of Medianía, this situation has made it impossible for her to rebuild her home one year after Maria.

"It has been a very difficult process. It has been more difficult because they have not helped us. At first, we were told [by FEMA] that they were going to help us and then it turned out that they could not help us because we needed a paper from the house [property title]", she told us from outside of her residence.

Initially 1,067,618 requests for help were submitted to FEMA, of which only 194,126 were approved, leaving many unattended Puerto Ricans such as Maria Diaz Remedios, who has given up hope that one day someone will help her reconstruct her house.

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