Judge orders 20-day extension of FEMA housing aid to displaced Puerto Rico families

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue paying for temporary hotel stays for another 20 days for hundreds of Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria.

The order by US District Court Judge Timothy Hillman represents another small reprieve for families who have been staying at hotels under FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program — extending the housing vouchers until checkout time on July 24 as the court determines whether an additional extension is needed.

In a statement, FEMA spokesman William Booher declined to comment on pending litigation but said the agency was notifying hotels housing Puerto Rican hurricane survivors that the program was being extended until July 24 in compliance with the court order.

The federal agency said last week that it was ending the program June 30 after spending more than $432 million on lodging for tens of thousands of hurricane survivors over 10 months.

But another Massachusetts US District Court judge last weekend issued a temporary injunction on the evictions until checkout time Wednesday in response to a complaint filed by the nonprofit LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Hillman on Tuesday ordered both sides in the case to submit additional legal briefs on the matter before he issues a final decision by July 23.

“It’s inconceivable that disaster victims have to continue to bring FEMA to court to force them to uphold their mandate and not discontinue the most basic aid to entire communities that have suffered through unimaginable disasters,” LatinoJustice PRLDEF associate counsel Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan said in a statement.

“Fortunately, the court recognized the severity of the situation and the devastating consequences to evacuees who’ve already been displaced from their homes in Puerto Rico and is allowing them to stay in their hotels.”

FEMA’s order to end the program Saturday affected nearly 1,800 Puerto Ricans staying at the time at hotels and motels on the island and the US mainland, where they lived rent-free under a voucher program the agency said was intended to bridge survivors into permanent housing.

Designed to be used for about two weeks, the program had been extended repeatedly.

For many, the injunction came too late. Since the weekend, many families have left their hotel rooms — either moving in with friends or relatives, returning to the island or transferring to local government housing for homeless families.

As of Tuesday, 952 families remained in TSA-paid hotel rooms on the island and 27 states, according to FEMA.