San Juan, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Maria ripped across Puerto Rico, it revealed the damage wrought by years of government neglect. It also exposed an open secret generations in the making: Tens of thousands of island residents are, in fact, squatters, living illegally on abandoned or government land.
For years, squatters were ignored or used as political pawns as the bankrupt central government swung from crisis to crisis. That changed with Maria, which tore through these low-lying barrios with particular ferocity. Now, with no legal claim to their homes or the land they’re built on, squatters find themselves unmoored from federal aid — and high on the government’s list of priorities.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who took office in January, wants to fix his squatter problem by embracing it. He’s proposed giving 48,000 illegal settlers legal title to their land, a plan that could cost up to $30 million. He needs federal disaster aid to make the project work.
“Before the emergency, it was something we needed to do; now it’s a more ambitious project,” said Puerto Rico Housing Secretary Fernando Gil. “It would be helping out 48,000 people who thought that they couldn’t get any help.”
Rosselló, a Democrat, has had limited success squeezing disaster aid out of the Republican administration and Congress in the aftermath of the storm. But the issue of land ownership could be a test case for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has promised to break through entrenched government policies to put people on the path to self-sufficiency.
In meetings this month with Carson and HUD Deputy Secretary Pam Patenaude, the Rosselló administration asked for flexibility to spend disaster aid on land surveys and other work needed to transfer property ownership to squatters. HUD didn’t respond to questions for this story, but on a visit to San Juan this month, Carson acknowledged Puerto Rico’s challenges.
“We do recognize that the situation is different here than it is in Texas or Florida or many places,” Carson said. “We want to look at the goals, not the rules.”
Housing has been a chronic problem since long before Maria. More than half of Puerto Rico’s houses are “informal,” a euphemism for illegally constructed. As many as one in five are built on private or government land. Many have been passed down for generations, giving rise to vibrant communities spread across the island’s coastal plains.
Socially, these neighborhoods are firmly anchored to the island’s bedrock, home to extended families and back-door businesses. Legally and economically, they exist on the fringe. Some residents survive on rainwater and stolen electricity. They pay no property taxes and can’t buy insurance. Many lack mailboxes and formal addresses.
Squatters began planting roots after Operation Bootstrap, a 1947 campaign to modernize the island’s economy. Urban growth exploded but couldn’t keep pace with the rural exodus from failing farms and sugar plantations.
The economic upheaval left thousands without housing. Open land, however, was abundant. Seeking affordable shelter, people built homes on abandoned plantations or empty swamps. The settlers call themselves rescatadores — rescuers of the land — and claim a moral, not legal, right to their homes. Seen through a different lens, they’re invasores — invaders.
HUD officials have seen the situation firsthand. In mid-December, Patenaude visited Carmen Chévere Ortiz in the Villa Calma neighborhood of Toa Baja, west of San Juan. Ortiz, 41, organized an evacuation when floodwaters started rising in her village. Now she is running a food pantry from her house, logging her neighbors’ whereabouts and tracking who has food, water and shelter.
Ortiz’s parents moved to the neighborhood in 1971 but never obtained legal title to the home she now shares with her mother and six children. Patenaude told her there was nothing HUD could do to help her.
Hurricane Georges forced residents to flee Villa Calma in 1998, but even after that there was little incentive to relocate. City leaders ran electricity into the community and built a school, in effect granting people permission to stay. About a decade ago, one mayor went further, offering property deeds to political allies.
Ortiz calls herself a rescatador and makes no apologies. “It’s no time to point fingers, not even at ourselves for staying,” she said. “This is an unprecedented event.”
Toa Baja Mayor Bernardo Márquez García, who took office in January, is left to sort out the mess caused by decades of government ineptitude compounded by a catastrophic natural disaster. Of the city’s 26,000 homes, he estimates that nearly 9,000 are illegal.
“We have a big problem,” Márquez said. “Before Hurricane Maria hit, we didn’t know we had so much informal construction.”
He wants $150 million to channel the canal. Without federal dollars, it’s a pipe dream — Toa Baja’s debt is 15 times its $30 million annual budget. Damage from Maria is an estimated $300 million.
But after two disastrous hurricanes, should the Villa Calma squatters be moved? That’s a question for the Toa Baja community as a whole, not him, Márquez said.
“Most of the areas that were flooded were squatters, but they’ve been there for 40 or 60 years, for generations,” Márquez said. “They were given facilities, utilities. They’ve built a community, they have a social fabric.
