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Puerto Rico to get US$18.5b to rebuild shattered housing stock
San Juan, Puerto Rico
PUERTO Rico will receive US$18.5 billion from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help rebuild its battered housing stock and infrastructure after last September's Hurricane Maria, the island's governor and HUD officials said on Tuesday.
The funding for the US territory was the largest grant in the history of the HUD, said HUD undersecretary Pamela Patenaude.
But the award was significantly less than the US$46 billion requested by governor Ricardo Rossello last November.
HUD is awarding a total of roughly US$28 billion to nine states, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that have been recently affected by major disasters, including Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, as well as the recent California wildfires.
The funds are part of a US$90 billion disaster aid package signed by US President Donald Trump in February.
The Virgin Islands is set to receive US$1.6 billion in HUD disaster recovery funds, a department media advisory said on Tuesday.
Mr Rossello said at a news conference that he expected to adjust Puerto Rico's fiscal turnaround plan to reflect the full grant.
The most recent version of the plan pegged at US$13 billion the amount of funds from HUD that the commonwealth expected to receive.
Puerto Rico is navigating the largest bankruptcy in US government history, and the plan is meant to establish economic projections that will serve as a basis for forthcoming restructuring talks with creditors owed US$120 billion in bond and pension debt.
Mr Rossello and Ms Patenaude made the announcement in Villa Hugo, a shantytown in Canovanas, which sustained severe damage when Maria hit the island on Sept 20.
Villa Hugo's 6,000 residents are squatters on government land. Most built their homes informally, and do not own title to their properties.
"Informal" construction - which can also refer to property owners who illegally subdivide their land - is thought to comprise between one-fourth and one-half of Puerto Rico's 1.2 million homes.
The prevalence of informal housing, which often does not comply with building codes, was thought to compound damage to Puerto Rico's housing stock when the storm hit.
The HUD funds can be used for housing, economic development and infrastructure, and could be used to help repair the island's crippled power grid.
While local authorities determine where funds will be used, HUD provides technical assistance and guidelines, Ms Patenaude said.
Hurricane Maria was a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 per cent.
Puerto Rico now projects to receive roughly US$50 billion during the next six years in federal disaster relief assistance, mostly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the government's latest fiscal turnaround plan. REUTERS