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Congressman Soto Discusses Challenges For Housing Puerto Rican New Arrivals

Destroyed home in Puerto Rico. Photo by Representative Amy Mercado
Destroyed home in Puerto Rico. Photo by Representative Amy Mercado

More than 140,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island for Florida since Hurricane Maria. Congressman Darren Soto, a Democrat representing Florida's 9th District, joins us to talk about what state leaders are doing to address this influx of evacuees.

Soto: Well, we expect it could be as many as 250 to 300,000 of my fellow Puerto Ricans coming in from the island to central Florida and I'm really proud that our state is opening up our homes and doing the best we can, but certainly we're in daunting times.

Chavez: Congressman Soto, what's your sense of the numbers of Puerto Ricans staying in central Florida hotels, are we talking hundreds or thousands?

Soto: I would imagine it is thousands based upon the day to day traffic that we see. Although, many are fortunate enough to have families that are opening their homes but this is going to put further stress on a housing market that right now really favors the landlords over the renters.

Chavez: You have said that not enough hotels are participating in the program but this is Florida, what's going on there?

Soto: We've seen some folks start to step up, particularly I want to mention our Asian American Hotel Owners Association, they are now registering their members, so I'm really appreciative for their good work but a lot of the higher-end hotels, a lot of the hotels that you know, frankly think they can make a lot of money during the holiday season have been hesitant to participate in the program and so we're going to continue to push them to open up some of their hotel rooms too if possible because we're dealing with staggering numbers of Americans arriving here from Puerto Rico.

Chavez: Are there any other semi-permanent solutions to help I'm thinking like FEMA trailers other mobile housing outside the hotel industry?

Soto: So we've been pushing FEMA to approve direct leases even if they're short term perhaps even Airbnb being brought on to help out, we need to be creative when we're talking about hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom may not have family in central Florida and then of course long-term we have a push to get more funds for Florida as a host state. We just up put forward a bipartisan letter and then I also co-sponsored a bill that we just introduced with Senator [Bill] Nelson and Congresswoman [Stephanie] Murphy drawing down more funds for both Medicare and Medicaid as well as affordable housing to help us deal with this a huge influx.

Chavez: So are you seeing cooperation between federal and state government?

Soto:  We're seeing a cooperation going pretty well in that we have our welcome centers and there's been an allocation of two months of food stamps for folks, there is the ease of enrollment into schools but the housing issue continues to be a difficult one given the numbers of folks that our state is opening our arms to and so that's going to be an issue as well as local and state budgets are being stretched thin, which is why getting additional funds through FEMA directly and through the potential of another supplemental package in December is going to be critical.

Chavez: And we're really talking about these vouchers for hotels what does that entail; how long would you stay be?

Soto: Generally the stay is between a few weeks to up to two months. Sometimes it can be extended with extenuating circumstances so we really need to get a longer term solution in place or other creative means in order to be able to handle this influx. In Houston after Katrina, they saw tens of thousands of folks coming from Louisiana, who ultimately stayed and I suspect we will see fifty to seventy five percent of my fellow Puerto Ricans decide to stay in central Florida and in South Florida in Tampa and so this is going to be a great growth opportunity for state our going to need to make sure that people have access to good quality jobs, healthcare and education but we're also going to need to step up to meet these needs.

Chavez: Governor Scott has stepped up emergency relief activities including those welcome centers at the airport, he's visited the island. how do you think the governor is doing on this front?

Soto: Well he's doing his best, so is Senator Nelson, Senator Rubio  we are working all together to try to handle this crisis yet opportunity for Florida.

Chavez: What challenges are there when it comes to Medicaid transferring from Puerto Rico to the mainland?

Soto: Well there is an issue about how quickly we can transfer those funds over and so our bill with Congresswoman [Stephanie] Murphy tries to address that issue and certainly once people change their residency, generally that funding can start to shift over and we're seeing a lot of folks as they change their licenses and establish residency in Florida that happens but we want to streamline that process.

Chavez: Who are still in shelters in Puerto Rico are we gonna be flying them over here?

Soto: So that was another big push that a lot of us in Congress have gotten involved in, it's a sensitive issue because with a decline in population there that could hurt the long term future prosperity of Puerto Rico, so we acknowledge that and want to work hand in hand with the Puerto Rico government but these are American citizens, so if they want to move part time or over the long haul to Puerto Rico or New York or to other areas we should give them the opportunity to do so on, but we are sensitive that we want to rebuild Puerto Rico so that both central Florida and our strong partner in both heritage and in commerce also succeeds.

Chavez: Anything else I didn't ask You would like to add?

Soto: I'm just so very proud of my fellow central Floridians for opening up their homes, for our elected leaders locally, state and federally working together on this. You know there are kids who have been out of school for weeks who are coming and finally getting back to some normalcy, they're seniors who were on respirators and and  seeking cancer treatment that had interruptions in their health care who've come to our great state and are now getting the care they need, there's parents who've been trying to make ends meet but their employer has been shut down because of lack of power in Puerto Rico and now they're getting back to work here so we've really even after facing Hurricane Irma and our own adversity have stepped up and it really shows the both the pride and the very best that central Florida has to offer.