• The Star Staff

Transition hearings day 2: Doubts expressed about alleged success of Housing Dept.

By The Star Staff

The chairman of the incoming government’s transition committee, Ramón Luis Rivera Jr., challenged on Tuesday the island Housing Department’s alleged success in the use of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds to help Puerto Rico’s displaced citizens.

Rivera, who is the mayor of Bayamón, disputed Housing Secretary Luis Fernández Trinchet’s remarks about the department’s success in some 17 programs to help the needy three years after hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island, pointing out that only 1 percent of all housing construction projects have begun and thousands of people remain homeless.

Rivera said that of some 30,000 homes slated to be built, only 231 housing units have been completed in four years. Of some 2,873 applications for business assistance, funds for just 137 applications have been released. Of some 1,406 applications for buyer assistance to purchase affordable housing, only eight cases have been closed. Of some 4,800 individuals who are seeking to obtain the title deeds to their homes, only 16 cases have moved forward.

“At this rate, it will take us 15 years to help people,” Rivera Jr. said.

The exchange took place on the second day of transition committee hearings.

Fernández Trinchet said the Housing Department has successfully launched 17 assistance and recovery programs. He said Housing secured access to an additional $1.7 billion last May, which now brings the total available CDBG-DR funds to $3.2 billion. The Housing Department has obligated more than $1.2 billion and has disbursed $119 million, he said.

Of the 15,557 requests for the reconstruction of homes, 1,003 properties have received financial assistance. While 2,518 properties have been identified as having blue tarps three years after the hurricanes, some 146 of those homes have been served, the island Housing chief noted.

Of the $413 million for the construction of housing units, Fernández Trinchet said some 981 housing units are under construction. The first are part of the José Gautier Benítez project in Caguas with an investment of $135 million and the construction of some 438 housing units for families and the elderly. There are also some 69 homes under construction in the San Blas project that will serve the elderly in Coamo through an investment of $21 million after the start of construction on July 13.

The Housing chief said construction on some 94 units of the De Diego Village project in Río Piedras will begin in four months with an investment of $34 million. There is a contract for the 160 multi-family units of Sabana Village Apartments in San Juan that began July 28, with a contribution of $10 million from CDBG-DR, he added.

Fernández Trinchet also mentioned the Manuel Mediavilla Negrón II Housing Project consisting of some 90 units that will receive assistance from the CDBG-DR program following the execution of an agreement over the next few months.

He also noted that there is $20 million to serve elderly people with low or moderate income as rental subsidies.

The Housing secretary said the global pandemic and the earthquakes early this year have delayed the agency’s work, but Rivera said that in his city, all programs have continued to operate despite the circumstances.

“I can understand all of the circumstances around the Housing Department’s work,” Rivera said. “I can understand the impact of COVID-19 and the earthquakes, but to have only 231 homes completed through the R3 [Home Repair, Reconstruction or Relocation] reconstruction program, it is not right.”

The Bayamón mayor also noted the high cost of the proposed affordable housing that is going to be paid for with CDBG funds.

“Do you think that is affordable?” he asked the secretary.

For instance, he noted that the 69 units that will be built in Coamo at $125 million will each cost about $361,000, while 94 homes in Río Piedras will be built at a cost of $34 million.

“We might as well give the money to the participant and with that amount they can buy a home in Garden Hills,” he said.

Rivera said later at a news conference that he was going to suggest to governor-elect Pedro Pierluisi a revision of the estimated costs that the Housing Department puts on the construction of affordable housing.

“Because affordable homes can cost $200,000 to $225,000, and that is a very high cost,” he said. “At that cost, I can give the money to anyone to buy the house in any community. I recognize that there has been an increase in construction costs, which may be 35 or 40 percent, but to have costs go up by 80, 90 or 100 percent, we are talking about a lot of money.”

Fernández Trinchet said the mayor’s suggestion was valid.

“You have to sit down with the private sector, planners and investors and reach some kind of agreement on what is understood to be a reasonable cost,” he said.

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