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Crucial housing funds for Puerto Rico are stalled due to the government shutdown

Puerto Rico expected to start receiving billions in housing funds from HUD this month for rebuilding efforts, but the government shutdown has halted the process.
Image: Puerto Rico Recovery
Damaged homes, protected by blue plastic tarps in a neighborhood east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 18, 2018, nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.Dennis M. Rivera / AP file

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history is straining crucial housing reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. territory expected the Department of Housing and Urban Development to start disbursing billions of funds this month to help the island rebuild its infrastructure after Hurricane Maria.

But the shutdown halted the process.

In December, HUD asked Puerto Rico to submit an amendment to the congressionally approved action plan on how the island’s government would use the money in order to proceed with the disbursement, Puerto Rico’s housing secretary, Fernando Gil Enseñat, told NBC News.

“HUD essentially wanted us to guarantee to them that at least $2.2 billion of the money would go specifically to fixing homes and infrastructure,” said Gil Enseñat.

Puerto Rico submitted the requested amendment on Dec. 18, according to Gil Enseñat. Four days later, part of the federal government closed down — including the HUD offices in charge of reviewing and approving such amendments.

According to a notice published by HUD on Jan. 9, the agency has not been able to review or approve any action plans or amendments as of Dec. 21, 2018, because of the shutdown.

As long as the government is paralyzed, so will the disbursement of housing funds.

HUD’s “Contingency Plan for Possible Lapse in Appropriations” established in 2013, and reaffirmed last year, that disaster recovery assistance programs cannot be stopped during a government shutdown.

But with no approval of the newly submitted amendment, Puerto Rico’s program was technically not underway at the time of the shutdown.

"Even if I have everything set up on my end, there are political processes in place. If I don’t have the approval, I can’t start executing,” said Gil Enseñat, who announced on Tuesday the details of the first community-focused reconstruction program that was set to be funded with some of the housing money stuck in Washington.

In Congress, Democrats questioned the federal government's inability to give the island the funds.

“HUD is threatening to inflict greater pain on those who have survived natural disasters."said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., as she took to the House floor on Wednesday.

HUD plays a major role in doling out funds for post-disaster recovery following Hurricane Maria. It approved a total of $20 billion in aid through the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program to help the island rebuild its infrastructure by funding about 28 programs focused on home reparations and reconstruction. However, none of these funds have been disbursed to Puerto Rico yet.