Puerto Rican Refugees Further Strain Housing

November 17, 2017

Florida is bracing for a potential housing boom as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans flee to the state, leaving behind the island nation that is still reeling from Hurricane Maria’s devastation. But there are few answers for how to accommodate these refugees’ needs and what impact the population influx will have on Florida’s housing, school districts, and government agencies, real estate experts say.

Puerto Rico—home to about 3.4 million U.S. citizens—continues to struggle to regain power almost two months after Maria nearly destroyed the entire island on Sept. 20. Earlier this month, officials predicted that nearly 60 percent of the U.S. territory was still without power, and many residents do not yet have access to safe drinking water. Puerto Rico was grappling with a recession, plagued by unemployment, foreclosures, and high debt, before the hurricane hit.

The number of Puerto Ricans who will eventually leave and settle on the U.S. mainland is unknown, but since the beginning of October, more than 156,000 have arrived in Florida, according to the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

Puerto Rico has had limited commercial flights since the storm. “[If refugees] do make it off the airplane [and arrive in Florida] with a duffel bag of all their belongings in one hand—now what?” says Bruce Elliott, president of the Orlando Regional REALTOR® Association. He says questions remain about how to provide enough shelter for Puerto Rican refugees as they continue to come to the mainland. Central Florida is already in the midst of a severe inventory crunch and lacks affordable housing options in price points below $300,000 and in areas where rents average $1,200, Elliott notes.

So far, refugees reportedly are receiving short-term relocation assistance, such as hotel vouchers. The government has approved Florida and New York to receive federal aid to support Maria evacuees who wish to temporarily relocate. Those who do come to those states may decide to live there permanently. Central Florida—already home to 60,000 Puerto Ricans—is predicted to drawn many refugees.

Elliott worries about their ability to build a sustainable life on the mainland. “There are inventory issues here in Florida, so there are questions of where they’re going to live when they do get here, how they’re going to afford rent or a mortgage, how will they qualify for a mortgage, and how about jobs? Where will they work?” he says.

Elliott is encouraging the 12,500-plus members of his association to be ready to serve displaced Puerto Ricans who arrive to the U.S. “We need to look and understand where there are opportunities for housing,” Elliott says. That may mean asking current clients about opportunities to rent their houses to refugees.

Housing affordability also will be a critical issue to address, Elliott says. He has been urging the REALTOR® community to continue to make donations to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation. The RRF, which gives 100 percent of its donations directly to victims of natural disasters, covers housing-related aid, including mortgage and rental assistance. The foundation has been collecting donations to support victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

“So many have helped us; we want to help, too,” says Elliott, referencing Hurricane Irma’s wrath on Florida in early September. “We have licensed REALTORS® who are ready to help.” 

—Melissa Dittmann Tracey, REALTOR® Magazine