If the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports a state government proposal, during 2019 the authorities could distribute housing vouchers of up to $ 50,000 for people to buy a new home or pay for the one they already have. (horizontal-x3)
If the US Department of Housing and Urban Development supports a state government proposal, during 2019 the authorities could distribute housing vouchers of up to $ 50,000 for people to buy a new home or pay for the one they already have. (Xavier J. Araújo Berríos)

If the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports a state government proposal, during 2019 the authorities could distribute housing vouchers of up to $ 50,000 for people to buy a new home or pay for the one they already have.

The proposal does not consider either the participants´ need for housing or the damage in their current residences as a result of Hurricane María in 2017. The only criterion outlined until yesterday - the day the governor announced the proposal - was the income level.

For example, a person living alone with an annual income of $ 42,200 could apply for the benefit. The same would happen to a family of four with a maximum income of $ 60,250 per year. That is, the maximum income required increases according to the number of family members.

According to data from the Community Survey (PRCS), about 72 percent of households in Puerto Rico had an income less than $ 42,200 per year in 2016. By then, there were about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island.

Fernando Gil, Puerto Rio Secretary of Housing, explained that the idea is that the benefit serves not only the population with less income, but middle class families, as well.

"It's focused on the middle class and the police for everything they do for us," Gil said.

"The way we are working on the project with HUD, we do not see a major impediment to the approval of this program," Gil said at a press conference in La Fortaleza.

Yesterday, HUD's public affairs officials did not respond to the request for information on the proposal.

The amount of the voucher will vary according to the location of the property to be purchased or financed by the program. Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares explained that if the house is in an urban area, the maximum amount of $ 50,000 would be granted. If the house is not in an urban area, the amount would be reduced to $ 25,000. The idea is that this incentive helps to densify municipalities traditional centers.

In total, $ 150 million would be devoted to finance this initiative. The funds would come from the $ 8,2 billion that HUD could be releasing at the beginning of 2019 for the reconstruction of Puerto Rico, according to HUD Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude.

Between October 15 and 19, the plan for the use of these funds, known as CDBG-DR grant, will be subject to public hearings in the municipalities of Toa Baja, Barranquitas, Guayama, Manatí, Moca, Guánica and Fajardo. All these municipalities, except for Guayama, are administered by New Progresive Party (PNP) mayors.

Priority for police officers

The governor indicated that in the awarding of these funds, police, teachers and those who attend emergency situations such as firefighters, paramedics, nurses, among others, will be prioritized.

In total, between 3,000and 6,000 vouchers would be distributed. Gil pointed out, however, that if savings are achieved in other reconstruction programs, they could allocate more funds for this initiative and, therefore, distribute more vouchers.

They did not specify if there would be any type of restriction on the value of the home to be purchased. Officials did not say there would be additional criteria to the family income. However, the governor said that some "specific considerations" - which he did not mention - still need to be refined.

Gil said the assistance will include a series of restrictions on regarding the house purchased or financed with these vouchers. For example, beneficiaries must remain as owners at least for a 10-year period. Nor can they move outside of Puerto Rico, he said. If these conditions are breached, sanctions such as partial or full refund of the money may be imposed.

"This helps to retain them here on their island," the governor said, adding that the properties purchased can be rented to third parties for additional income.

Income as in Guaynabo

Gil explained that, with this incentive, they sought to avoid excluding any region because of the income level of the inhabitants. Therefore, to calculate the level of maximum income for housing vouchers, they used as a reference the average income of families in Guaynabo, a municipality whose inhabitants show the highest purchasing power on the island.

Officials did not provide data on the housing problems among police officers, teachers and response professionals that justify the priority they would have in awarding these vouchers. On the other hand, Gil pointed out that, with this, they are recognizing the importance of these workers and then this mechanism helps to compensate them for their work.

The Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, was the only one who, somehow, justified the benefit to the teachers. She explained that the agency knows of "hundreds" of cases of teachers who lost their homes due to Hurricane María and who are currently in need for housing.

"Off duty" officers

During the press conference at La Fortaleza, the governor also announced that –through regulation- they will authorize police officers to work for private companies during their free time.

The program, called "Off Duty"establishes a committee that will ensure that the recruitment of police by private entities does not represent a conflict of interest for La Uniformada (Puerto Rico Police Department).

There will also be certain restrictions. For example, for these private functions, police officers will not be able to do shifts of more than four hours a day or 24 hours a week. Similarly, the private entity that contracts them must obtain policies of public liability and the State Insurance Fund Corporation.

The system implemented basically establishes that the private employer will be responsible for any claim against the officer during the period he is working outside the Police.

"Our main interest is to provide all the options available to the Police," said Rosselló Nevares, noting that officers can do private work with police equipment and uniform.

The governor indicated that this initiative will allow that, in practice, there will be more police officers in surveillance functions.

Permits would last for two years. The period can be renewed after a review of the committee appointed by the Police Department to supervise the process.

The Secretary of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, said, for example, that the committee will ensure that the work of police officers in the private sector does not favor illegal businesses, but bona fide companies.

"This benefit will allow them to use their knowledge in other instances which in turn generates an extension of the presence of the figure of law enforcement officers, which serves as a deterrent to criminal conduct and advances public security," Pesquera said.

According to the governor, initiatives like this one have been implemented in cities such as San José, California; Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Clayton, Missouri; Midland, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; and Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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