Marlene Hernandez shuffled through winter coats with her cousin Kaliel Diaz at a hurricane relief center in Hartford. Diaz arrived from Puerto Rico with three other family members just days before.
As the New England winter starts to set in, many families displaced by Maria have come to the center to get warmer clothing and other supplies. Hernandez said an even bigger concern is where the family will live, especially if more relatives arrive.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Hernandez said. “We’re still just trying to get them a place to live for now so they can get everyone else here.”
A report from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimates between 3,000 and 11,000 Puerto Ricans could move to Connecticut post-Maria. The vast majority, like Hernandez's family who are staying with her in her one-bedroom apartment, came to live with other family members.
“But they’re going into situations where the homes aren’t necessarily able to support all the new family members that are going to be living with them. And the honeymoon period is relatively coming to an end,” said Jon Basso of the American Red Cross, who was helping families fill out FEMA paperwork at the relief center.
A stopgap solution, Basso said, could be FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance where evacuees can be put up temporarily in hotel rooms. So far, FEMA said six families in Connecticut have been granted the assistance. But finding longer-term housing will be even harder, especially for lower-income families, who face long waitlists for subsidized housing programs.
“To begin with, we know that we have an affordable housing shortage in Connecticut already -- this is before anyone from Puerto Rico who needs housing arrives,” said Erin Boggs, who runs Open Communities Alliance, a civil rights nonprofit that works in housing policy.
“One thing the displacement of people in Puerto Rico who are now coming to Connecticut has revealed, is this sort of underbelly of problems with the affordable housing market in Connecticut,” she said.
Boggs is concerned that the affordable housing that is available is concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. And those areas, she said, don’t have the resources to take in an additional low-income population.
In Willimantic, Carlos Vazquez-Rivera sat in the living room of his aunt Flor Rivera’s three-bedroom house. She translated for him.
“Carlos is saying, it’s very frustrating because we are adults, and we each want to have our own privacy, our own room, and we don’t have it,” Rivera said.
Vazquez-Rivera’s house in Puerto Rico was destroyed by the hurricane, so he now lives here with his brother and his mom. The three of them share a bedroom in the house Flor lives in with her husband and two grandchildren.
“Their mom has filled out applications for apartments here,” Flor said. “And even now, they haven’t gotten any answers....And they have been told [by] different local housing here -- the waiting period could be anything from six months to five years. So we don’t see any hope of getting housing any time soon.”
So now, they’ll wait. Vazquez-Rivera’s mom is working to get her GED, he’s in high school, and his older brother is applying for jobs. They’re all learning English, so finding work has been tough. And his aunt Flor said taking in three adults has been hard on the household finances. But things could potentially get worse.
“If my landlord turns around and says: they’ve been here long enough,” Flor said. “Then you’re going to have seven people misplaced. It’s not just going to be them.”
And with all the aid that’s being sent to the struggling island, she’s concerned that the Puerto Ricans trying to make it work in Connecticut will be overlooked.
For information on housing options, hurricane evacuees can visit Connecticut 211's resource guide for new arrivals from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.