The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development removed restrictions unique to Puerto Rico that had been limiting their ability to access certain recovery funds following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the agency announced Monday.
The agency also unlocked access to $8.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant Mitigation funds to help the island build resiliency against future disasters. The aid was previously approved by Congress in 2018.
These actions come as the administration of President Joe Biden attempts to ease tensions between the federal government and the U.S. territory after former President Donald Trump repeatedly opposed disaster funding for Puerto Rico while disputing and failing to acknowledge Hurricane Maria’s historic death toll.
Under Trump, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had previously approved a total of $20 billion for the island’s reconstruction, a historic amount. But the agency knowingly stalled the release of the aid in 2019 and imposed additional restrictions and requirements last year on how Puerto Rico could gain access to the funds, citing corruption and financial mismanagement concerns.
“Puerto Rico needs to recover from past disasters and build resilience to future storms, while ensuring transparency and accountability,” Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge said in a statement. “We are committed to an ongoing partnership with Puerto Rico to empower the island’s communities and help them build back better.”
Biden eliminated restrictions requiring incremental grant obligations, a federal financial monitor to supervise the aid, and additional oversight from the island’s federally-imposed financial oversight board, according to Fudge.
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi welcomed the news, saying local officials have worked hard to earn the trust of the federal government, “who have demonstrated their dedication to responsibly manage of all these funds.”
“Without a doubt, this is great news for Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi tweeted, adding that this will allow Puerto Rico’s local housing department “to streamline the work and invest effectively in the recovery of our island.”
The federal government has allocated nearly $69 billion to help the island recover from Maria as well as other disasters that have impacted the island over the past few years. But most of the money, specifically funds for housing and infrastructure relief, hasn’t made its way to communities on the island. Puerto Rico has received $19 billion, according to its Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience.