Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat said that they will evaluate to request a modification to the new restrictions of the federal government. (GFR Media)

Washington - Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil Enseñat acknowledged yesterday that the new requirements imposed by the federal Housing Department (HUD) will make it more difficult to manage the, at least, $16.5 billion authorized for reconstruction projects on the island.

The Puerto Rican government was not only surprised by the new restrictions to access $8.285 billion in mitigation funds through the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR), but it will also have to comply with new requirements included in the proposal for the release of the $8.221 million package.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson proposed that CDBG-DR projects have the approval by the newly appointed federal financial monitor and the Oversight Board and that the island's government meets the goals to reform the property registry.

At the same time, Carson is pushing not to allow the use of those funds to repair the power grid or to comply with the executive order mandating to pay those working on disaster relief projects $15 an hour.

"(There are) restrictions that can delay the bureaucratic process ... There are too many restrictions," said Gil Enseñat, pointing out to the "bad faith of some officials, not all," at HUD.

Meanwhile, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced said they will consider asking for changes to the new restrictions.

HUD published Thursday the Federal Register notice on the use of $8.285 billion in relief funds through the CDBG-DR program. The agency also announced it had presented to the Puerto Rican government the document on how to use the $8.221 billion in CDBG-DR program funds authorized in February 2019.

To the surprise of the Puerto Rican government, the documents include restrictions that will complicate access to the funds, at a time when HUD has only disbursed $1.507 billion of the nearly $20.5 billion approved for the island after Hurricane María.

For example, both the federal financial monitor and the Board have to review each project, and Gil Enseñat fears that not allowing the use of funds to improve the power grid will slow down initiatives that could link the CDBG-DR and opportunity zone programs.

As for the $8.221 billion that would be released soon, the Puerto Rico Housing Secretary said HUD proposed to divide those funds into four disbursements and that the first would be about $1.7 billion, not $1 billion as Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, announced.

However, that next disbursement depends on the Puerto Rican government accepting the conditions imposed by HUD this week. "We have the option to sign (the agreement) like that or try to negotiate," he said.

Marga Pares collaborated from San Juan.

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