“We can’t move in one, two or three years what has been there for decades,” he said, but Maria has been a wake-up call. “We’re seeing what it means for people to live in flood-prone areas.”
In fact, Toa Baja made headlines the last time it tried to uproot a squatter barrio. In 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the neighborhood of Villas del Sol a flood zone and encouraged the central government to relocate the community. Puerto Rico spent $18 million, nearly all of it federal funds, to move 223 families.
A handful of people stayed behind. Soon, others joined them, cleaning up trash and fixing up properties. In 2004, the mayor, seeking reelection, allowed settlers to connect to municipal water and electricity. But in 2009, bulldozers and police in riot gear stormed the neighborhood to force people out, according to a 2010 complaint filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In 2011, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division cited the Villas del Sol incident in a report condemning the Puerto Rico Police Department for use of excessive force.
Four years later, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that about half of the $180 million spent to provide housing outside of flood zones, including Villas del Sol, had been misspent. It blamed the errors on the island’s political bureaucracy.
Puerto Rico’s political structure is indeed part of the problem. Power to enforce building codes, for example, lies with the central government. The Puerto Rico Permits Management Office has only 40 inspectors to oversee the island’s 78 municipalities, according to FEMA.
Doling out titles is a “scattershot” tactic that does nothing to fix the island’s deep-rooted problems, said Deepak Lamba-Nieves, a research director at the Center for a New Economy.
“It’s not just about giving out titles — the underlying structural problems need to be addressed. If Maria has brought us anything, it’s the ability to start rethinking,” he said. “This is the moment to rethink things from the ground up and not just patch things up.”
Just east of San Juan, near the city of Canóvanas, lies San Isidro. Set in a basin surrounded by hills, the community hugs a canal that once fed a farming operation. Many of the houses are spare wooden shacks, but others are snug and brightly painted, built of concrete and tile, with carports and fenced yards. San Isidro is a squatter community, but in no way is it a temporary one.
When Maria swept through, the canal became a raging river, pushing water 5 feet deep through the streets. Wind sheared wooden additions from the rooftops. Three months after the storm, there is no power or water.
Angel Luis Cruz and his wife live on the western edge of San Isidro in a house they bought legally for $18,000 in 1989. Back then, cows grazed steps from their front porch.
Squatters started arriving after Georges, filling the field with houses and stringing makeshift power lines to the nearest electrical poles.
“I bought the house because the view was so pretty. Never would I have imagined this would happen,” said Cruz, 72. “They started squatting. They don’t pay for water or electricity.”
Rosita Colon Benier lives across the street from Cruz in a house she and her husband bought for $20,000, money they received from FEMA when Georges forced them from their old home. When the water rose, Colon’s neighbors threw a rope and dragged her family to safety across the street. She watched the flood sweep away her chickens and the makeshift beauty salon she ran from behind the house.
Colon said she owns the property, but, when pressed, acknowledges that she doesn’t have legal title. FEMA gave her $1,000 to cover two months’ rent for her husband and their six children but sent her away when she asked for money for repairs.
The whole community — legal and illegal alike — is without power in part because workers are reluctant to mess with the rigged wires that connect Colon and her neighbors to the grid. When asked why she’s stealing electricity, Colon blames the government.
“It’s not my fault,” she said. “It’s the mayor who has done nothing.”
Puerto Rico’s municipal leaders, at best, have taken an ad hoc approach to the rescatadores. The question now is what to do with them.
“It’s something that is the fault not only of the person doing the construction and the person who needs a place to live, but also the mayors and senators and even ex-governors, that they allowed it to happen,” Gil said. “There are years and generations of people in these communities.”
Meanwhile, squatters are falling through the cracks of post-disaster housing aid. Because they’re neither renters nor owners, they’re cut off from programs that finance rebuilding or major repairs.
That reality is dawning on the residents of El Negro near the city of Yabucoa, where Maria tore concrete homes down to the rebar and ripped appliances from their plumbing.
Nabal Guzman Solis, 75, was one of the first in line at FEMA after Maria hit. Mildew is growing on the ceiling of the concrete house he inherited from his father. Water comes through when it rains. The propane tank he used for cooking was stolen, and he’s heating food on a wood fire in his backyard. What has he heard from FEMA? “Nada.”
Still, “I’m happy,” Guzman said. “I’m alive.”